Book Review – Viewpoints Critical (By: L. E. Modesitt Jr.)

I had never heard of L. E. Modesitt Jr. when I picked up Viewpoints Critical because the cover was interesting. And a collection of short stories from a “bestselling” fantasy/sci-fi author I had never heard of was something I was willing to give a chance, but the dollar store $1 stickers didn’t bode well. Still, the themes seemed interesting and the back blurb sucked me in. I started as soon as I could.

I feel like going through every story in a collection might get tedious, and, in many cases, spoil the story (there’s only so much I can say about something that’s sometimes as little as five pages without going there). And to that end, it is fortunate that Modesitt has a few distinct genres or “types” of stories to group the overall “mood” of the book into. Unfortunately the writing within some of these groups is highly variable. Some of the stories in this book were first published in the 1970s, and in my opinion there is a clear line where he improves until he starts publishing novels and the stories become much more hit and miss.

The book starts off fairly strong, with a few economic/political/corporate stories: The Great American Economy, Rule of Law, and Power To… ?. And while that might sound boring, or like I’m being sarcastic they are actually refreshing story scenarios with interesting ideas to someone like me who doesn’t read books about subjects like that very often. The ideas here are all pretty clever (though Modesitt doesn’t handle the “dismount” or explanation {so to speak} very well, it being more clunky than I’d like) and are probably influenced by his career in the EPA and similar areas after being in the Navy as a pilot (both things that are mentioned in the book, as he gives brief introductions to each story). And speaking of him being a pilot, there are a few stories obviously inspired by that experience.

Second Coming, Iron Man, Plastic Ships, Always Outside the Lines: Four Battles, The Pilots, and The Swan Pilot are all in the pilot-inspired section to various degrees (and Spec-Ops is a military-inspired story as well). And they deal with many of the problems that were faced by pilots (or the armed forces in general) in the Vietnam War (though my main interactions have been with Air Force pilots) (The Pilots in particular is directly related to, but strangely distant from, Vietnam) in various sci-fi ways. Frustration with the problems of supply, “upgrading”, rules of engagement, and objective vagueness are all conveyed in an understandable and “soldier-like” manner, though there is a bit of “over-jargoning”. At some points, several sentences of actions being taken (usually by a pilot) go by and I have to scan back through them to get my translation of what happened (it’s usually something like “he turned left, but there are problems”).

The remaining stories are a mixed bag in terms of theme and how well they’re written. The two stores that take place in Modesitt’s “Recluse” universe: Black Ordermage, and Sisters of Sarronym, Sisters of Westwind are wonderfully written and well characterized stories that made me want to delve deeper into the word they are in (I have since bought one of the “Recluse” books, hopefully it’s the relatively “grounded” fantasy world it appears to be). Another, Beyond the Obvious Wind, is an “alternate history” to events in the Corean Chronicles that is good enough to make me wish it was part of the canon so I wouldn’t have to re-learn anything if I got into the series. Ghost Mission is also based in one of Modesitt’s many (as you may be able to tell) universes that’s more “steampunk-y” and has the advantage of not being almost too long for me to call it a short story, but I’m not sure how long I want to spend in that world, as the genre doesn’t grab me. It’s similar in its brevity to the previously mentioned Always Outside the Lines… (which also feels like it might be in a world fleshed out in other books) and they both convey what seems to be a hatred of Mormons, specifically ones in alternate histories that form independent states. And finally for those that are part of larger universes: Second Coming introduces as its lead a character who would later be followed in a novel I might want to read at some point (though the sci-fi seems fairly stereotypical).

