It’s not often that a highly successful military science fiction series involves me in some way. But here’s Marko Kloos explaining how I was in a small way tangentially a part of the creation of his highly successful military science fiction series, of which Chains of Command is the latest installment.
The first book of what is now called the Frontlines series came to be because of a highly effective motivator: last-minute deadline panic.
Eight years ago, I applied for a slot in a writing workshop called Viable Paradise. I knew a few people who had attended VP, and they all spoke highly of it. When I checked the roster of instructors, I was happily surprised to see the names of some heavy hitters in the SF business: Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, Elizabeth Bear, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Jim McDonald and Debra Doyle, and some guy named John Scalzi. To top off the list of arguments for attendance, the workshop was reasonably affordable, geographically close (it takes place every year on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’m in New Hampshire), and took only a week, which was eminently swingable on both my stay-at-home parent schedule and stay-at-home parent wallet.
The only trouble was that I heard about the workshop a week before the close of the submissions/application period, and I needed a few short stories or novel chapters to send in as application pieces for evaluation. I had neither.
So I sat down and wrote a few chapters of a fantasy novel that, in retrospect, should have been titled “The Journeys of Generica: Book One of the Derivative Kingdoms Saga.” At the time, I thought it was decent enough, and I gave the samples to my wife to read. She did so, and then tactfully suggested that I may want to send in, uh, something else.
With six days to go on the application deadline (and having to subtract two days from that to account for Priority Mail), I was in a bind. While I had always wanted to write SF or fantasy, I had no finished or even reasonably progressing projects in either genre on hand. I had two trunk novels sitting on my hard drive, but they were general fiction. I had recently read a novel called Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, and figured that because I enjoy reading military SF, I’d probably enjoy writing a military SF story. I served in the German military during the tail end of the Cold War, and I had always wanted to have a vehicle to make use of all the little sensory details and experiences from my own military service, and baking it all into a Military SF novel seemed like a good idea.
The boot camp sequence is practically a trope in the Military SF genre, and “Young Person Goes To War” is shorthand description for three quarters of Military SF debut novels. That’s not a terribly bad thing—when you go to the zoo, you’re either happy to see the giraffes again or you aren’t, and Military SF readers in particular like to see the giraffes, so to speak. But I had this idea in my head to put a different spin on my version of Space Marine Boot Camp. Current recruiting practice treats the new applicant as a valuable resource because the military usually has to work hard to fill all its slots with volunteers. Most future boot camps in fiction do the same—the old saw about tough drill instructor love, motivating the recruits to excel and be All They Can Be.
What if you had a future military that was so swamped with applicants that the D.I.s wouldn’t have to give a rat’s behind whether their charges make it through training or not? What if the D.I.s could wash people out at will because they knew exactly that five hundred applicants would stand in line tomorrow to take that slot?
From there, it was a simple exercise: thinking up a near-future version of North America where life sucks. Overpopulation, pollution, rampant crime, scarce resources, a population limited to 2,000-calorie-a-day rations of processed crap that’s made to taste awful on purpose to discourage overconsumption. Things would have to be so awful so much for the majority of the population that the prospect of death in battle would seem a fair trade for a shot at a paycheck and food that isn’t made from soy and recycled human waste.
With only a few days to think about the world-building and actually doing the writing work, I drew that crapsack world in rough sketches—just enough detail for the reader to get the idea, not so much that I’d have to spend weeks and months making up maps and diagrams and elaborate timelines. So Terms of Enlistment, the first Frontlines book, established the main conceit of the series, the grunt’s-eye view of the conflict, told in first person perspective. We see what the protagonist Andrew Grayson sees. We know about the world and its technology what he knows—no more, no less. It sort of puts the tech and the political machinations into the background bit and makes them scenery. With that kind of storytelling approach, other things move into the foreground: all the sensory details and awfulness of battle as experienced by the guy who doesn’t have a god’s eye view of events, filtered through the worldview and morality of a twenty-year-old kid from the future version of the projects.
