One of my favorite indulgences is reading science fiction books about humans fighting for the survival of our species against strange and interesting aliens. I’ve read many books in the alien sci-fi genre including some of the more notable ones like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series and and James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series (now an excellent Netflix series). These are both worthy selections that demonstrate the very pinnacle of science fiction, however, my true love lies with lesser known authors I’ve discovered through Amazon.
As you can see from this post’s image, my two favorites, at the moment, are Marko Kloos and M.R. Forbes. My resumé includes far more of M.R. Forbes works because I only recently discovered Mr. Kloos’s work, but I can already say I enjoy Kloos’s writing more. Interestingly, Kloos’s work has all been in English while he is a native German speaker.
What follows is a lengthy critique of Kloos’s Frontline Series.
Marko Kloos’s: The Frontline Series
The world that Kloos creates strikes a stunning balance between futurism and believability. Some of the qualities of his world are tried and true tropes of the times to come like a national basic allowance for the citizens of an overpopulated North America or the thronged masses of people squeezed into a dense jungle of government housing. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One employed this theme of a world so full of humanity that it has neither enough jobs nor enough resources to go around leaving its occupants with no choice but to waste away on flavorless food living equally flavorless lives.
What sets Kloos apart is the depth he gives to these and other elements of his stories. He deftly wields the use of contrast and minute details to reveal a world that absorbs the reader. For instance, the following excerpt taken from Chapter 1 of Terms of Enlistment describes the main character’s, Andrew Grayson’s, room in one of the high-rise projects mentioned earlier:
My room is just big enough for a bed, desk, and dresser. The furniture is made out of stainless steel, bolted to the floor so we can’t dismantle it for scrap. The dresser is half empty. I don’t own enough stuff to fill it up.
I open the top drawer, and toss the book reader onto the small pile of clothes inside. I traded a box of ancient rimfire ammunition for it last year, and the guy who traded with me thought I was a complete moron. The school property stickers are impossible to remove, but the public-housing police don’t get excited about school hardware. When they do their sweeps, they only look for guns and drugs. I could keep the book reader hidden if I wanted, but the cops get suspicious when they find nothing illicit at all.Kloos, Marko. Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines Book 1) (pp. 2-3). Kindle Edition.
Notice how he contrasts prison-like furniture with the fact that it occupies a person’s home. After that, he contrasts a stolen e-reader with the ammunition a teenager traded for it. Not only are these details startling to the reader, they are believable and paint a world that is as interesting as it is unsettling.
By the end of Chapter 1, I was already hooked; thus, Chapter 2 was the yank on the line of a caught fish, driving the hook even deeper to the point that I couldn’t put the book down. As you may have gathered from my resumé, I spent 13 years in the U.S. Army and find myself reading military fiction through the lenses of my personal experiences. Kloos served in post Cold War West German Army for several years and borrows heavily from his own life when crafting these stories. The following quote from Chapter 2 provides a perfect example:
We arrive at the base at four o’clock in the morning. The shuttle was airborne for four hours. We could be anywhere in the North American Commonwealth, from northern Canada to the Panama Canal…
The bus ride takes another two hours. We soon leave the clean streets of this unknown city behind, and the landscape outside is almost alien in its undeveloped state, like the surface of a strange and distant colony planet. I see low rocky hills and scrub-like vegetation that sparsely covers the hillsides. We arrive at the base at four o’clock in the morning. The shuttle was airborne for four hours. We could be anywhere in the North American Commonwealth, from northern Canada to the Panama Canal…
We get out of our seats and file out onto the concrete lot. There are rows of yellow footprints on the ground, and we each find a spot.Kloos, Marko. Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines Book 1) (p. 14-17). Kindle Edition.
As I read this, I found myself remembering my first plane flight, the one that took me to Springfield, Missouri. I remembered the hour and a half bus ride from that airport to Fort Leonard Wood. I remembered the Drill Sergeants that mounted the bus at 3 A.M. and ordered a load of tired, disoriented, and scared recruits to form up in front of the 43d AG Reception Battalion.
Later in Chapter 2 and in Chapter 4, he again prompts long-forgotten memories and emotions from my time in Basic Combat Training:
It feels strangely liberating to do precisely as instructed. I don’t have to worry about displeasing the sergeant as long as I follow his orders exactly…
When you do exactly as you’re told, and you’re neither the best nor the worst at any task, you can disappear in the crowd and have a small measure of solitude.Kloos, Marko. Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines Book 1) (p. 20, 43). Kindle Edition.
