Monday, December 23, 2002

Confessions of a Science Fiction Chauvinist

Another one of my vintage Locus Online columns, this one published on 23 December 2002 - the day after I saw The Two Towers... (with a 2007 note and YouTube video of my commentary on The History Channel's Evolution of Science Fiction, 28 September 2002, added at the conclusion of this column) ...

Confessions of a Science Fiction Chauvinist, as Occasioned by Seeing The Two Towers

by Paul Levinson


1. Labels and categories are important in popular culture. What works for food in restaurants works for food for thought: if you find only sushi in an Italian restaurant, or just steak in a seafood place, you are right to be annoyed. The labels "science fiction" and "fantasy" would seem to work the same way — if you find only magic in science fiction, aren't you entitled to be aggravated? I always thought so. But I'm beginning to think otherwise.

2. I have read hundreds of science fiction novels, and many more science fiction stories, since the 1950s. I have read perhaps a handful of fantasy novels, and a few dozen fantasy stories. The Lord of the Rings was not among them. The few works I enjoyed — such as John Crowley's Aegypt novels — were due not to the story, but the sheer verve of the writing.

3. What I most value in science fiction is its exploration of the human impact of scientifically plausible but not yet accomplished developments, or discovery of similarly plausible truths about the real, natural universe. Yes, I know there is much in time travel that is paradoxical — that's actually why it's so much fun — and faster-than-light travel violates Einstein's proscriptions. Yet the very fact that we can talk about the relevance of Einstein's theories to science fiction seemed to make it different from fiction that relies on spells and elves.

4. My lack of interest in elves led me to forgo not only most fantasy novels, but even the lesser investment of time required for fantasy movies. I did not see The Fellowship of the Ring in any theater. I hadn't thought about renting the videotape, one way or the other, but on a rainy Thursday evening last August, with nothing else on Blockbuster's shelves of even the remotest of interest, I brought home a copy. The first part of the movie — which took place in the Shire — was barely enough to hold my attention. I think the physical resemblance between Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard kept me interested more than anything else... But by the end of the movie, I felt very differently. I've now seen The Fellowship of the Ring, in one mode or another, perhaps a dozen times. And I just saw The Two Towers. I think they are masterpieces of movie-making, fantasy, and, as I will explain below, perhaps even of science fiction. (And, seen in the context of the unfolding story, The Shire section is now most enjoyable, too.)

5. If Hobbits were hominids, the Dwarves some kind of Neanderthals, and the Elves an early version of humanity for which we have no fossils at hand, would the story be any different? Would it be if Orcs and Uruk-hai were genetically engineered? (We are already told that the Uruk-hai were "bred" — or, in Darwin's apt term, artificially selected.) Does it make a difference whether spells or lasers cause avalanches? What if the "spell" were really the working of a tiny, powerful, ancient technology, which — like lots of work done in the Far East in perishable bamboo, in prehistoric times — did not survive the ages? For that matter, couldn't the ring itself be an extraordinary technology which, among its many powers, includes cloaking? Is the ring as a bestower of invisibility any less scientifically plausible than the formula of H.G. Wells's Invisible Man? If magic and highly unlikely science can play similar roles in stories, Wells may have more in common with Tolkien than Verne.

6. The Lord of the Rings also has much in common with another kind of science fiction, epitomized in the Foundation and Dune series. The three sagas offer exquisite examinations of power, fine siftings of morality across characters, keen reckonings of small detail in grand events — whether the driving force is spice, spell, or psychohistory. When contests are of cosmic significance, and we're interested in the human response, the specific technological basis of the events — whether magic or science — may not be very important.

7. If the invocation of magic still rankles — and I admit that it still does — here is another consolation. As Greg Bear and I noted on a recent History Channel documentary*[see YouTube videoclip at the conclusion of this column], the hot sciences in science fiction have become biology and anthropology, replacing physics and even the information science (cyberpunk) of previous years. And whatever else LotR may or may not be, it is indubitably a work of biological and anthropological fiction. Saruman's flocks of spying birds are feats of biology in the sky, whether the birds are bred, gene-spliced, commanded, or all of the above. The same is true of the Ents, though the intelligence and mobility of trees is far less plausible. But in both cases, living organisms are the vehicles of the story — birds not planes, trees not automated catapults. Lord of the Rings was an epic of biological imagining, decades before most science fiction caught up. Here, again, we see a kinship between Wells (The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Tolkien, and, a bit later, Herbert. All three were Darwin's children, in a way that Verne and Heinlein, and even Asimov, were not.