The rest are the generic but interesting sci-fi: Precision Set, Spec-Ops, and News Clips Recovered from the NYC Ruins. Also the strange religious interpretations of Fallen Angel, and The Dock to Heaven. And Understanding, which is… bad. I had to reread it and look up what it was supposed to mean online before I “got” it (there’s irony in there somewhere), and I wasn’t that impressed. Still, that’s a nice spectrum of genres and plots. Some he handles much better than others, and overall I guess they’re not spectacular. He likes to “question” religion(s) or interpret them differently, which often leaves me wondering just what it is he’s trying to say or having to look up the meaning of a story. I’ve already mentioned the over-jargoning that is sometimes a problem and sometimes not (if it feels like it’s important it is, if it’s supposed to go over my head and be a justification for something silly, it isn’t). There’s also a certain rhythm that most short stories have that isn’t always followed. Precious words seem wasted as they are repeated in the same sentence, and sometimes a second “and” is used when listing in a way that I just don’t understand. It seems like the stories weren’t proofread enough to get rid of all of the verbal bumps. But Modesitt himself admits he’s not very good at short stories. And I’d say the fact that he publishes about 2 full length novels a year (about 75 books on his website and the first novel was published in 1982) and the “better” stories in this collection are the longer ones show how he has much more of a drive for long fiction.

I didn’t dislike the book, but it overstayed its welcome a bit. It’s pretty thick for a collection of short stories with several that, while good, are longer than I signed up for. He does a good job with some of the more technical and “exciting” aspects of sci-fi and war stories, and when he gets it right, the human element is spectacular. But in the exposition and endings the right words just don’t seem to come up, replaced with clunky thesaurus stand-ins. Modesitt is good at evoking feelings and not ideas, which might be for the better, but I’m the kinda guy that gets excited by the ideas in a sci-fi or fantasy world (but then I often nit-pick too much when authors really create a deep world). In the end I had a good time reading it, but it’s not a book for everyone. If one is a fan of Modesitt I’d imagine it would appeal to them, and if you want to try to get into his work this would be a decent place to start (I know it “made” me go out and by one of the Recluse books shortly after finishing it). But I can see many average readers, especially ones who aren’t particularly sci-fi or fantasy fans, not being enthralled with it. In other words, if it looks interesting and is at the dollar store definitely grab it, otherwise maybe give it a good thinking about.

Book Review – The Perpetual Motion Machine by Paul Scheerbart

The Perpetual Motion Machine by Paul Scheerbart is a “nonfiction” book from the turn of the 20th century that documents the attempts of German novelist and “optimist” (my term) to create a perpetual motion machine. The book has several portions that are journal entries and several “essay” portions that talk about the effects of the machine. Interspersed in necessary areas are 26 diagrams of his attempts to create the machine.


Needless to say, the man wasn’t successful (though, on the final page, he claims to be), but the book is still an interesting read. The outside presents itself as a more scientific work, but right off the bat, the author describes himself as seeing wheels at all times of the day and how he is driven to attempt to create his machine. There is little sense behind why he keeps pushing on, beyond his relentless optimism that there is a solution. Quickly, though, he dreads a solution, as he is afraid of the military using the invention for war, or he fears that providing infinite energy to the people of the world would destroy civilization, not bring it up. At times, both their being and not being a solution are equally terrible to him.

The machines presented in his diagrams are themselves quite simple and it’s easy to understand why they don’t work if you have a basic understanding of forces. Some have wheels spinning in the wrong direction, but most would require friction to be completely absent. Indeed, all of the models he constructed never did work, but he blames his lack of mechanical ability for this and not the idea that a perpetual motion machine can’t work. He has plumbers and mechanics set up the devices and they don’t work either. Nevertheless, he applies for patents anyway.

The meat of the book, though, is really his essays on what the future would be like with such a machine. He describes tasks that would be difficult even with such machines as “simple”: how easily mountains could be moved and transportation refined, and how all of the energy needed by humans can be provided by the “earthstar”. It’s all a bit crazy. His first attempt at making the machine was caused by the insertion of a “perpetual motion car” in one of his stories, where the cab was hung inside a wheel that drove one on forever. My first thoughts, of course, are how does one stop or get in and out? Neither of these potential problems are addressed, and the idea of the machine is jumped to with gusto. The diagrams do show an evolution from this point, but are all very basic and one loses interest slightly with each new one. Fortunately the book is quite short, and it never gets down to a position that is boring. The essays and diagrams are presented in a manner that prevents the reader from becoming bored, and keeps them in the thought process.