Despite all the stress a recruit encounters as they are being molded into a Soldier, knowing that if you do exactly as you’re told you will survive is a freeing notion. And, as my grandfather (also a veteran) advised me before I left for the Army, “never volunteer for a damn thing.” His words of wisdom resonated in my mind the entire time I was in Basic Training. More often than not, their meaning was more accurately interpreted as “don’t stand out.” I even recall one Drill Sergeant telling us, during our first week, that he didn’t know our names then and, if we did well, he wouldn’t know our names when we graduated.
Once again, Kloos precisely summarizes these sentiments:
It’s a strange feeling to be walking in lockstep with a bunch of people dressed exactly alike. I feel like a cog in a machine, but that’s one part of the military I don’t mind.Kloos, Marko. Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines Book 1) (p. 43). Kindle Edition.
You see, the entire point of Basic Training is to teach you to function as part of a greater whole; not standing out, not being remembered, and doing exactly what you’re told are all essential skills for this job. Having served, Kloos has absorbed these lessons as a part of his character in ways that non-veterans cannot. It is these nuggets of truth that lend so much more credence and believability to his writing that many sci-fi novels lack.
Enough about the author’s biography, let’s move on to the plot of this series…
One disclaimer before I proceed…I have not finished the entire series, yet. At the time of this writing, I am half-way through the third book, “Angles of Attack.”
From a 30,000 feet perspective, the protagonist of the series is Andrew Grayson. In the first book, he has just graduated from High School and tried his luck by entering a lottery for joining the military. Fortunately, he was lucky enough to win and be accepted. Following basic training, he is assigned to the Territorial Army — a Federal Police that primarily concerns itself with enforcing law and order in the myriad projects across North America.
Once he reaches his line unit, Andrew goes out on a mission that ends with massive civilian casualties. In an effort to place blame, the army selects him as its scapegoat. Andrew negotiates a deal to be reassigned to the navy, far from Earth and its media, and the TA concedes to his demands to avoid worsening their public image (i.e. they sweep everything neatly under the proverbial rug.)
Humanity has managed to reach for the stars using space warping machines called Alcubierre drives. The navy’s primary missions are protecting North America from space-borne attacks and patrolling its intergalactic settlements. In an effort to alleviate the pressures of an overpopulated world, terraforming and colonization efforts are fully underway.
On his first mission with the navy, Andrew’s ship comes under attack by the first alien life form discovered. These creatures are affectionately dubbed “lankies” due to their 50 foot tall, skinny frames.
I’ll stop here, as I don’t want to spoil too much of the story.
I’ll critique his book from four aspects: plot, characters, environment, and technology. These are the four components of a sci-fi story that make it or break it, in my opinion.
I’ll reiterate the fact that I’m only half-way through the third book.
The plot of this series is almost cliché: humanity comes in contact with aliens, aliens make a move on the Earth, and hero(es) must stop aliens.
What I appreciate about Kloos is that he devoted two entire novels to building up to the aliens’ move on Earth. These first two novels did a phenomenal job of developing the other three components I’ll be critiquing (characters, environment, and technology). Without them, this series would have been just another addition to the barrel of boring alien sci-fi novels.
The author did an interesting job of weaving suspense into his plot, as well. For the first two novels, Kloos leaves the reader to wonder how and why the “lankies” keep following humanity around the universe and then stealing planets from us. In fact, the question was almost annoyingly stuck in the back of my mind as I read: why are these aliens fighting us and stealing our planets when there’s an entire universe to choose from?
Though I haven’t finished the series, yet, I can say, with some certainty, that Kloos follows the traditional 5 phases of a story and that the third novel serves as the second phase (rising action) of the overall series — our protagonist finally discovers a way to effectively mount an offensive on the Lankies.
I believe Kloos did a commendable job of making the first two novels interesting even when they ultimately did little more than set the scene. Following the protagonist from his introduction through his development into not just a hero but an interesting person was both fun and engrossing.
Finally, Kloos’s experience with the military aided him in building a believable and logical sequence of events for the plot. From the recruiting station to basic training…from unit assignment to deployments…from the absurd but realistic military bureaucracy and the incompetent narcissists that run it…Kloos perfectly portrays the military. On a personal note, it was a consolation to realize his experience with and disappointment in the German military’s bureaucratic ways mirrored my own with America’s military.
I have already touched on characters, but I will try to honor Kloos’s work by devoting a few more words to them.
The author did a phenomenal job developing Andrew. It is clear from the beginning that he is driven to do more than survive in life. Kloos shows how Andrew was shaped by his childhood, tenement home, absent father, gang violence, subsistence living, and the general state of the world. He continues to use the plot and, most interestingly, other characters to further develop Andrew’s character. Most notably, MSG Fallon and Andrew’s girlfriend, Diana Halley, make substantial contributions toward building the end result that is Andrew Grayson.
