RogerBW's Blog

Terms of Enlistment, Marko Kloos 21 July 2015

2013 SF. Andrew Grayson is a long-term welfare recipient, and there are only two ways out: hope to win a lottery for the colony worlds, or sign up with the military. He's going for option B.

Well, all right, so this is fairly conventional stuff: a bit of Aliens, a bit of Starship Troopers, a bit of Blackhawk Down. Perhaps it's having recently read A Soldier's Duty that makes me more inclined to favour it: again, all the usual tropes are here, but they're done with just that shade more enthusiasm. Johnson seemed to be writing military SF because she had set out to write military SF for some reason that's not yet clear; Kloos is apparently writing military SF because he likes the stuff and wants to see it done right.

The doors of the bus open, and before any of us can contemplate whether we ought to stay in our seats or show initiative and get off the bus, a soldier comes up the stairs at the front of the bus. He is wearing camouflage utility fatigues. His sleeves are rolled up neatly, with crisp edges in the folds, and the bottom of the sleeve is rolled back down over the fold so the camouflage pattern covers the lighter-colored liner of the fatigue jacket. There's a rank device on his collar, and there are many more chevrons and rockers on it than on the collar of the sergeant who accepted my enlistment papers back at the recruiting station. This soldier's expression is one of mild irritation, as if our arrival has interrupted some enjoyable activity.

Characterisation is very basic, even of the protagonist, even though the book is written in first-person present tense. Grayson starts with a surprisingly educated voice and a taste for Moby-Dick, though it's unclear how he's acquired either; he has no friends back in the welfare block, but has no trouble getting on with his fellow recruits during the basic training that constitutes the first major section of the book. (He even starts a romantic relationship which he manages to continue, long-distance, after she's posted off-world and he's stuck on Earth.)

Basic training is the same for everyone in the North American Commonwealth military, but while the best go to the Navy and most go to the Marines (both services fight the Sino-Russians in deep space and on colony worlds, since a treaty prevents active conflict on Earth), the worst (or so everyone believes) go to the Army which stays on Earth and performs police actions. (Actually it's called the Territorial Army, for no obvious reason.)

Part of the problem here is that Grayson doesn't really seem to face any particular adversity: he's neither top nor bottom of his classes, he seems to pick up training with no trouble, and he never seems either to be facing particularly hard challenges or to care much about what he does face. That changes a little when he's sent on an urban pacification mission, on a small team that goes out to recover the crew of a crashed dropship; this is blatantly the Blackhawk Down segment, but is still pretty effective for all its derivative nature.

As a result of that, and for reasons of politics, Grayson manages a transfer to the Navy, where his girlfriend has just completed flight training.

The pods on the simulated destroyer don't launch out of the hull, of course. We rush to the nearest escape hatches, slide down into the pods, and activate the hatch controls. The pod gives a little jolt to simulate a successful launch, and then the exercise is over. I notice that everyone's pod makes it off the ship and into space, and I wonder just how often a pod evac results in a hundred-percent evacuation rate. The instructor in charge of the exercise just smiles when I ask him that question on the way out of the simulator, and I draw my own conclusions.

He ends up as a network administrator (a job Kloos has also done), and when his ship's shot down over a colony world… well, things get entirely too exciting, and the situation has definitely Changed by the end of the book.

So the story is nothing amazing in itself, and nor are the characters, but it held my interest and shows a certain amount of promise; a lot depends on the directions in which it goes next. I'm told that this series takes off with the second book, Lines of Departure.

(There are also two chapbooks, Lucky Thirteen and Measures of Absolution, which fit between this and Lines of Departure. Lucky Thirteen is straight military anecdote, quite fun but nothing special; Measures of Absolution deals with one of the other soldiers after that urban pacification mission, coming to terms with just how pointless the job is, and discovering who the opposition might really be.)

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See also:
A Soldier's Duty, Jean Johnson


  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 02:40pm on 21 July 2015

    I went to look at it on Amazon and the blurb/review said it was in the great tradition of "Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman and John Scalzi".

    And I thought 'What? All of them? At once?'

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:43pm on 21 July 2015

    There are certainly elements of all of them, though not together; it's very derivative in places. Definitely has its moments, though.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 03:00pm on 21 July 2015

    Mike, underestimating the superficiality of blurb writers normally requires scaffolding and power tools. All that means is "Military SF, not modelled exactly on any one writer the blurber has read."

  4. Posted by Michael Cule at 07:47pm on 21 July 2015

    Oh, I know that John It's just that I wonder if people actually listen to what they're saying most of the time.

  5. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 04:41pm on 22 July 2015

    Though I do get Mike's credulity ping from the differences between "Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman and John Scalzi" I'd read this as shorthand for, "This is good, read it."

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 10:02am on 23 July 2015

    Possibly also "military SF isn't a recognised publishing category that we can put on the spine, but if we name these authors you can think about the subjects that all three of them covered".

  7. Posted by Dr Bob at 10:20pm on 23 July 2015

    I enjoyed this better than the Jean Johnston mary-sue one, but still felt it was rather flatly written. I was kind of expecting punchier prose for something that was (briefly) on the Hugo ballot.

    And oh god Boot Camp. Please, please, please can people stop writing about Boot Camp unless they are going to do it in some new or different way? Or post a public health warning on the book: "To avoid Boot Camp, skip from page 10 to page 42". :-)

  8. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 04:10pm on 27 July 2015

    Gotta have a good boot-camp scene, it lets the reader know that the story is leaving the civilian world for a life in the Army as per the lyrics of the song.

    We're in the army now.
    We're not behind a plow.
    We'll never get rich a-diggin' a ditch. *
    We're in the army now.
    We're in the army now.
    Suppose you wonder how.
    But don't you fear. Yo

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