8. None of this diminishes in the slightest the joy of coming upon an idea so strikingly scientifically plausible that I am amazed it is not already an actual fact. That is indeed the unique province of science fiction, shared by Verne, Wells, and Asimov, but not Tolkien. But I do see as far less valid the famous observation of Greg Benford that fantasy is science fiction played with the net down. That is certainly not the case when the fantasy is biological and anthropological extrapolation, and the net is woven of gene-spliced realities and an archaeology which discloses hominids and what-not living on this Earth for at least a million years. And, when the universe or the world-as-universe is the object of the game, and morality and power the fields of play, it may not matter if there is a net at all.

9. I have not yet read the book. My daughter has a copy, and is devouring it. I have held it in my hand, read the prefaces and some of the appendices. I am drawn to read it... But I am determined to wait until I have seen the third movie, because I saw the first two without having read the book, and I'd like to be able to appreciate Peter Jackson's complete accomplishment from the same narrative seat in the audience, beyond the proscenium arch of knowing the end of the story... I know this is right. I even talk about it in my classes, as a professor of media theory... But, oh, the book beckons... [Note added in 2007: But, indeed, I got side-tracked and never did get beyond the opening chapters of the book.... I did read all of Harry Potter, however ...]

*Here's an excerpt of my commentary on The Evolution of Science Fiction, first aired on The History Channel, September 28, 2002, and rebroadcast many times since...

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph of Non-Network TV

Naked Bodies, Three Showings a Week, No Commercials:
The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph of Non-Network TV

Published in This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos,
David Lavery, ed. Columbia University Press & Wallflower Press, 2002

Paul Levinson

Cable television was conceived in reflections. Born in the
1950s as a means of delivering network TV to areas of the
country unable to receive its signals broadcast on
electro-magnetic carrier waves, cable began to take wing in the
1980s as a medium of more original content -- or programming
somewhat distinct from networks -- with CNN's all-news and HBO's
all-movies. But even though HBO featured movies much newer than
those seen on network TV -- fresh out of the box office (hence,
"Home Box Office") -- it was still, after all, a second-hand
operation. The movies had already been seen by many viewers in
their original box office showings -- in theaters.

HBO's remedy was to field "made-for-HBO" movies. These
also enabled HBO to distinguish itself from competitors now also
offering cinema on cable. The best of the "made-for-HBO" movies
showcased important subjects (Murrow, 1985; Stalin, 1992)
and major network television and Hollywood talent (Murrow
starred Hill Street Blues's Daniel J. Travanti; Stalin was
portrayed by Robert Duvall). But though these were great
television movies, they fell far short of being great movies.
They were smaller, psychologically as well as culturally, than
Gone With The Wind, The Godfather, and Star Wars. They
were less daring, less experimental, than 12 Monkeys or The
Usual Suspects
. In all respects, and even at its most original
and important, the cable-TV movie was still second best.

HBO and its competitors also introduced a variety of gritty
documentaries on prostitution, crime, sex, and drugs. These
certainly went a lot further than network documentaries, in
subject matter and explicit treatment. At their best, HBO's
Taxi-Cab Confessions achieve a kind of down-to-earth, noirish
verite unavailable in most other television and cinema. And yet
when a history of the TV documentary in the past decade is
written, it will undoubtedly put Ken Burns' PBS work -- on the
Civil War, baseball, and jazz -- in first place of importance
and influence.

It took an original TV dramatic series -- The Sopranos --
to put HBO and cable TV in a class by itself.

Old Wine in New Bottles

The TV series was a natural for network television from the
very beginning. Its roots were in the Saturday movie-serial and
the radio series -- in some cases, radio provided the entire
tree (Gunsmoke was uprooted from radio and planted in TV).
Available in the home, free of charge (the advantages of TV over
motion picture theaters) and with pictures as well as sound (the
advantage over radio), the 30-minute and then 60-minute weekly
television series became enormously popular. Its ultimate
impact on cinema was the end of the neighborhood theater and
motion picture cathedrals like the Loews Paradise in favor of
multiplexes in shopping malls. Radio was forced to scramble for
new content, and in a master stroke (courtesy of Alan Freed)
discovered rock 'n' roll.

But the television series inherited a necklace of flaws
from radio. Punctuated by commercials, viewable only once and
then you were out of luck, sharply limited in its language and
showing of flesh, the network TV series carved a niche for
itself in a mostly sanitized, superficial never-never-land. In
contrast, motion pictures offered uninterrupted narrative and
opportunities for repeat viewing (in the 1950s, I sat through
many a movie twice -- though, of course, seeing the same movie
again on a different day required purchase of a new ticket). By
the mid-1960s, the motion picture codes that in previous decades
had frowned on even the word "pregnant" were gone; nudity was
in. These advantages of the motion picture theater were no
doubt in part responsible for its survival in any form in the
age of television.

