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 – I Sing the Body Electric (By: Ray Bradbury)

I Sing the Body Electric is a collection of short stories by one of the greats: Ray Bradbury. These are from the (early) middle of his career, after most of the books you’d recognize, but (long) before it ended. There are 13 stories in the book, all of varying types and lengths, enough that I think it might be tedious (and spoilerific) if I were to go through each one, so I’ll try and hit the highs and the lows while giving my overall impression of the book.

How do I always get these obscure editions where the cover is impossible to find in good quality?

I am a Bradbury fan. The Illustrated Man is one of my favorite short story collections, and I’ve enjoyed many other stories he’s written. This one starts by hitting it out of the park with The Kilimanjaro Device which filled me with enough emotion to make it difficult to sleep that night. I would say it’s probably the best story in the book, but it fits my taste better and I could easily see how someone else would like one of the other stories more. From there, it maintains its classic Bradbury feel, with all sorts of weird twists, contextual literal meanings, waves of emotions, and extensive flowery language.

Some of it’s typical Bradbury stuff (there is not one, but two android-based stories {One of them, Downwind at Gettysburg, is mentioned on the back cover as “humanoid Abe Lincoln”. When was he not humanoid?}), but typical Bradbury isn’t very typical. They range from the strange and water-based The Women, to the raw but humorous depression era The Inspired Chicken Motel, to the terrifying Mars loneliness of Night Call, Collect. There are a few themes: androids, as previously mentioned, Mars, and Ireland; (specifically Dublin) are each in two or more stories. As with most short story collections, they all run in strange channels and sometimes ooze strangeness with every word. Loneliness and just basic emotion are also frequent themes, again, like many short stories. But some are simply amazing; Heavy Set is one of the most moving stories I’ve read in a long time (and it has that strange spelling of Hallowe’en).

Still, while the subjects and stories are fantastic I must complain a moment about Bradbury’s writing. There’s nothing technically wrong with it (the only errors I noticed are in The Tombling Day, and that’s likely an editor’s or typesetter’s fault), but he seems constantly overcome with the desire to let one know exactly how many words he has in his repertoire. I think his stories are fantastic, and the language used is essential to pull off some of the emotional moments, but in many cases Bradbury has the uncanny ability to make the most interesting story in the world boring to read, and it’s a testament to his imagination that I continued on. It’s not bad, it’s just boring sometimes. And boring in the strangest way, as I want to get through it quicker, but not stop reading. This is most apparent in his novels and in dialogue. He doesn’t have the time in these short stories to launch into a one-page description using every word tangentially related to (and sometimes not related to at all) the subject, to convey a “feeling” you’ll forget, about a thing that is inconsequential to the story (at least that often). He does, however, have the time to use a bunch of dialogue that no human would ever speak. I have a bit of a pet peeve about unrealistic dialogue and some of the worst examples of that are in these stories. That flaw is made up for upon occasion with how interestingly it is assembled. It reads like poetry at times, but it can also be a garbled mess. There is a point in the final story The Lost City of Mars, where a character is obviously meant to sound pompous or “too-wordy” and he ends up sounding just like quite a few other characters not meant to share that personality trait.

The Lost City of Mars has another problem by itself that is, thankfully, only present in it (I actually get to talk about the end of a book here without spoiling it). I’m not sure if it’s meant to have anything to do with the other “Martian” stories but it feels like it’s trying to create a world, and in that world a great many story possibilities are brought up (in just a few pages) that would be as or more interesting to me than this particular story, though it is a good one.

But for all my griping about the flowery language, or a slow story (such as The Cold Wind and the Warm which tries to take something mundane and spin it as miraculous), or missed opportunities, or the bit of sexism thrown in to remind you when the book was written, for all that, Bradbury still writes a good fantasy. Often the overdone bits fade into the background to form a foundation on which you can read and really feel, or think, or be absorbed into a fantastic world where the mind can go anywhere. Often you don’t want to stop reading because you want to see where it goes next. You want to hear everything about The Man in the Rorschach Shirt or Tomorrow’s Child. You want to enter the fantasy and enjoy.

And I did enjoy this book; even at the slow pace I read it. I might not have enjoyed every minute of it, but I would read it again. I might even have to considering how bad my memory apparently is, as its huge variety of story types and lengths doesn’t make it easier to remember the shorter ones or the start when one gets to the end. It does mean that there’s probably a story in there for everyone, and not a lot of “wading” to do to get to it. It’s not my favorite Bradbury, but it did far better than to make me lose hope. If you’re a fan of that 60’s sci-fi and fantasy scene, short stories, or of Bradbury at all, I would give this one a look. It’s a great read with all its ups and downs and twists and turns.