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 – Genghis Khan: and the Making of the Modern World (By: Jack Weatherford)

Genghis Khan: and the Making of the Modern World is a 2004 book by Jack Weatherford in his series of books about reevaluating the place of certain peoples in history. I got it as a present for my father, who had it on his books-to-read list, and I picked it up after he recommended it (it turns out I already had a copy but that’s neither here nor there). It supposedly illustrates how, unlike our normal ideas about Genghis Khan and his rule, the Mongol Empire was ahead of its time, and was a major factor in the enlightening of our modern era. Is it convincing?


The cover of the (edition I have of the) book says “”Reads like the Iliad… – Washington Post”” I believe that is a terrible thing to say, but then again I don’t like the Iliad. I would be more disposed to saying something along the lines of “it reads like the Iliad would have felt to the audiences of its time”. Meaning, the (first part of the) book is very good; it’s wonderfully written, fascinating, exciting, and enlightening. This first part, which is almost exactly one half of the book, is about Genghis Khan himself, using the (relatively) recently deciphered “Secret History of the Mongols” text and the travelings of the author and his academic companions as a basis for a narrative of the life of Temujin, the man who would become the Great Khan. The detailing is wonderful. The explanation of how Mongol society and the civilizations around them worked are as long as they need to be and not overbearing. Battles are not given an unnecessary (and likely unavailable) amount of detail, and the politics of the relatively complicated situation are related in an understandable way. It was one of the few books where I actively wanted to read more and would take more time out of my schedule to do so. The text in this section is so lovingly crafted, the areas covered so vast and interesting, and the man presented with his faults (but mostly his accomplishments) in such a way that it seemed to be forcing me to read more. And, throughout, one gets the same feeling toward Genghis Khan that they would experience about Caesar when reading a Colleen McCullough book: a grand reverence and fascination.

The same cannot be said about the second half of the book, which the reader collides with almost like a brick wall. This section, detailing the lives and accomplishments (/failures) of Genghis Khan’s dynasty, is at times excruciatingly boring, and seems tacked on and forced. I would get the impression that the author only cares about the history of Genghis himself, but the history of his empire after his death is important only to illustrate how “ahead of their time” (my words, not his) Genghis and the Mongols really were for the relatively short time they were in power. It is, from what I can tell, an accurate summary, if a bit biased toward the Mongols (even as they fail), but there are a lot of accurate technical documents I would rather not read. Compressing the amount of time (more than a few lifetimes of the man himself) into a section the same size as the one about Genghis Khan prevents the type of characterization and wonderful language that made the first half of the book so good, and coupled with the fact that, again, none of these people are people it seems Weatherford actually cares about (I guess they weren’t in the secret history) creates a section that has a very different tone to the previous one. This section that has more in common with a history textbook that bores students than the wonderful tale that came before.

Still I’m not sure the section should have been omitted (perhaps written by someone else) as a book simply about Genghis (with the level of detail in this work) would have been much too short and not have made the intended point. And the book does make a point, however refutable some think it is, while doing a very good job of staying out of the trap of many history-based books with a point, that is, constantly ramming the point down the reader’s throat. It gets worse about this in the latter half but for the most part these retreadings of old ground feel more like helpful little reminders and not an unnecessary constant restatement of the book’s central idea. This main idea is “somewhat” controversial, but perhaps a bit overstated in the title and some of the inside text. What is presented as “the Mongols were the first truly modern empire!” or “the Mongols were so far ahead of ‘X’ civilization!” comes off more like “the Mongol empire and its accomplishments have been largely and unduly overlooked since the Mongols were labeled as ‘barbarians’”. The first two statements are controversial but I feel the third is not so much. And this book does a good job of explaining and showcasing both the triumphs and failures of the Mongol empire, with many of the same lessons that can be learned from studying large empires, but a few that are uniquely Mongolian. It is guilty of minimizing some of the underlying truths; this book and many others are guilty of using the phrase “taken as wives” in place of “kidnapped and raped” to make their “great empires” (and it happened with every empire) less appalling to modern sensibilities. But many books do this, and after all, the point is to showcase the empire’s strengths and “modern-ness” rather than its weaknesses.

A secondary point to the book is how much the Mongol Empire affected the progress of human technology and interconnectedness for the better, an idea that more and more historians have been exploring in recent years. I think it makes the case well that human “progress” was “improved” by the Mongols, and that the state of technology, science, and trade was better during and after their reign that it was before. But then again I came in to the book already believing that idea. Large amounts of land, excess money, and trade (like that accumulated by the Mongols, Romans, British, Arabs, Chinese, and French) always lead to technological improvements and a general raising of the quality of life, though many do have to die for such excess to be available in peace time. The effect the Mongols had in this way is well- (and over-) explained and believable, though I don’t agree with every point. It does seem obvious that the effect of the Mongols on world development has been overlooked. Though I’m still not entirely buying Genghis Khan’s “uniqueness”, the author talks about him like he was doing entirely new things with strategies and technological appropriation, while I was sitting there reading and thinking ‘that sounds a lot like what Caesar did”. And the whole “relying on people based on ability instead of familial connections until it comes to choosing a successor for your empire” thing strikes me as very poor planning.

But moving on to some things about the physical book, which I have little to say about, but more than I do for most books. The printing is superb. It feels like a Penguin book, which are my favorite books to hold. The cover design is fine, but the spine is a problem: it is way, way, to easy to damage. I finished the book without much wear but that was because I had seen several copies before and held the book carefully to avoid it. While it doesn’t really affect the functionality, I do think it is bad design to have a book made in such a way that simply reading through it in a normal way would leave it visibly “damaged” (worn). The copy I picked up second-hand was terrible in this respect. Inside the book has mainly words, but there are some wonderful ink drawings at the beginnings of some chapters, and a few maps. These maps are… not great. They do convey their message, and to me, someone who reads maps a lot, they are quite legible. But to someone unfamiliar with the geography of the area or without a keen sense of gray-differentiation, they will very easily become confusing. I think it would have been very easy to do them better but they also aren’t the main part of the book and don’t distract too much.

I liked the book, and I would recommend that most fans of history books take a look at it. I’m not entirely on board with every idea presented, but it is a fascinating and exciting look at an often-overlooked culture and empire in the grand, usually European, scheme of the world. The very fact that this book is based off of a historical document that was found recounting the events of foundation of an Eastern empire that westerners were allowed to see and interpret is a historical anomaly worthy of looking into on its own. But that the first half of the book was crafted so lovingly and well, and the usual pitfalls of historical books of this nature so well avoided, brings it above the standard historical work and even overshadows the sub-par (but not awful) second half. As a teaching tool or a “book that will change your life/view/the world” I can’t really say it works, but for a more balanced and interesting look at history I would definitely give it a look.