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Terms of Enlistment: I’m On Board

12 Aug

I’m interested in writing, and if you want to write science fiction, then a handy resource is the website Atomic Rockets. Not exactly a wiki, but an extensive resource for scientific and artistic precedents for a number of tropes and tricks in the field of space settings, starships and futuristic tech.

Doing Science Fiction Spring a few months back gave me the idea of shopping around it looking for any names of authors I hadn’t heard of, and stumbled upon one that caught my eye as being a relatively recent military sci-fi, and a little different than most.

Terms of Enlistment by German-American author Marko Kloos features Andrew Grayson, a plebeian living in a decrepit, dead-end public housing project in the megacity that used to be Boston. He’s made up his mind to leave the foul air, squalid housing, black marketeering and inedible synthetic food dole to enlist in the military, as a way to make his fortune and as a final insult to his dying deadbeat father, who himself washed out of the Basic Training program.

Grayson endures the rigors of Basic, has a heady romance with a hotshot young pilot-to-be, and then is dismayed to find himself assigned to the Territorial Army, rather than to the spacegoing navy or marines. His duty is to fight agents of minor governments and rebels, proxies of the other super blocs running the Earth, and sometimes his own fellow plebs when they rise up.

However, following a disastrous fight against uncannily well-armed rioters in Detroit, Grayson narrowly avoids being scapegoated with the help of his highly-honoured sergeant and is transferred to being a technical rating in the navy. But no sooner are his beloved and he reunited than they are sent to a colony world under threat, and find themselves in the middle of the very first alien invasion humankind has ever undergone.

If I seem to have given a rather more indepth explanation of the plot than usual, it’s because any less would make this story seem a lot more two dimensional than it is. It’s written in first person, but otherwise is the first in a series written in the classic ‘Military Career’ narrative that includes such vaunted series as Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe and Honor Harrington.

In that context, the plot structure of the story is a bit odd. Not bad, just odd. Grayson starts out in the Territorials, has two engagements, is in the process of learning the ropes, hits his first crisis and…transfers to another branch. All the characters built up around him are set aside – not discarded, but no longer active in the story – and it’s as if it all starts over again. The author is playing a long game here, and one supposes that the first round of buildup is going to prove important later. Still, it would be nice if I had some assurance of that. My personal preference is that the first book in a series should be able to stand on its own. Sabriel is a good example of this, as are longer series like the Laundry and Dresden Files and the early Honor Harrington books. But even books like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are structured in such a way that the narrative is tied off at the end – you know there’s more to come, but you’ve been satisfied for the time being. Ending on a complete cliffhanger – also something Leviathan and Divergent do – don’t so much entice you to read the next book as require you to.

That said, if I was going to be required to read this series, I wouldn’t mind. It reminds me of a lot of things. The government dole and dilapidated housing Grayson rises from reminds me of the dolists from the People’s Republic of Haven in Honor Harrington. The dismal lifestyle on a polluted Earth and the popularity of exodus to new colonies among the stars evokes Blade Runner.

It’s interesting to note that the author has himself done soldiering. And that’s probably behind the fact that while it has resemblances to both, I find it more palatable than, say Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers (the movie, that is).

A lot of the story is taken up with Grayson’s endurance of Basic, the initial training course that tests new recruits before they’re dispatched to their service branches and more specialized training. But it’s kind of interesting and nuanced to show the trainers as tough-but-fair, the training intensive but not inhumane.

Despite occasional echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the society – a huge underclass in a world of political super-blocs operating under limited rules of conflict – there is no political indoctrination or brainwashing. Despite the echoes of Ender’s Game – a young man confronted with the oncoming threat to humankind – the uniformed characters are rough-edged, flawed, but well-rounded characters, not a monotony of violent psychopaths. They also develop esprit de corps, respecting and working with each other, rather than being trained the Ender’s Game/Divergent way of fighting and bullying one another.

At the same time, the society has noticeably changed in positive ways as well. Nobody bats an eye at gender integration of the military – as in Starship Troopers, even the showers are co-ed – and enormous leaps in technology have taken place.

I suppose if anything I’m not completely sold on the nanny-state dystopia that Grayson grows up in, when a cyber punk coporatocracy a la Blade Runner seems a lot more relevant (and likely) at this point in history, and in the setting as depicted, but that’s dangerously close to the ‘not what I would have written’ style of critique. I do like the idea that terraforming other planets has rendered them habitable but not exactly familiar or pleasant, and the aliens are, to put it mildly, quite unusual.

This is a young adult book, I think. There’s very little nuanced political commentary of a work aimed at older readers. It is interesting and varied, not ultra-profound, but a fascinating everyman perspective, not relentlessly bleak or loudly ideological. At the same time, it is, essentially, a jolly good read.

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Posted by on August 12, 2015 in Book

 

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