The Big Idea: Marko Kloos
Posted on July 5, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
Military science fiction is a popular genre, and certainly Marko Kloos knows that, having written the very successful “Frontlines” series. But for his new series, which begins with Aftershocks, Kloos decided he wanted to try a different strategy, regarding “MilSF.” Here he is to explain it. Giraffes may be involved.
A good friend once told me that people who go to the zoo come in only two kinds: those who are happy to see the giraffes again, and those who aren’t. Military science fiction is very much a genre for readers who like to see the giraffes again. They know it’s going to be about war because it says so right on the tin. And there are plenty of military SF writers providing the metaphorical giraffes: armored space marines, bravery, sacrifice, and jingoistic gun fetish baloney.
But the best novels in the genre were written by people who used the medium of speculative fiction to work out their wartime experiences. Jerry Pournelle and Gene Wolfe served in Korea. Joe Haldeman and David Drake are Vietnam veterans, as is Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, whose Nebula-winning “The Healer’s War” was based on her experiences as a combat nurse in Vietnam. Not coincidentally, military SF is where some of the most authentic and honest war narratives can be found. Writers like Haldeman will let you look at the giraffes only very briefly as they speed-walk you past the exhibit to more interesting sights.
I am fortunate enough to lack wartime experiences to work out in my fiction. I did serve, but in a peacetime army, training for a war that luckily never came. When I wrote the first book in my Frontlines series, I wanted to have a way to use the memories from my service before they faded from memory. Frontlines takes some good looks at the effects of war on the people we send to fight them, but mostly it’s still a “young man goes to war” narrative, with the genre-obligatory boot camp sequence and dramatic space battles. It’s not the giraffe exhibit, but it’s a bit giraffe-adjacent at times. For my new series, I wanted to take a conscious detour around that place from the start.
When I came up with the idea for a new book a while back, I tried to imagine what the exact negative of the “young man goes to war” scenario could look like. I landed at “old(er) man comes home from war.” And that made me think of a bit of family history, and the only person I knew as a child who had come home from war.
You see, my grandfather fought in a war, and he fought for the wrong side.
It wasn’t just the wrong side in a winner-rewrites-history, Richard III sort of wrong. His side wasn’t just wrong, they were unequivocally the bad guys, and history is pretty unanimous about it.
I couldn’t tell you what he did in the war because he never talked about it. When I was little, I asked him a few times what it was like, but he always deflected the question and moved on to a different subject. I know from the family records I kept that he wasn’t what military people call a trigger-puller, a soldier in a combat function. He was a stoker on military trains, which means he shoveled coal into boilers. But his theater of operations was the Eastern Front, which saw the most ferocious fighting and the worst atrocities of the war. Millions died on both sides. It was savage, no-quarter-given brutality. I can only imagine the kinds of things he saw. But he kept his memories locked up for the rest of his life, so I’ll never know for sure. Was he trying to forget? Was he ashamed of the cause he had supported? What did the world look like to him when he came home? How did he even begin to rebuild his life after losing his old one so completely?
And just like that, I had my Big Idea for the new novel.
What if you fought on the wrong side, and you lost?
Watching people pick up the pieces seemed much more interesting than watching them kick those pieces over. So much war fiction deals with the war itself, but what happens when the guns fall silent, and everybody tries to go on with life?
I started to imagine a place where the war has already happened, and where people are still dealing with the aftermath, sweeping up the broken bits and patching things up. I wanted to see what it would be like for the people on either side of the conflict, and what they would do with the hands they had dealt themselves. The ones who started the war and then lost, trying to come to terms with the fact that they spent their lives in the service of an unjust cause. Their children, faced with having to atone for the sins of their parents. The winners, juggling their desires for retribution, the need for justice, and the responsibilities of power. What kind of shockwaves would ripple through a system economy where everyone is dependent on everyone else? And how would a society react to outsiders trying to impose the will of the victors and uprooting centuries-old institutions and cultural norms in the process?
The result is called Aftershocks, first in a series called “The Palladium Wars”.
When an earthquake happens, the seismic event doesn’t stop after the big tremors are over. You get aftershocks, which are smaller quakes that follow weeks, months, or even years later. The bigger the quake, the stronger and more frequent the aftershocks. They are dangerous because they are unpredictable, and they can collapse what was previously only damaged. It seemed like the perfect title for a novel about what happens when people try to rebuild their lives when the ripples of their actions are still kicking up the rubble when they least expect it.
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.
I don’t know if Mr Kloos will ever see this, but I can give my perspective on his questions about why veterans don’t tel people about heir war time experience. I served as a tank and then scout platoon leader for the first 15 months of the Iraq war while I was with the US 1st Armored Division, then as an advisor to NATO and USMC forced in Helmand province in 2010. The guys (and gals) who don’t talk (chatty ones are more often than not lying blowhards who didn’t actually do anything) know that “normal” people don’t understand the full range of emotions attached to the events and memories they have. “Normal” people can try to sympathize, and maybe went though tough things in life, but the highs and lows of military combat are nearly indescribable, and we come across as weirdos at best. You’ve never known fear, love, hate, doubt, regret, and sorrow like you will during and after (if there is an after) combat. We keep quiet because we don’t want you to look at us like we are damaged and we don’t want to look at you with pity because you’re viewed haven’t been tempered with fire like it’s have. We all have our view of the “real” world, and it’s different enough that we don’t want to argue or lose friends over it.
