Firefly is my favorite piece of science fiction more or less ever. For the uninitiated, here's a few good quick links: more information than you require, less information than is helpful, and some (but not all) of the episodes available for free online. I'm assuming familiarity with the series for this post, so if you aren't familiar go ahead and watch it. All of it. It will make you very happy.
Like anything that I enjoy and can ponder for hours, Firefly has depth, and most interestingly political depth. Some of this is coincidental timeliness - the show premiered September 2001, and in the eight short years since then our own society has come to resemble fiction in startling ways. The most on-the-surface immediate reaction I get from the show in real life is the sight of blue gloves worn by TSA personal. In the show, these gloves are worn by government contractors on the hunt for a fugitive, and these contractors abuse habeas corpus, kill underlings, and are generally just dismissive of codes of conduct in their pursuit of their quarry. To see the same gloves on security personnel now kind of scares me.
There's more to Firefly's commentary than just prescient villains. The show takes place 6 years after a war between "The Allied Planets" and "The Independents". While the war is admittedly inspired by the US Civil War, the alliance/independent dichotomy strikes me as less of a historical fiction than a meditation on the fate of the United States.
The Alliance, you see, is a collection of prosperous and highly civilized planets, called the "core" (industrialized nations, or, alternatively, well-developed urban centers). The alliance has abundance, and with this abundance they have both a highly-functioning welfare state and a police state. The two, from the perspective of Firefly, are linked in such as way that they cannot function without each other. And in the brief glimpses we see of Alliance planets, it seems like a system that almost works - people are happy, private property is well protected, criminal behaviors are constrained by a system of digital monitoring all individuals, and there is a democratically elected Parliament in charge of everything.
But that's an almost. Throughout the show we see that there are flaws in this system. The government is far more secretive, functioning more less like a transparent democracy and more like a detached council (though perhaps this is how many already view the US legislature). The alliance provides competitive, free higher education for interested individuals, but at a high personal cost. Service to the higher echelons of government overrides local law enforcement always. Spoiler Warning: we see this as it regards distant planets in the episode "The Train Train Job", and we see it as it effects core planets in "Ariel". But that's the government functioning as one might expect, with some degree of secrecy and with priorities that don't immediately square with what locals want. Where the Alliance really breaks from good government is with corporations. Spoiler Warning for everything that follows.
In the first episode, the Firefly cast (also known as the crew of Serenity) are approached by a giant Alliance patrol. The patrol intends to arrest them for "illegal salvage", which brings to question what is legal salvage. While this question isn't addressed in the show proper, the answer is hinted at by the presence of the ubiquitous Blue Sun corporation. Blue Sun is a huge corporation, which does everything from sell canned goods to make t-shirts to employ blue-gloved individuals that hunt down fugitives as government contractors. In all the areas the government itself cannot function, government contractors are given authority, and they are even less accountable and are more subject pursue their objectives without attention to legal constraint. And then, in a flip, the contractors get to sue the government to enforce their monopolies against the public. The illegal salvage mentioned is not illegal because it is salvage (that is a necessary function in an interstellar economy, I imagine), but it is illegal because a contractors license wasn't obtained by those doing the salvage.
So that's the Alliance - rich, cultural imperialists who have the money and the desire to establish systems of both social welfare and social control, and who manage to afford all their excesses of power by employing contractors, corporations, and other extra-governmental bodies. Commentary, right?
This is contrasted with the Independents.
The Independents (and their veterans, known as Browncoats), are states rightists, libertarianistic, and self-deterministic. They believe in local rule, in minimal government, in self-sufficiency, and in individual freedom. Great as this sounds, in corporates a whole lot of nasty - indentured servitude, slaves, rule by arrogant local "Big Men", criminal empires, and some real hardship are all more or less a given in areas where Alliance control is weak, and Independent victory wouldn't have done much to curtail these problems. It's almost a hobbesian simplicity - where the government is weak, the people have no choice but to be strong or to die. On the other hand, those who can make it don't have to deal with anything more powerful than people. It's an intensified myth of the American fronteir, of the self-succificient American pioneer, and of self determination almost directly contrasted with democracy and power.
Firefly is, as I see it, the relevant narrative of this time, or at leasst of the past decade. The show existed before the Department of Homeland Security, and by the time the movie Serenity debuted (the show's sort-of sequal in film form) private military contractors working for the US government had been involved in battles in Iraq. Writing now in 2008, the US is beginning to look seriously at some form of Universal Healthcare and the government has pseudo-nationalized many major financial institutions. And this is also the era of Ron Paul, where a radical rightist can advocate a minimalistic government and draw large support from youths (who already have an unfavorable experience with provided services imposing major restrictions on freedom; i.e. public school).
For good or not, I think that the path as foreseen in Firefly is more or less clear for the United States. We've moved irrevocably away from yeoman farmers, and we've moved further still from an open lawless fronteir. The only option I see, even in the face of rising libertarianism and minimalist government backlash, is a carefully guided course of expanded government. The pitfalls to avoid are obvious, but I'll state them anyway - tranparency is the only safe way to guarentee more government power, and even that alone isn't enough. Private contractors have to be held to the same standards as governmental organs, and they have to be just as transparent. And we as a society are going to have to find some way to ward off a police state while moving into a welfare state. Firefly shows us a workable but broken model - the future isn't set, so there is no reason why we can't do better than fiction.