The talk of how cities, money, and war will change because of invention is at its best based on very simple theories and not in any particular fact. But, then again, the machine is impossible so the theories are impossible. He starts with talking about how we will exist on other planets, but decides Earth is good enough. This is repeated when he talks about how the financial institutions will fall, but then he wonders what he’ll have to do to continue existing. He is right to believe that inventing such a machine would make him rich, and perhaps equally right that he would either become a target, or his money would become worthless afterwards. All the musing about this makes it easy to climb into his head and understand what he is trying to say a little bit better. Paul is relatable and empathetic as a narrator and author (at least in this text).

But is the book good? Yes, it’s crazy, but good. Seeing how another mind that doesn’t work very similarly to the “common” idea of a person is fascinating. The idea of perpetual motion and the world that such a device would create is equally fascinating. Even knowing that the man is obviously an eccentric (crazy) and that the idea won’t work doesn’t diminish the book. Looking into another’s thought process is always and enlightening experience, and something can certainly be learned from this book, even if it is far removed from a way to make a perpetual motion machine.

Table Topics Family 59 #117-118


1. What would you most like to know about the future?

2. Would your rather be a wealthy movie star or a poor scientist who cures cancer?

ANSWERS By: Austin Smith

1. If I am right about how humanity will be destroyed.

2. Is that even a question, I’d get to cure cancer, that’d be a amazing. And I’m sure I could use that to get someone to buy me dinner or something every once in a while.

The Future Part 1: The Part Where We all Lose our Jobs

Notice: This article likely contains hyperbole for either effect or humor. And in order to make things brief, it may over-simplify or make bold statements. If it seems like I am attacking you I assure you I am not, and if you disagree with any statements made or wish to elaborate some, feel free to do so in comments.

After reviewing this article before its publication, I have realized that I may sound a bit hard-lined or rash in it. I assure you I am not, at least to the severity it may appear. But I do believe that in order to get something said one must make up their mind to say something and then say something, and I think something should be said about this topic. This does not mean that I can’t change my mind later, though, and definitely does not mean I shouldn’t. Opinions exist to be discarded for better ones, and if you don’t agree with something being said, feel free to try and change my mind (politely if you can).

This is a topic on which I will write many more related articles, because the future is a scary place. And I find it interesting what conclusions I have come to “on my own” in regards to other people’s conclusions about the matter.

I’m not saying that anyone else would agree with me entirely on where we are going and how to fix future problems (or agree at all). But I have noticed some parallels in my thinking and that which I have been reading/watching. It is for this reason, though, that I won’t name any names.

I recognized some time ago that I was in the minority when it came to how I wanted copyright to be handled. In other words, I actually respected it, unlike a good 95% of the population does in some way. This is not to say I was perfect in doing so, but that is a tangent I won’t dive into. I recognized very quickly that people pirating things would slowly degrade the entertainment industry (enjoy your ads!). And it has, to some extent.

After some research and thinking, however, preserving the entertainment industry seemed more important to me than many other things. And this is because it will likely be the only industry in a few decades. And the decade after that it’ll be gone forever.

This is because we are approaching a pseudo-post-scarcity-economy (because a real one is technically impossible, but the real limitation isn’t that technical impossibility, but the many impossibilities before that). This is starting to take shape in post-scarcity-markets, where workers (or as I’m really discussing, machines) are in ready supply and at not much cost. Stores are now filled with self-checkout lines and security cameras. Sure, we still need people to restock shelves and to catch anyone who steals things (or, as in most cases, not to catch anyone who steals things). But, if you’ve been in a supermarket in the last few years you’d know that that is not really happening. Things aren’t really being cleaned up or properly restocked in most locations, because as the machines creep up, the value of these people’s work goes to 0. Both to them and to you.

A better example will be coming in the near future, when self-driving cars (that is a clunky name) start replacing taxi drivers, bus drivers, etc. Limo drivers will either be the first or last affected, I can’t tell. This seems wonderful, even though your citizen-taxi apps are now worthless you can be driven anywhere for minimal cost. You don’t even have to have a car. And the cars can be electric, and pollute the earth in less obvious ways. It’ll be great.

