Kloos, Marko. Terms of Enlistment.

Seattle: 47North, 2013.

I read a lot of science fiction and I read a lot of military history. But, frankly, I don’t read much military SF. A lot of it is just plain terrible, cartoonish, flag-waving, G.I. Joe stuff, filled with swaggering jargon and zap-guns, and it’s often obvious the author has no understanding of real strategy or tactics at all. The 1950s-vintage cover on this first (I think) novel by an author I had never heard of reinforced that expectation. But several friends whose taste I trust had given it glowing reviews, so I gave it a shot.

There are also good science fiction novels with a military theme, of course. Especially Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (yes, it’s a flag-waver, but it’s also a terrific romp), and Haldeman’s The Forever War (plenty of action but much more thoughtful behind it all) and most recently, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (a new approach to the theme with a noir flavor to it). All three have become well-deserved classics. And I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that Kloos is on his way to joining them.

It’s about a century from now and things are worse than ever. Nineteen-year-old Andrew Grayson has grown up as a “welfare rat” in one of the numerous PRCs — Public Residence Clusters — in Greater Boston and he yearns to escape. Think “urban projects,” but this is a thousand times worse. Against the odds, he’s managed to get a college education via the Net, but he’s also locked into the underclass and he’s going to be surviving on the government’s Basic Nutritional Allowance of a few thousand calories of processed soy per day for the rest of his life. The only realistic way out is to enlist in the North American Confederation’s military, hope to land in the Navy or the Marines, and be posted to one of the colony worlds. He might end up fighting the Sino-Russian Alliance occasionally, but that’s a small price for breathable air and a decent meal.

The military is much more selective than it used to be, but he makes it (or course, or there would be no story), and we follow him through Basic Training as he discovers an innate talent for soldiering and bonds with his squad mates — especially Halley, who becomes first a friend and then a bed-mate, and then a permanent part of his life. But she’s destined to be a drop-ship pilot and he ends up in the Territorial Army — the infantry, which stays on Earth and acts as the government’s guard dogs against its own people. But Andrew is destined for an interesting career and he eventually finds himself in the Navy after all, running the “neural networks” on a starship, which puts him right in the thick of whatever’s happening. And all this training will become very useful when his unit meets the eighty-foot-tall outsiders who have their own eye on the worlds humans have terraformed.

I won’t go farther into the plotline except to say that it’s a doozy. The author has thought everything out very carefully and never loses control of the story or the characters in it. There are lots of technological changes from our time, of course, what with FTL drive and nearly sentient battle armor, but an infantryman is still a grunt. He also has a knack for inventing bits of jargon that tell you instantly what they refer to without further explanation, which smoothes the narrative very nicely. Andrew is a very sympathetic and engaging character, too. He’s one of the Good Guys and he worries about things while trying not to. He matures over the course of the story and those parts of his world that he accepted without question at the beginning now give him pause. The supporting cast is also nicely developed, especially Staff Sergeant Fallon, who hasn’t let her Medal of Honor distract her from being every officer’s nightmare if she thinks things are being mishandled.

It’s always nice to discover a new author who seems likely to become one of those whose new books you will keep an eye out for and buy automatically. Writers you don’t even need to read the reviews on. I’m confident Kloos will be joining that short list.

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