Meanwhile, network television was beginning to improve, in
technology as well as content. The VCR, beginning in the
mid-1970s, allowed people to watch their favorite shows as often
was wanted, without commercial interruption. Sitcoms such as
All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show tackled much
more serious subject matter than I Love Lucy. Two decades
later, NYPD Blue even coughed up a little more realistic
language -- such as "asshole" -- and a very occasional very
quick glimpse of a naked body or two.

And yet the fixes were far from fully satisfactory.
Fast-forwarding through commercials on a VCR is not the same as
relaxing back in your chair and watching a program with no
commercials in the first place. Much more importantly, the
network television dramatic series were created -- written from
the very first word -- with commercial interruptions in mind.
It was and is a form of brief, ten-ish minute chapters, each
needing to conclude with some kind of climax or hook to keep the
viewer from wandering too far during the commercial break. This
form of course survives the expunging of commercials in VCR

And as for the language and nudity on NYPD Blue, it's
still unrealistically tame. Is there any cop who hasn't said
the word "fuck" to a colleague officer? You never hear it on
the ABC-TV series. And the nudity is mostly backsides,
including Andy Sipowitz's to boot.

Bada Bing! Nudity

The female nude was the most popular subject of high
Victorian photography, but no one talked about it then.
Indeed, naked bodies remained under the covers in popular
culture until Playboy in the 1950s, which in turn liberated
the motion picture in the 1960s. But network television stayed
recalcitrantly pure. Driven by the inexorable calculus of
simply attaining the largest possible audience for its
commercials, network TV's first commandment is "thou shalt not
offend". HBO's subscription revenues encouraged no such
restrictions. It was from the outset a medium midway between
magazines and network television. Further, cable delivered its
programming outside of the "public airways," which made it less
vulnerable to Federal Communications Commission intimidation.

Nudity in itself, however, is not all it's cracked up to be
-- at least, not as an element of narrative. Like all aspects
of drama, nudity in a storyline needs to be motivated to achieve
its best affect. There should be a good reason in the story --
a reason other than the viewer's enjoyment of the naked body --
that characters are unclothed. Otherwise, the nudity may
distract from rather than help tell the story.

Couples making love certainly is a logical place to
dispense with clothing. But this puts a big burden on the
storyline. We need to understand why our couples are having sex
at the time and place portrayed. And unless the story can
accommodate a good few minutes of attention to the couple in bed
-- the kind of attention you see in the soft porn on HBO,
ShowTime, and Cinemax -- the viewer may not get to see the
specific part of the body he or she is looking for.

The Sopranos's brilliant solution is to situate most of
its nudity in the Bada Bing! strip joint run by Tony Soprano's
aide-de-camp, Silvio Dante. The setting is an eminently logical
place to frequently find Tony and his crew discussing business,
and the naked women need no further motivation than that they
are dancing in the club. The viewer can sit back and enjoy the
show on at least two levels, plot unfolding at the bar or the
tables, eyeful on the stage.

Of course, the strip club has its limitations as a vehicle
of nudity. No males are seen naked; no full-scale sex occurs.
(Devotees of the former can watch HBO's also superb Six Feet
; and naked sex is all over cable, including HBO's Real
documentary series.) But Bada Bing! is nonetheless an ideal
locale -- doing for The Sopranos what the diner did for
Seinfeld and the bar owned by Munch, Meldrake, and Bayliss did
for Homicide -- but with a physically illicit explicitness
that gives sexual energy to whatever other story is unfolding.

Linguistic explicitness -- language, as crude as it gets --
is also a staple of The Sopranos, and heard throughout the
show. To this day, the TV networks rarely if ever go into
George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" territory (words, unlike
"prick," which have no saving double meaning -- their sound is
always vulgar or obscene), but the Sopranos say them all.
Speaking as a male viewer, I can't say that curse words are as
pleasurable to hear as nudity is to see in Bada Bing!, but their
presence in The Sopranos lends a reliable verisimilitude to
every episode.

Once is Never Enough

A classic critique of television, among those who worried
that it was undermining our literary values, was that its
stories were gone the minute after they had been seen. Unlike
the book, which offered endless retrieval of its pages already
read, or even the motion picture, which permitted viewing more
than once in a variety of ways, television basically gave it to
you once, and that was it. Summer reruns were minor exceptions.
Extended reruns in syndication, at first ignored, proved to be
one of the most potent forces in television and popular culture
with its vaulting of the original Star Trek series -- which
ran only three years in its first incarnation on NBC in the
1960s -- into a major phenomenon that would give rise to
numerous offspring series, motion pictures, and novels. And the
VCR, as mentioned earlier, allowed viewers who troubled to tape
the TV show the option of seeing it again.