And a few years ago I’d’ve said that was great. I hated cars then: I still do, mostly because I was in high school and realized that if some of my classmates were driving, the world was not a safe place. So I stayed off the road. I didn’t want one of those idiots to kill me.

At the time I would’ve said self-driving cars (or the more train-like system I envision) would’ve been the savior of civilization. But then I saw their beginnings in television commercials: new cars that parked for you, stopped when you were about to hit something, and alerted you to potential problems. They had GPS and knew where you were at all times so they could call for help, and you didn’t have to worry about a thing. And I was immediately repulsed. I hated it. I wanted nothing like those things on the road. And if they became the norm I might not even ride in a car again (which would make my already difficult life even more difficult).

Now this is just my gut reaction, and based on no fact. And I likely hate this with more energy than its deserves. But that doesn’t make it a good thing. First off, if a manufacturer is to sell such a car, they have to make sure it follows the law. The problem would arise when the people who abide by the law and sit in their regular cars would be at a disadvantage to those who modified or used older cars to break the law. You end up with the gun problem, where the only people that have guns are the bad guys or the cops, and there aren’t nearly (nor will there ever be) enough cops to protect you.

It was a good idea by the state of California to require a steering wheel in the Google car, but that will only get so far before it’s eliminated. Then, suppose it happens in a life-and-death situation that you indeed need to run into something, and then your car suddenly stops short. You suddenly can’t veer off the road as someone comes screeching up behind you with an assault rifle because your car won’t let you. And what will self-driven cars do with the more benign desire that people like me have to go out into the desert or the forest sometime, away from paved roads? That’s someplace that the new self-driving cars would never go.

But the real problem here isn’t the fact than a minority of people like me might hate it, but that the majority of people will like it. And that cars that drive themselves are the future of all transportation. And they will eliminate the large portion of the workforce that I mentioned earlier. And those jobs are irrecoverable: these people will be unemployed forever. And I mean forever, because there is literally no new job market that needs those people. Every job market is already bloated. Everyone already wants your job, or your friend’s job, and now these people will, too. They will quickly be joined by everyone from the supermarket, because if a robot can drive a car it can stock shelves. In a decade or two (starting right now: I mean right now) the majority of the people you know will be unemployed. And no new market is coming to save them.

But this is where pusedo-post-scarcity comes in. If we have robots making our food (farm equipment is already starting to run itself), delivering it to the store, stocking the shelves, and driving us there (why doesn’t it just drive the food into our mouths?) then why couldn’t we just all take what we need and share the cars, and live a happy little small life? To which I reply “The reason I didn’t share my toys in Kindergarten is because other people are absolutely terrible at taking care of things”, or “People suck and are selfish and will always want more than they have”, (but I only say the latter during parties I don’t want to be at).

1984 is an uninteresting book that I hate, (it’s one of the few books I won’t keep a copy of, but that’s more because of the memories associated with reading it while my feet nearly froze off) but it contains a wonderful example of this. If you’ve read it, you remember when Winston is remembering his childhood, and his Mom is struggling to get food, they’re barely getting enough, and Winston is still eating more than his share even as his family starves. Things like that happen in real life. They are probably happening right now. And we might think we’d never do that, or that he was starving and not in his right mind. But think for just a bit more about that. Problems scale up with living conditions. We still think that the problems we have are as bad as problems that we’d have if we were much poorer. Our brain can only compute two types of problems: very bad, and life-threatening. That’s why first-world problems haven’t disappeared, even after we started mocking them. Our brain is still interpreting them as terrible problems.

Winston was in his right mind, as the human brain is selfish in many ways. So what’s to stop someone who’s more hungry on one day than the next from taking more than his fair share? If your answer is the store regulations, then he can just take it from someone else. And if your answer to that is an ever-present robot police force, congratulations, you’ve just graduated to tyranny.