Despite his great work on Andrew, I feel like he could have spent a little more time showing us who the other lead characters are. For example, what is MSG Fallon’s story? Considering her sizable involvement in the story line, it would be nice to know how she became who she is. We are given a few nuggets (e.g. the story behind her Medal of Honor) but more would be nice. Likewise, we are given a few glimpses into Halley’s background (e.g. her parents professions and her privileged early life) but, again, more would be nice.
Similar in many regards to the world of The Expanse series, Kloos’s Earth is a well-developed, fully globalized, and vastly overpopulated picture of the future. He makes logical and convincing assumptions about how humanity’s growth will affect the world and all the people that live in it. In his story, the world has reached the point where there aren’t enough jobs, food, housing, or resources to go around. The government has been forced to house the low and middle class in 30+ story apartments, feed them the future’s equivalent of MREs that taste even worse than today’s (if that is possible), and clothe them in ultra-minimalist garments.
Beyond the Earth, he has incorporated current events (e.g. our push to colonize Mars) with sensible assumptions about our expansion into the galaxy (e.g. terraforming, faster-than-light travel) to expand the story’s setting to other worlds. Here is another of the few criticisms I will make: the author should have spent a few more pages on developing the other planets and moons that Andrew visits in the novels. Little was said about Luna other than its military facilities, a brief description of the orbital view of Willoughby was given, and New Svalbard on Fomalhaut c’s moon is described as little more than a frozen wasteland. When Andrew dropped onto New Wales to assault the Lanky settlement, Kloos thoroughly described the Lankies and their buildings, but little was said about the planet, its vegetation, or native wildlife. I may be the only one who feels this way, but I love the minute details, those few extra qualities that truly bring a story to life.
And, finally, we critique the most interesting part of sci-fi novels (to nerds like me, that is), their technology!
As with the environment, Kloos’s recipe yielded a beautiful plausibility by blending today’s cutting edge with tomorrow’s normal.
His world included the next evolution of the space shuttle, dubbed drop ships. These crafts filled the role of a space-capable C-130 gunship that can perform VTOLs (vertical take-offs and landings). He did a great job at imagining the larger crafts, as well, by space-enabling today’s naval ships and adding his own imaginative touches to them. This same approach was taken by M.R. Forbes in his War Eternal series and by Nick Webb in his Legacy Fleet series. This is one area where I believe originality can safely be avoided, though.
The military’s weapons were equally well thought out. The M-66 rifle is the infantry’s go-to weapon (a future equivalent of today’s M4 carbine) that employs electromagnetic rail technology to fire tungsten fléchettes at supersonic speeds. I found this to be a much-needed break from focused energy weapons (lasers and the like).
Even more impressive was Kloos’s description of the armor that the military wears (specifically its computer). He borrows several current technologies, the American Army’s new Integrated Tactical Network (to be fielded in 2020) and fighter jets’ abilities to share threat data (e.g. the F-35’s multifunction advanced data link), and shrank it all into a tiny package delivered to individual Soldiers via a heads-up.
I’m obligated to say a thing or two about FTL (faster-than-light travel) in the book. There is nothing original about Kloos’s take on it. I, for one, am okay with this. The Expanse series doesn’t even include FTL. Other books I’ve read give it a fancy name but explain little. Kloos borrows from today’s theories on space-bending (even using the original theoretician’s name, Alcubierre) and leaves it at that. For a technology that may or may not be possible, I think he treats it well in his book.
Finally, there is terraforming. I was disappointed by the author’s explanation of this tech. He describes the terraforming devices, says they source their energy from small fusion reactors, and that’s it. I really would like for Kloos to have provided some more meat for the reader to chew on here. How does terraforming work? What about the planet’s existing or absent fauna and flora? How is water and oxygen created? The atmosphere? This may be unnecessary fluff for a good sci-fi, alien war novel, but hey, I’m a nerd.
Of all the sci-fi war books I have read, this is my favorite. Marko Kloos weaves his own military experiences into his creations to provide realism, plausability, and emotions that those who have never served cannot. He bases his plot on the well-worn theme of alien war, but creates originality and freshness that amazes even an avid sci-fi reader. He crafts his primary characters well, building an intimate relationship between them and the reader, but could have spent a little more time developing lesser characters. Kloos crafts a beautiful world, I would have preferred a few more details about other planets, but this is a minor shortcoming and unnecessary. Finally, his technology is created from a harmonious and plausible integration of today’s technology and his imaginations for the future.
I highly recommend his books.
Clinton is a full-time Software Developer currently working for CGI Federal, Inc. He spends most his days building Java web applications using tools like Spring MVC, Java Server Faces, and VueJS. In his free time, he likes to dabble in Golang, Hadoop, and other cool technologies. Clinton has been married to his wonderful wife Ashley for 8 years. Together, they have a super-handsome, unbelievably cute (no bias here folks) 6 year old son, Andrew.