What is a Prion?
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My last days at Mudd, when I was a senior, I found and downloaded the entirety of Firefly onto my laptop, since it seemed like I would soon have the time. It turns out I didn't make the time for a while but once I did I was just as engaged as everyone said I would be (I don't typically admit to this, as I get very contrary about people dictating my tastes to me. Further evidence of its awesomeness).
When I find something I like I get absorbed into it, and Firefly was no exception. I quickly became an expert (facilitated by having all the episodes on my computer) and got several people, including the rest of my family (parents, brother, and Uncle), into Firefly as much as I was.
Whoop dee doo, Alejo found something else to occupy his brain with for a bit. I decided to write this muse about Firefly in general and its least-detailed character in particular: Shepherd Book.
Don't get me wrong, Book isn't my favorite character. He actually ranks fairly low (behind everyone except Inara if you must know). I think he was one of Joss's stub characters though, whom he was planning on fleshing out more fully in the second or third season, but that clearly became an impossibility and so he was killed off in the movie.
As a character and a person, Book is, as I indicated, my 8th-favorite person to watch in action. But as far as thinking about the "mystery" surrounding the character, Book clearly wins. All the characters with the probable exceptions of Kaylee, Simon, and Wash have intricate and mysterious pasts, but Book and River took the cake. River's was revealed in the movie while Book's was forever enshrouded in mystery (unrecoverable unless Joss makes a sequel). So here I present my own considerations on Shepherd Book's past.
WARNING: This probably looks like every other discussion on the internet about Shepherd Book's true story. Don't be fooled, there are several key differences. First of all, I'm not an idiot. Second, I haven't read those discussions, and only my staggering intellect gives me a hunch these idiotfests exist. Third, I have the movies on my computer and can refer to them at will, separating me from approximatly no other fans. Whatever that last one doesn't really make a difference I guess.
As fast as I can tell, there are exactly ZERO facts in Firefly that indicate Shepherd Book is anything other than he says he is: "A Shepherd from [an abbey on Persephone] who has been out of the world a while, and would like to walk it again". Sp as entertaining as it would be to think of him as a secret spy to keep tabs on River (or Inara or Mal or whatever) these are baseless, although entertaining.
No, the true pickle is what Shepherd Book did before he was a Shepherd, as it's frequently implied that thats' where his colorful character was forged. Here is the list as I see it of oddities about Shepherd Book's knowledge and behavior:
(Note: I do not find things such as his being courageous, principled, or clever as unusual for a preacher or a person, so thinking these in and of themselves are odd seems fallacious to me)
- Pilot: ability to disarm and incapacitate someone with a gun in seconds
- Train Job: knowledge of criminals (Adelai Niska) and their ways
- Safe: having an identification card that wins him immediate access to Alliance medical facilities, no questions asked; also, reluctance to discuss what it was on that card
- Our Mrs Reynolds: Knowledge of current criminal techniques for theft and murder
- War Stories: obvious training in weapons and transport technology; highly skilled shot (enough to make excellent nonlethal shots, which is a lot harder than the other kind); intimate knowledge of the writings of "Shan Yu", hardly standard reading at a monastery
- Objects in Space: River picks up some strange, semi-hostile thoughts from Book; he is also identified by Jubal Early only as "that ain't a Shepherd"
- Serenity: Book has intimate knowledge of Alliance top-secret procedure including the existence of Operatives, people who 'don't exist'
So what is/was Shepherd Book? I've considered carefully what the evidence implies (obviously there isn't only one explanation, not halfway through the first season). But there are strong hints.
Firstly, Shepherd Book had deep and intimate knowledge of Alliance and Criminal workings, things he couldn't possibly have known as a normal Shepherd. I've tried to coalesce theories on where he learned what he knows and trained the abilities he has now, but the problem is they're not mutually exclusive possibilities. As far as I can tell, he has deep and personal knowledge about how the Alliance operates, and the most attractive explanation I can offer is he was formerly some Alliance figure who "got religion" and retreated to the Abbey, only occasionally poking around on the Core-Tex to keep up to date on the movements of the Alliance and the criminals it would pursue.
However, several other theories I can offer are only moderate variations on this central idea. He seems to know a lot about criminality and so it's possible he was a crime lord so powerful he knew about Alliance movements from "the other side" (he could have had an Operative sent after him, for example). The problem I have with this variant is Shepherd Book doesn't seem to have any criminal ruthlessness left in him, and even "getting religion" would leave some behind, or else purge him so completely of his character he would probably not be able to pick up a gun again.
There's also the issue that he doesn't seem a born criminal from several incidents, notably the deal at the beginning of Safe. There, Mal is using his bartering canniness without a hint of real concern, whiel Book seems worried the deal may go poorly. That same episode, Book takes a bullet to the chest for standing during a firefight, something no criminal would do, however long they'd been reformed. So I tentatively discard the "Criminal who got religion" theory.
It was also suggested on the Firefly Wiki (which I found once, read through, and then abandoned) thath Book actually belongs to a secret order of Wolves in Preachers' clothing. This, like the aforementioned Super Secret Spy nontheory, has more appeal than merit, but I did consider this to have a few points that the General who Got Religion theory lacked. First, Book's criminal knowledge is current, and I'm not quite sure firing a gun is like riding a bicycle (he does admit he did some shooting at the abbey). There are also at least two cases where it seems more likely he is recognized for his class rather than his face (his ident card in Safe and by Jubal Early in Objects in Space). Both times, it is plausible that he was identified by his name/face as Someone Important/Dangerous, but in both instances it's much easier for me to imagine they saw nto a Preacher but some sort of Space Jesuit.
As you can see, I am a student of Occam's Razor. I can't resolve the theories, though they are also not mutually exclusive you'll note, but I can definitely say the evidence points to these and not to other, wilder theories that were constructed mostly because it would be Cool if Book were Actually a Ninja. You know how it is.