Sorry about the misspelling and grammar issues. I hate typing on my phone, just thought I could weigh in and now I feel like an illiterate moron for not proof reading that before finishing.
Thanks Troy. Although I can thank you only in ignorance of the realities of combat, I am still deeply grateful.
And this is why I read posts by authors whose work “I’m not interested in.” I’m not much for giraffe or giraffe-adjacent books, so this may be the intro to Kloos for me.
Oh hell yes. It’s a Marko Kloos book, so I preordered it right away.
And, now it resides in my Kindle fighting with Artificial Condition and The Fated Sky for next up.
Got this as soon as it was available, and finished it in one sitting. Well — more or less one sitting. I’m way too old for all-nighters. Read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open and finished it the next morning. Very entertaining, and most important to me — interesting. Lots of fascinating characters that I can’t wait to learn more about.
And keep your eyes open for a cameo appearance by someone we all know and love.
“Jingoistic gun fetish baloney.” You say it like it’s BAD!?
But seriously, this sounds interesting.
Of course other European nations were part of the Axis too, but as regards Germany specifically, I liked the translation of the book by Hannah Vogt, The Burden of Guilt. Written for German teens, but snapped up by adults, (the first print run swiftly sold out) she wrote it because kids kept asking her about history, and none of their parents were talking.
… I have a childhood memory of lining up my toy soldiers, in two colors, in lines like chessmen, with kneeling bazooka guys for rooks, and being struck by a horrid thought… I went into the next room and looked up at my parents to ask, “Dad, when you were in the war, were you one of the good guys or the bad guys?” Dad looked down at me and said, “Both sides think they are the good guys.” I was content with that.
In order to make some sense of my own (not war-related, thank God!) PTSD, I’ve been reading a lot of the literature on PTSD, and it talks a lot about the experiences of people who’ve been in combat. It changes you, at the very least because you now know from personal experience that those awful things that nobody who’s live a “normal” life can conceive of absolutely do happen.
You can’t talk about them to anyone who hasn’t been through it; first of all, because they have no referents for anything you tell them. It’s just too far from their experience. But second of all, because nobody wants to hear it. Most people want to believe that the world they live in is safe. They don’t want to know about the horrors that lurk just around the corner, and if you try to talk about it with ordinary people, they look at you like you’re the Grim Reaper crashing their garden party. They don’t understand and they don’t want to understand. So you learn not to say anything about it to anyone until they’ve proven that they want to understand.
I remember reading an article by a filmmaker who’d been through a war, and he said that he and lots of other veterans had tried making movies that they hoped would get across the trauma and horror of those experiences, and they would find out to their dismay that all their audiences took away from the films was how cool and exciting combat is. There’s nothing like telling someone about the experiences that maimed your soul and left you with nightmares for the rest of your life, and having them respond that they wished they had been there, to make you want to not talk about it to anyone who wasn’t there.
In an interesting coincidence, I was reading this post, and an aftershock happened. Guess I need to buy it.
I just went over to Amazon and they said I could read it for free. Sure that’s good for me, but how is that good for the writer. Oh well, at least I paid for all the Frontlines books so I’m not a complete moocher.
Steve Cross, there’s an old sf tradition known as a Tuckerism, which is much like a cameo.
I’m a little over half way through Aftershocks (life gets in the way or I would be done) and it’s every bit as good as I expected. This is a terrific way to talk about war and I’m completely enraptured. I didn’t stumble onto Frontlines after all the books had been published, so I binged the entire series one after the other. Now I have to wait around for some tortuously long period until the next book comes out — and then the next and the next. Maybe I should have waited for a few years but I’m too old to take chances like that.
I didn’t expect the opposite of a young man going to war to be an old man, I expected it to be an old woman. On that subject, I read the The Pendulum by Julie Lindahl, about her and her grand parents. It’s quite interesting and quite scary.
This is a must read. My dad missed WW2 by a hair’s breath, certainly did not “miss” much else coming from the Soviet Union. If ever there there was a situation where there were no good guys, only two shades of bad in a struggle to the finish it was the eastern front in WW 2. My family were Ukrainians. Those of you who know your history can fill in the blanks in what I won’t say here except it was as bad as the human experience gets. We can sugar coat war, but the idea of being on the wrong side and knowing it is a unique way to make clear the real cost of warfare on people. War can be fought for strategic reasons, for idealogical reasons, or out of need, but the end result must be borne by the people who experience it.
Thanks for writing a book that shows this. I love military fiction, but grew up in a family that carried scars across several generations for being in the wrong place, on the wrong side and never quite knowing which side was the worse one.
Looking forward to this though I’m only on “Angles of Attack” (was late to the party).