But HBO's decision to present its original series,
including The Sopranos, more than once a week -- that is, to
replay the programs -- got much more directly at the human need
to see again. Offering each episode on Sunday evening, and then
at least two more times during the ensuing week, had two
advantages over just once-a-week network TV. First, viewers
could catch the episode if they missed the initial showing, and
in time to pick up the very next episode the following week.
Second -- but in many ways even more significantly -- viewers
could in subsequent showings pick up and appreciate complexities
and aspects of the program missed the first time around.

In all fairness to network TV, its evening programs began
in the 1950s as discontinuous episodes. They had few if any
ongoing storylines. The characters by and large remained static
throughout the season and even across new ones. There was
little if any benefit in seeing the show again. Only with
Dallas in 1978 and Hill Street Blues,
St. Elsewhere, etc in the 1980s did prime time TV
begin to indulge in continuing stories.

But even at their most complex, these night-time serials
were usually paper-thin compared to The Sopranos, whose depth
in effect expanded into a niche afforded by multiple viewings.
The result is an intensity and an intricacy seldom attained even
in motion pictures. Indeed, The Sopranos has more in common
with The Godfather saga and Goodfellas than either does to
its respective genres of television and motion pictures, and
this is not just because they all are mafia stories. The unity
also comes from their complexity, and the rewards obtained from
their viewing more than once. (A very few movies are so complex
that they almost cannot be appreciated until seen at least more
than once. The Usual Suspects is an outstanding example.)

The resistance of network TV to multiple showings comes
from its commercial structure -- why would an advertiser pay top
dollar to have a commercial broadcast on a rerun? HBO suffers
no such pressure.

But the lack of commercials frees HBO serials in a more
direct and powerful way.

No Breaks

There is a tradition for just about everything -- including
commercial punctuation of narrative. Certainly the acts of a
play are a form of punctuation, as are chapters in a book. But
few plays are an hour in length. And the reader of a book is
always able to move right into the next chapter, with no break
at all.

It is a triumph of human creativity that anything
worthwhile was able to emerge from the Procrustean bed of TV
commercial interruption. But from this commercial interruptus,
good, even wonderful television did proceed, ranging from The
Twilight Zone
to the best of Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, and NYPD Blue and ER more recently.

Yet few of these shows were as consistently gratifying,
episode for episode, as The Sopranos(and, of course, The
Twilight Zone
was an anthology, not a continuing story). This
is in part because the lack of commercial evisceration in The
makes each episode a short movie.

Probably the closest that commercial TV ever came to this
cinematic ambience was Homicide: Life on the Street. And that
show labored mightily, and not entirely successfully, to
transcend its commercial tethers. Many was a Homicide
episode that started off slowly -- perfectly fine for a movie --
but potentially deadly for a program that would break for a
commercial a few minutes down the line. And many was a
spectacular grilling by Pemberton in the box that lost a bit of
its momentum in a commercial break. No wonder Homicide
struggled in the ratings, and was eventually cancelled
notwithstanding its critical acclaim.

Undriven, unriven by commericals, The Sopranos is able to soar.
Threads in each episode can be as long or short as called for.
Nothing distracts from an intensity that beats like a nearing
anvil; nothing gets in the way of our quiet contemplation of an
endearing moment. There are interruptions, all right -- but
these are the interruptions of the rest of our lives during the

Sopranos as Prelude to WebCasting

It is no coincidence that cable TV found its narrative
stride in The Sopranos and like series at precisely the same
time as the Web was making its first series mark on our culture.
All the salient Soprano characteristics discussed here -- the
nudity, opportunity for repeat viewing, freedom from commercial
interruption that distinguish cable from network TV -- are also
found on the Web. Naughty words and images abound on the
Internet, they can be seen as often as desired, and such
advertisements as are found there are usually at the beginnings,
endings, and edges of documents and images -- they frame rather
than intrude. The Internet can thus be seen a potential
Sopranos writ large; or, The Sopranos can be seen as an
incipient Internet.

Of course, technology, however accommodating, is not enough
for great narrative. There must be human minds creating the
wine. The unique advantages of cable TV thus made The Sopranos
possible; in terms of science and philosophy, those
characteristics were necessary but not sufficient for The
. The rest reside with the writers, actors, directors,

But cable TV made them an offer that couldn't be refused.

reviews of the final nine episodes of The Sopranos (2007): First of Nine, Second of Nine, Third of Nine, Fourth of Nine, Fifth of Nine, Sixth of Nine, Seventh of Nine, Eighth of Nine, Ninth of Nine

further posts on the meaning of the series finale:

The Sopranos and Hamlet

The Sopranos End and the Closure-Junkies

The Sopranos, or the Tiger?

