Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

Terms of Enlistment

I was tipped off to Marko Kloos’ Frontlines series by The WrongFun Podcast last fall, and they’ve been sitting on my kindle since then– not forgotten, precisely, but in the press of theological texts and papers and a whole spate of John C. Wright stuff, plus books people were giving me for review, they got left behind. But sometimes, books on The Pile get lucky and actually do get read, moving on into the hallowed halls of Books I Have Opinions On.

Oddly enough, like last week’s foray into Voltron, military SF is something that you would think I’m familiar with, when really, I only known the general shape of things. There’s always some overlap with space opera, but push comes to shove, I’m mostly familiar with the high profile works like Starship Troopers, and The Forever War or books that have come to my attention through a recommendation, like Brad Torgerson’s The Chaplain’s War. Terms of Enlistment, the first book in Kloos’ Frontlines, starts off fairly similar to what I have experienced in other military SF novels: We’re following our protagonist’s career through boot camp and onward into the eventual explosions we’re all really here for.

Andrew Grayson is our protagonist here, a young man from one of the North American Commonwealth’s many slums. Overpopulation has become a problem, and, at least in North America, the solution has been mostly to stack the poor into ghetto-cities full of the future’s equivalent to Section 8 housing, where they live meaningless lives on the dole.  Grayson, though, is too smart and too driven for that: he’s gone to community college, which the book suggests earns him some mockery from his fellow impoverished, and he’s looking for a way to escape the slums.

That comes to him, unsurprisingly, in the form of the military. There are so many people desperate to escape the meaningless life of the slums that the NAC’s military could never possibly accommodate them all, but Grayson’s been lucky enough to win the lottery that gets him into bootcamp. Terms of Enlistment‘s bootcamp is lacking a lot of the usual hardships and bluster you see in these situations: recruits are told plainly that they can up and leave whenever they want. The military won’t argue with them and will even pay for the bus ride home; after all, someone else will be glad to have the spot.

Unfortunately for Grayson, who desperately wants to leave Earth for a colony world more than anything, he proves to be fairly good at urban warfare and winds up assigned to the Territorial Army. The TA are the grunts who defend the NAC against their Sino-Russian enemies and keep the peace in the frequent welfare riots in the slums. Those riots are Grayson’s first military action in the TA, and instead of popping aliens or Russians with grenades, he’s fighting the sort of people he more or less grew up with– and it all very quickly goes south.

One of the complaints I’ve seen leveraged against the Frontlines books is that they’re fairly standard military SF. But those complaints are almost always lodged by people who admit to not finishing the book,  and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because they didn’t finish the book. Maybe it’s the case that they are; I certainly don’t have a ton of familiarity with the tropes of military SF. But I have to say that Terms of Enlistment, in particular, does things I don’t expect it do, and the follow up book, Lines of Departure, seems to be following in its footsteps.

I didn’t expect, for instance, that Grayson would be in an internal peacekeeping action for the middle part of the book; and [mild spoilers] I didn’t expect him to be spending the last third of the book as a desk jockey. How do we have explosions with a desk jockey? (We do get them!) Lines of Departure moves Grayson back to the frontlines, but instead of giving us a Grayson as a grunt or even a special ops guy, he’s…. a combat controller. Which, even as an Air Force brat, I had to look into. Apparently they’re the guys who call in for air strikes.

Grayson’s world, surprisingly, isn’t under the sway of a future UN, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it; when the aliens show up (and they’re nicely alien), the NAC still has to worry about the other humans– particularly the aforementioned Sino-Russians– who are out there trying to claim territory.  The world is less clean cut and far more messy than I’m used to seeing, which is a good thing.

Confession time: for a guy who sees the world in a fairly black and white way– I’m a conservative Christian in seminary, for crying out loud– I like some moral grays in my fiction. Not that I want everything to come down into vapid relativism, but I like books and movies that present me with situations that require some thought. I’ve argued for a long time now that Avatar would have been a far less distasteful film if the stuff they were mining had some use, instead of just telling us that it was only available there. What if it were integral to cleaning Earth’s ruined biosphere, pitting humanity’s survival against the Na’vi? Or as a weapon system to fight, I don’t know. The bone harvesters of Alpha Centauri, who, by the way, aren’t just going to harvest humanity’s bones, but going to stop off at Pandora on the way? Mining a mineral against the native’s wishes because we’re greedy is boring. Mining a mineral because we need it to survive is more interesting; mining it against their wishes when it will benefit us all is more interesting. See where I’m going?

Frontlines seems to enjoy giving us those sorts of problems to deal with. Grayson– and all his fellow soldiers– uses lethal force against civilians during welfare riots. Those rioters are quite capable of killing soldiers– not quickly or efficiently, but they can– and so we’re given the question of lethal force against one’s fellow citizens. More interestingly, we’re given the callous use of lethal weapons against one’s fellow citizens, and those are the sort of situations that feature prominently in Frontlines, much to my extreme pleasure. Marko Kloos’ website describes him as a “purveyor of space kablooie stories,” and that maybe the form they take, but they’re certainly not dumb about it.