With Chains of Command, the Frontlines series is now four books strong, with a fifth one in the works and a sixth under contract. My hasty half-ass first few chapters set the foundation for everything that followed, and it turned out to be a fortuitous restriction. With the immediate viewpoint and the broad-stroke pictures of the world as Andrew sees it, I was free to focus on character development instead of meticulous world-building and exposition. And as Andrew gets older and more experienced, the novels start addressing things that he would begin to think about after a few years of service to a system that tries to hold the lid down on a pot that’s about to boil over. Do you always follow orders, or are there just and unjust ones? At what point do you use your own judgment and question authority while fulfilling your oath of service? Military SF is often focused on the pulling of triggers (complete with three-page descriptions of the weapon system to which said trigger is attached), but how do you decide when not to pull the trigger?
Frontlines makes an attempt to address that conundrum, and it has been great and challenging fun to let young Andrew Grayson mature over the course of four novels and find his own answers to those questions.
Chains of Command:Amazon | Indiebound | Powell’s | Audible
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For the past couple of years, I’ve been hooked on Marko Kloos’ military science fiction Frontlines series. Set on an overpopulated Earth in 2108, it follows a soldier named Andrew Grayson who joins the military and ends up facing off against an overwhelming alien threat. It’s loaded with action, and in a publishing world where novelists are continually working to reinvent or subvert genre tropes, it’s refreshingly straight forward. The series authentically captures military culture, providing a glimpse into a lifestyle that the civilian world rarely sees through a sci-fi lens. Kloos recently published the sixth installment of the series, Points of Impact, and it’s the perfect time to jump in and check it out.
Spoilers for the series ahead.
An engrossing, action-packed series
The series begins with Terms of Enlistment, which Kloos originally self-published in 2013. We’re introduced to Grayson, who grew up in a dangerous welfare tenement in future Boston, where he faces two choices if he wants to escape the slums: win a lottery for a chance to settle on a distant planet, or join the military. He opts for the latter, and Kloos details his training, the weapons and equipment, and his entry into the North American Commonwealth’s (NAC) Territorial Army in a methodical manner that recalls Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.
He’s tasked with maintaining law and order in the country’s hellish Public Residence Clusters, only to be drummed out of the service after a battle that goes sideways. But he’s given another chance in the country’s spacefaring Navy, where the NAC faces off against terrestrial foes, such as the Sino-Russian Alliance, which also maintains a network of off-world colonies. In space, he reunites and falls in love with a fellow trainee, Diana Halley, a drop ship pilot.
Rather than just play out Cold War tensions in space, Kloos throws his characters a curve ball: aliens. Grayson, Halley, and their crew discover that an unknown species has appeared on a colonial planet, and they don’t have good intentions. Nicknamed Lankies, the 80-foot tall aliens are almost invincible on the battlefield, and before long, humanity is forced into retreat from its colonial holdings.
The sequel, Lines of Departure,picks up five years later, as the NAC continue to fight against the Russians and struggle to maintain a foothold in the galaxy. Grayson goes from a systems engineer on a fleet ship to combat controller — a special forces soldier who drops into hostile territory and guides in the Navy’s drop ships and fighters. Greyson and Halley are reassigned to a distant frozen colonial world named New Svalbard, where they help fend off a major Lankie invasion.
In Angles of Attack, they return, only to find that many in Earth’s government have fled to a safe world just as the Lankies invade our solar system, leaving the planet helpless. The invasion is thwarted nonetheless, and from there, Grayson and Halley are on the front lines of the war defending Earth’s Martian colonies from invasion and occupation. Kloos pits Grayson against not only hordes of nearly invincible enemies, but against his own fatigue after long years in the service.
Balancing Character and Plot
Military science fiction is perfect for long-running serial storytelling, but it can grow tedious and repetitive after a couple of installments of battle after battle. Kloos sticks to a familiar formula, but what makes these books stand out against the monotony is his balancing act of action and character development. They balance epic space battles and armored infantry battles on the ground against interludes of Grayson and Halley’s downtime and visits to their families. Each novel has its own focus: the defense of a planet, a major operation, or an attack, but the focus on their lives away from the battlefield is just as important.