But that’s just taking it by brute force. Why would you want to do that if you could just convince people (and the people bit is important, not the machines) that they should give you more? That’s really what Winston did, he convinced his mother to let him have more than he needed. There are always going to be people who want more and can convince people that they need more for various reasons. I’ll admit that I’m one. I do like having things and knowing things just to say that I do. And the way you get things is half the fun (read: haggling). I’m not saying I’d ever want anyone to suffer so that I can have more, but being able to have more than some other people is a key factor in keeping me moving. I wouldn’t be the one to be taking from people (and if everyone has the same thing, there’s always room to take), I’d likely just die, but there are people out there who want more than their fair share a lot more than I do, and they will use every trick at their disposal to take it.

But that’s beside my main point (although likely a more convincing argument), which is that I absolutely hate sharing things, and sharing my transportation, and goods delivery services, would again just make me curl up and die.

When I moved to the city I budgeted for a bus pass that I never got and never will. Why? Because public transportation is horrible, just like public restrooms, and public parks, and public everything (even libraries, despite that fact that no one goes into them). They’re all filthy and torn up, covered in God knows what. Public anything is terrible. Beaches and parks are covered in litter and clogged with people. I would never want to go to any of them, or use any public services, because some people are disgusting and stupid (and it not being theirs makes it easier for them to tear up someone else’s good intentions). That self-driving car that now belongs to everyone is going to be covered in not only whatever crap you had in your car (admit it: it’s a lot) but in what tens or hundreds of other people had in theirs. It’ll be awful. People don’t take care of their own things, and they’ll never be able to take care of a public thing.

The over-arching point of these last few paragraphs is that a post-scarcity economy with no jobs isn’t really that great in the immediate future, which would come as a big shock to the middle-school me who thought that was what we were all working toward (but that was before I got to high school and realized I hated people). People, when left to their own devices, are terrible. Many people will tell you that humans are naturally violent or selfish, while other, more optimistic people will tell you we are naturally good and will always move toward peace and helpfulness (I’ve got a few history lessons here). Either of these statements is like saying we’re born dead. They’re true if you give them enough time and the right circumstances. Studies show that a human’s first instinct is to help, but if they are given time to think over their actions, they will come to a more selfish conclusion. If you had to divide a cookie between you and someone else and they were in the room, you’d be likely to give them half. But if you were each shown the cookie and taken to a different room for a while to think about how to divide it, you’d be more likely to try and take the whole thing for yourself.

That isn’t the best example. So I’ll try another: say the world is ending (metaphorically: there is a disaster), it’s the first day, you’re trying to escape as average Joe Person, and you hear someone who is hurt calling for help as they’re being bandaged by someone who is well-prepared with a basic supply kit. You’d likely try and help them, maybe join their group and get out together. After all, you weren’t prepared, so this guy who is prepared will benefit you. Bam, right there; the thought of the supplies came after helping this person get out. When given time to think, your decision to help makes more sense for more selfish reasons (unless you didn’t try to help in which case you better have a very good reason).

But fast-forward a few more weeks into the disaster and that person won’t be calling for help, because instead of a friendly, helpful person like you on day one, they’ll find you partially starving, alone, and with a lot of time to think. And that version of you would kill them and take the supplies, because someone else would just slow you down, and you’re barely making it anyway. The more time you have to think, the more selfish things make sense.

Now that I’ve said why the new world with all of the jobs being replaced by machines won’t be wonderful, I guess I’ve got to say something about how to fix it. And I’d say that at the moment we have no real way to fix it (except the super easy one which I’ll cover later). Many people will be unemployed by these machines, and there won’t be some utopia for them to go to. And, with most of the jobs the machines are going to take, there won’t be any reason to start using humans again. The first part of the future, as in the next few decades, will begin to fill with unemployable people that we don’t have the systems or the culture to handle. I don’t have a solution, really, and I know that seems like a lame way to end an article. But the real point here is that we are going to need to find a solution: we absolutely have to. And maybe if I think and talk a little more, and you think and talk a little more, then we can find a solution to this.

Table Topics Family 28 #55-56


1. What one thing would you like to know about the future?

2. Which TV show would you pick to live inside for a week?

ANSWERS By: Austin Smith

1. How disciplined and relevant humans are. An undisciplined and irrelevant human world is one I would seek to avoid.

2. None, I couldn’t handle the constant drama that television show characters encounter.