Sopranos Symposium at Fordham University, May 22-25, 2008: Final Program

*Note added 12 June 2007: The Sopranos finale drew 11.9 million viewers, and was the most-watched show on all of television, including the free networks.

The Plot to Save Socrates

"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly

"a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News

"Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Ten Reasons to Like the Clones

[Originally published in Locus OnLine]

Tuesday 21 May 2002

Ten Reasons to Like the Clones

A response to reviews of Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones

by Paul Levinson


This is not a formal review, but rather a response to the negative reviews of Attack of the Clones which have (unsurprisingly) appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere.

I'm presenting this response in the form of my ten top reasons for liking — actually, loving — Attack of the Clones. In order that these reasons, and this letter, not be misconstrued as satire (ala David Letterman), I'll present the reasons beginning with number 1. Then, after the list, I'll make a few comments.

1. The plot has a neat Asimovian twist, in which what starts out seeming evil later turns out to seem good but in the end winds up being evil, after all. Further, there is a delicious Asimovian inevitability in this: at the conclusion, we understand that whatever actions the leading characters take, the conclusion — the strengthening of evil — will be upheld.

2. While we're on the subject of Asimov, I thought the movie had all sorts of nice homage-references to the Foundation series: the capital city looks, for all the galaxy, like Trantor; the library looks like the library at Trantor; a planet is missing and must be found, ala Second Foundation. I've seen some critics who have lambasted these references as derivative. But as someone who has loved the Foundation series for nearly 50 years, I found the allusions only enjoyable.

3. Speaking of homages, there is a splendid air-borne car-chase scene near the beginning of the movie, very reminiscent of Blade Runner in locale. Several critics have praised this scene in their otherwise negative reviews, and I certainly agree about this scene.

4. The Jedi: It was wonderful to see the Jedi in actual battle, as an elite force, near the end of the movie. This scene was the equal of the best scenes in A New Hope (the original Star Wars movie), and The Empire Strikes Back, which were the best two previous movies (more on this below).

5. Yoda in one-on-one battle: this was also a superb scene, thoroughly motivated in the story.

6. Different levels of prowess among Jedi: In past Star Wars movies, this was only hinted at (or, in the case of the Darth Vader, he was identified as stronger than the rest). In the Clones, we see explicit variations: Obi Wan is unable to defeat the bounty hunter (Jango Fett), but the Jedi played by Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) is. (And there is some very good, subtle development of Obi Wan as a Jedi whose physical prowess is perhaps not quite as good as those of his colleagues — which makes sense, given that his mentor, Quai-Gon Jinn, was killed in the last movie, before Obi-Wan's training was 100% complete.)

7. Natalie Portman gives a fine performance. Her character was, at any rate, far more believable as love interest than Princess Leia.

8. Excellent Dolby sound effects, throughout. Check out, especially, the sound when Obi-Wan is pursuing the Bounty Hunter in the asteroid cluster.

9. Lots of good, derring-do touches of humor throughout the movie, including some nice self-referential stuff. (Again, tone-deaf or myopic critics seemed to have missed this.) Example: Obi-Wan says casually to Anakin, early in the movie, about the physical risks Anakin exposes both of them to, "you'll be the death of me." (While we're on the subject of Anakin, the difficult portrayal of the beginnings of his seduction by the Dark Side was handled well, including his first slaughter of innocents, and the accompanying music.)

10. I liked the different colors of the Jedi light-sabres: red bad, green good, blue apprentice, and one special purple.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Well, ok, here's one more: I like the thread of evil, like a recessive Jedi gene that only comes out every few generations, running from master to apprentice: the evil Dooku is the good Quai-Gon's master, who is the good Obi-Wan's master, who is Anakin's....

In general, I think Clones is a lot better than Menace and Return of the Jedi, and it may be as good as The Empire Strikes Back. As a story, I actually liked it better than New Hope, but that's of course in a class by itself. [Note added in 2005: I also liked Clones better than Revenge of the Sith, which I liked more than Menace.][Note added in 2007: I'm thinking now that Clones may be my favorite Star Wars movie.]

So how come so many critics have been disappointed?

My guess is, they don't really love science fiction. If they did, a movie that draws upon the Foundation trilogy, Dune, Blade Runner (it also draws on Gladiator — spoofs it — which is a kind of fantasy) would have been irresistible, despite its imperfections.