The Big Idea: Marko Kloos
Posted on April 26, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
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
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow the author on Twitter.
Like many science fiction fans, when I think of military sci-fi, I think Scalzi!
Must download it today Marko. Thanks for sharing the inception of the series.
I’m currently reading Book 2, having recently jumped on board this train. Loving it! I prefer my giraffes with an extra helping of character, and these books provide it.
As a fellow VP grad (2013 class), I’m ashamed to say I’ve had Terms of Enlistment on my kindle since it got published, and have yet to read it. This essay made me decide it’s up next in the reading queue.
Congratulations on the series taking off like this, Marko!
I have read book 1, 2, and I am now starting on book 3. The books are highly enjoyable and if you liked OMW, I think you will enjoy this series. I am recommending this series to all my friends who enjoy SF in general.
I am also happy to see that this series will be extended to a 6th book. Congrats on the success. Look forward to more stuff from Mr. Kloos.
I’ve only gotten to the Funeral, but so far it’s setting up quite well. I like the fact that it would feel ok as a stand alone book, but that would be a dreadful mistake… I expect that the proverbial fan will turn browner and smelly any second…
I am very pleased to see Mr Kloos get his due. I found ‘Terms’ on Amazon a while back – ‘Lines of Departure’ was already written – and was hooked from Page One. I’ve been a devoted reader ever since and just gobbled up ‘Chains’ a few days ago.
This is a series that can easily go another half dozen volumes without becoming repetitious and I hope Mr Kloos stays the course.
Just finished that book, and I’m patiently waiting for round 5
Thanks for the heads up! I just downloaded the new book. Kloos is producing some of the best MIL SF around these days.
That’s odd… the only electronic version I could find was the Kindle version.
Must be a contractual thing.
I’ve been meaning to try out the Kindle anyway — I just bought the first book in this series.
I love this series, and I’m glad to see it featured in the Big Idea! I’m currently about halfway through the audiobook of Chains and it’s fantastic, as expected. The way the series is growing has been really fun to follow.
I am ordering this as soon as I get to my new address!
This is a great series, and this latest installment is excellent. There are two elements that raise it above most other mil-SF I read:
1) The aliens are just plain interesting. They’re different from the usual antagonists, who tend to fall towards the “basically human with some weird elements” end of the spectrum. Which I enjoy, to be fair. The Lankies, though, are fascinating because they’re so different. Their sheer size, first of all, coupled with the fact that humanity really has no idea what makes them tick. I’m really hopeful that books five and six will start revealing more of their psychology and culture.
2) The humans are just plain assholes. Not all of them, obviously, but enough of them to make things much worse than they have to be. Most mil-SF settings that include humans waging war against each other show said humans uniting when aliens arrive to threaten the entire species. That happens here, too, but only after a depressingly realistic amount of time where the humans continue trying to kill each other as well as fight off the Lankies. And then the ultimate bit of assholery that ended the last book and forms the basis of the plot for this one just puts a lovely cherry on the top of the shit sundae that is humanity.
Great books, go read ’em.
Going to have to go look for these. I am a huge fan of the approach Marko speaks of here, where the worldbuilding is part of the background scenery and you come to understand the environment of the author’s universe through the characters’ experience of it, not through them monologuing about it for pages.
I humbly suggest getting a Kindle Fire, buying this book, and then adding the Audible.com audio book for only $1.99.
1. Mr. Kloos deserves all the sales we can possibly give him. Remember last year when he renounced a Hugo nomination for book #3 in this series?
2. The combo of ebook and audible book on the Fire platform is awesome IMHO. It lets you listen when in the car, and keeps track of where you are when it’s time to go back to reading actual words.
(I have no affiliation with Amazon, except as a happy customer.)
@Rick Mr. Kloos’ publisher is 47 North, Amazon’s imprint. Not surprisingly, the e-book is limited to Amazon’s platform.
I love the Frontlines series, for all the reasons Marko mentioned. Both books I’ve read (the first two) had the feeling of someone just telling it like it is rather than being overly jingoistic or anti-war, which was a nice little change. Plus sometimes it’s just straight up funny. Looking forward to being able to delve deeper into Andrew’s psyche and see what else you got!
I’ve read every one of these (since Lines of Departure) the day it came out, and loved each one. I was especially happy to read your afterword in Chains of Command. You were ill used by the puppies, and it should not have cost you a Hugo. Hopefully Mr. Scalzi’s gift of Scotch soothed the burn somewhat. Please, keep up the great work!
I’ve been meaning to pick these up, particularly since the author showed himself to be a person worthy of respect last year.
Woot. I first heard about the Frontlines series on Whatever, there was something that Scalzi posted about it.
I’ve been reading them as quickly as they come out. Once I saw this posted yesterday, I bought it and read it on the plane ride from PHL to ATL. Thanks for the reading material, Mr. Kloos. It’s some fun stuff.
How dare you think about human issues instead of just hardware! :)
Just read Terms of Enlistment and liked it quite a lot. You’re not Linda Nagata, :) but the potential is there and your aliens are quite interesting, so I’m going to check out what they do next. Andrew doesn’t wallow that much over dilemmas in the first book — he knows the odds are stacked against him in every direction. But it’s his grim determination in the face of all those odds that keeps you interested in where he’s going and he does have a learning curve, which is always good.
Also, should you ever decide to actually write The Journeys of Generica: Book One of the Derivative Kingdoms Saga, I would totally read that. Or maybe Scalzi will let you take a crack at continuing The Shadow War of the Night Dragons for him.
I’ve enjoyed this series since Terms of Enlistment, and for precisely the reasons that the author mentioned. Having served in the US armed forces, the dialogue and environment ring true. I’m loving Chains of Command so far, and I’ll be looking enthusiastically for the subsequent books!
I just picked up Terms of Enlistment based on this column, unwisely since it’s a week before finals. I like it a lot.
And, as for “The Journeys of Generica”…the Belgeriad is generic as hell, with pretty much every trope in the books, and yet it’s a cracking good read. I think you’ve got the talent to pull off something like that, Mr. Kloos. Or just go full parody, that would be worth a good laugh, too.