Book Review: Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

(Note: just after I finished reading this book, Vox Day posted his own review of it. I did not read his review before writing mine, in order to avoid bias, but his review brings up a bunch of points that mine does not, and like everything else Vox writes is absolutely worth reading. Check it out here.)
Really good hard military sci-fi these days is not easy to find. The genre has devolved somewhat, but there are still some great writers out there- Timothy Zahn and David Weber come to mind. These are writers who can create convincing characters, interesting plots, terrifying enemies, and believable realities. Military sci-fi is a genre that is best written by those who have actually served in the military- but, paradoxically, those who have served are often not great writers (John Ringo's The Last Centurion comes to mind here). So it is worth commenting upon when one comes across a book that really is a good addition to the modern military sci-fi canon.

One book that should definitely be added to this list is Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos. The book's inspirations are clearly rooted in classics of the genre, specifically two books that are diametrically opposed in terms of political philosophy but still stand out as towering examples of what great sci-fi writers can do. These books are Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (for my money the finest mil-S/F book ever written), and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. ToE starts off with your typical Everyday Guy who goes on to become a war hero- it is very much your typical Hero's Journey book, in fact.
The book is the first part of what looks to be at least a trilogy's worth of adventures of one Andrew Grayson, a simple peon from one of the mega-cities of a rather grim (but not quite post-apocalyptic) future in which the world's teeming billions are packed into massive hive cities and subsist on whatever scraps their government can give them. The world of ToE is probably best thought of along the lines of "what would happen if the Cold War started up all over again". The world is divided into two major power blocs- the North American Commonwealth and the Sino-Russian Alliance- and both powers maintain extensive space colonies and massive colonisation programs up to a radius of about 40 light-years away from Earth. The competition between the two power blocs is intense and deadly, and it is because of their space colonisation programs that the world's population is left to rot in the squalor of the hive cities.

Into this rather dystopic background is thrust young Mr. Grayson, who looks to get away from Terra and into space, for a chance at a new life. The book takes obvious inspiration from Starship Troopers in its descriptions of Grayson's training during boot camp, and shows how Grayson persists and matures, growing from green cannon fodder to badass-in-training.

There is a lot to like about this book. The action is fast-paced; the vivid descriptions of the desperate battle that Grayson and his team fight during a pacification of an urban riot in Detroit are outstanding. The moral dilemmas faced by soldiers who have to deal with firing on fellow human beings who are trying to kill them and their squadmates are dealt with in summary fashion; there is no equivocation, no moralising about what needs to be done, no unnecessary hand-wringing about the right course of action. In this respect, this book is every bit an heir to Starship Troopers, underlining with perfect clarity what every real soldier knows to be true: as a soldier, you fight first and foremost for the brothers at your side. The enemies trying to kill you are just that- enemies. The dialogue is heavy on profanity, as it should be for infantry soldiers. The interactions between the soldiers in the book are believable, and you never get the impression that the protagonist is anything other than a regular human being trying to survive in a very hostile world- the Master Chief, he is not.

There are a few flaws, however. The military in this book is mixed-gender, and women fight on the front lines along with men. This is utterly laughable, as anyone who has even the slightest interest in military matters knows; even the Israeli military, which operates under a perpetual siege mentality, does NOT permit women to fight on the front lines, and there is no reason to imagine that a future fighting force will be rendered more effective by rescinding this rule. The aliens encountered towards the end of the book are not particularly believable (80-foot-tall aliens moving at great speed on a planet with near-Terrestrial gravity? Seriously?), and the manner in which faster-than-light travel is explained is essentially just a bit of hand-waving to get around the problem of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. The very best mil-S/F projects either never even attempt to address this problem (like Heinlein's work) or address it head-on (like Haldeman's use of relativistic effects to stretch a war out over a thousand years in real-time, or the HALO series' use of slipspace and Shaw-Fujikawa drives to explain FTL travel).

These flaws aside, this book is extremely readable; I zipped through it in a couple of days and I honestly cannot wait for the next book in the series. If you love great hard military sci-fi, in the tradition of Starship Troopers or the Starfire series by David Weber and Steve White (specifically, In Death Ground and The Shiva Option), then this book is for you. It shows great promise for an outstanding sci-fi series, and I for one am really looking forward to seeing it fulfil that promise.

Verdict: 4/5; not perfect, but a damn fine read and highly recommended.


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