Grayson starts off as a grunt looking for decent food and a chance for a better life off-world, but ends up fighting in the defense of Earth. While there’s value in the idea of defending one’s species from extinction, or more abstract concepts like honor and bravery, his visits to a quaint small town nestled in the green mountains of Vermont show us the future he’s fighting for. Grayson and Halley go off to serve in the depths of space, knowing full well that they might never see one another again, but when they’re in the thick of the fight, they have something that motivates them beyond simply not dying: each other.
Unity and adaptation
Reading Kloos’ books over the last couple of years has been an interesting exercise in watching a group of characters and the organizations they fight for adapt to a changing world. At the beginning of the series, the human race is fragmented along political and national boundaries: there’s the North American Commonwealth and the the Sino-Russian Alliance fighting for living space across the Galaxy, as well as factions from Europe and Africa. But when humanity is faced with an existential threat, those various governments start to put aside their arguments and work together. Grayson goes from fighting against Russian and Chinese soldiers to fighting alongside them, discovering that the political differences of their home countries don’t hold up on the battlefield against a common foe.
Just as the pivot from fighting human enemies to alien ones is also not an overnight process, we also see Grayson, Halley, and their comrades learn to adapt and survive through new tactics, new weapons, or even a bit of luck on the battlefield. It’s a transition that mirrors the changes in gear, tactics, and attitude that the US and allies have gone through during nearly two decades fighting in the Middle East. Kloos’ characters not only come to terms with new technologies that help them carry out their mission, but also how to fight alongside one another in order to return home at the end of the day.
An authentic military voice
Military science fiction is a strange genre. The entire subgenre owes a major debt to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and its focus on nationalism and sensational war-fighting technology means that it and its successors often feel as though it’s aimed only at one audience: the military. I don’t believe that military service is a prerequisite for writing a military science fiction story, but the culture is something that’s hard to replicate, and veterans and those closely familiar to the military world can easily pick out when something is off.
Kloos served in the German military as a junior non-commissioned officer at the tail end of the Cold War, and noted that he writes military science fiction in part because of his familiarity with military culture. The books in his series contain real moments from his time in the service, and he manages to distill the minutia of military culture into an accessible way that feels completely real. (Kloos has mentioned on Twitter that he’s received considerable positive feedback about his work from fellow veterans.)
Accuracy is important here, but not just because it helps the reader immerse themselves in the story. In the real world, the divide between the civilian and military worlds is incredibly wide, with repercussions for both. The military world can be a confusing, perplexing world for civilians to understand, and many in the military feel that this alienation has serious consequences: military recruiting is down, leaving units and ships dangerously short-staffed, while service members returning home from overseas have a difficult time relating with and integrating into the civilian world.
While science fiction itself often frames the world of science for readers outside of the scientific community, military science fiction can do the same for military culture, by providing insight into a very different world through an artistic lens. These books also help validate the experiences of veterans, signaling that someone out there is listening and working to translate this world for a wider audience.
The sixth and latest installment of the series, Points of Impact, appears to be the last for the short-term future. Kloos says he’s taking a break to launch a different series, but that he’s not done with Frontlines just yet. That’s fortunate, because Points of Impact doesn’t end on a definitive note, and there’s still a lot of material for the series to work with. It hasn’t explored the Lankies in depth beyond their appearances on the battlefield, and as the conflict continues, I’d like to see the characters continue to cope with the trauma and pressure that the war puts on them.
Although the series relies on a clear formula, it’s almost refreshing to read a series that doesn’t purport to dissect, invert, or upend conventional genre tropes, at a time when subversiveness has become the standard. Frontlines is earnest, optimistic, and fun, even as it deals with subject matter that’s intrinsically grim. It’s a story that strikes the perfect balance between escapism and serious reflection, and it’s the perfect military sci-fi series to escape into for a week or two.