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 – On Empire (By: Eric Hobsbawm)

On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy is a collection of 4 essays that were originally speeches or lectures given by Eric Hobsbawm (which is a name I am constantly afraid of misspelling). The publication date on the book is 2008, so they’re a bit out of date, but they capture that post-9/11 world-feel that is present today, managing to still feel relevant even if the information isn’t quite as accurate anymore.


The layout and restructuring of the book is good, the text is readable and all the necessary changes to convert a lecture to a book are present. The 4 essays themselves are a bit scatter-shot, not really flowing into each other and repeating information (at one point I went through about 10 pages thinking I’d already read everything there), but they weren’t really meant to go together so that is forgivable. And they certainly don’t have the problem far too many books trying to illustrate a historic principle have of explaining again and again what the point is (not over-explaining or stretching out the explanation, but repeatedly stating, multiple times in each chapter the main point without it progressing over the book), which is wonderful. The short, concise nature of the book makes it very readable (and speakable).

Care is taken in accuracy as well; sources for statistics and the like are cited in the rather large (for a book of this size) appendix, and multiple historical events are given to “prove the point”. Though there are several types of people I’m always wary of, and in this book Hobsbawm is two of them: those who only identify problems without proposing solutions, and those who conduct their analysis from only one point of view. Admittedly both of these traits are shared by the majority of historians who write books; the view found in such works never veers much from what one can expect at the outset (after reading the first chapter). It becomes a rather boring read at times when you know much of what is going to be said (without the specific details). And that isn’t helped by the fact that I knew I would disagree with many of those points. I’m not in any particular position to say Mr. Hobsbawm is wrong, or that the basic premise (that it is unlikely the United States has the ability to or should create a world-wide “empire” for preserving peace and the American-way™ etc.) is flawed, as I agree with much of the information put forth. But in other cases I very much disagree, partially in the spirit of the act, that is, the problems without solutions I mentioned earlier. It is one thing to say that US foreign policy should shift from “what we say or war” to something else, but if you’re not going to propose even the smallest of alternatives I would ask why you even brought it up (the answer of course is because he was asked to speak and to analyze, not to solve). Everyone has their own agenda, and I get suspicious of those who aren’t trying to push theirs, and since it doesn’t take an expert to say there’s a problem, why have the expert opinion if it isn’t “more enlightened” than your own?

All that, though, is a bit of a digression from the main point of the book. And if indeed the book was set out to do what I think it was, it did it very well. The writing style is nice and moves things forward without much re-treading of old ground (at least in individual chapters), the facts are well researched, and the argument strong. I certainly enjoyed reading the book, and it was a nice change of pace from many long-winded or under-informed authors.

Custom LEGO Troop Transport Vehicle

So I was thinking I shout upgrade my LEGO troop transport vehicle. I had made this a few years ago, so it looks kind of, um, crap.


Side view.


The back opens up and can hold 2 minifigures.


Cockpit holds on and has controls.


Gunner postion swivels and has limited armor. Apparently the guns are anti-aircraft, as they can only point up while still being held by the minifig.


Fits 4 minifigs total.

I decided to overhaul the design as the colors were mixed up and the resemblance to a military vehicle is only slight. Here was my first attempt.


Sorry about the finger in the way. The remodel is slightly larger than the original, the side armor is sloped but the integration with the front slope is non-existent and looks ugly in my opinion. The turret is redesigned, with a short barreled cannon and some armor, it rotates fully but has nothing in the back.


The driver has a small gun and the turret is placed slightly to the side as to not interfere with the drivers hatch.


The side armor on either side is different, and the turret (which is my favorite part) extends over the back. There is no room for additional troops.


Round back is nothing special, pieces don’t quite sync up, but that’s my fault.

After this I decided the body was to short, so I remodeled and added some length.


Here you can see how I retained the sloping side armor.


I decided to get rid of this side armor as it looked unrealistic.


Here is my eventually finished product, occupied by a driver and a gunner. I ran out of pieces so I’m not fully satisfied, but I like it.


The driver now has more room and retains his small machine-gun.


The turret is once again moved to the right to prevent interference with the driver position.


The hatch, when fully open is will prevent the turret from spinning, but at when it is angled down slightly like this the turret is freely spinning.


The turret redesign is what I’m most proud of, it has sloping armor on the front and back. It fits one minifig, but unfortunately without any gear.


Hatch at the back.


The back compartment fits two figures, good for black, red is holding onto his gear.


Opened hatch.


The vehicle holds four total. Here are some other shots of the finished product.


(the side armor is my least favorite part, it looks too bulky for me)