Quasi-Hugo Awards: Terms of Enlistment

The initial Hugo Award finalists for Best Novel included a book called Lines of Departure. It was one of the suggestions from Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies, and once that came to the attention of the author, Marko Kloos, he promptly withdrew his acceptance of the nomination (this withdrawal lead to the inclusion of The Three-Body Problem in the category). As a result, he's one of the few authors to emerge mostly unscathed by the whole affair. The puppies seemed to respect his decision and lots of others vowed to read his books anyway, probably giving him a boost in sales without the vitriolic baggage everyone else is dealing with. For my part, the nominated novel just seemed like it would be cool, so I felt I should check it out regardless of what all the factions of fandom thought. In fact, when nominees were initially announced, this was the one I was most looking forward to... Alas, it's actually the second in a series, so I started with the first novel: Terms of Enlistment.

At its core, it's a solid military science fiction novel, pretty much hitting all the expected tropes. The story is told from the perspective of Andrew Grayson, a welfare rat living in a prison-like tenement in Boston. He's one of the "lucky" few to be accepted for military service, and he jumps at the opportunity of escaping his near-dystopian surroundings without thinking too much about the *ahem* terms of enlistment. Every convention of the subgenre is covered, from saying goodbyes to basic training with its drill sergeants and physical exhaustion, to a shit assignment that turns out to be more prestigious than thought, to (eventually) exploding spaceships and battles on alien planets.

As these things go, it's a pretty well executed version of the common MilSF tropes. This might seem derivative and repetitious to some folks, but I've always been of a mind that a well executed version of a common story has value. What you usually end up with is something akin to SF comfort food, with the occasional feint towards something more transcendent. The start of this novel feels more like the former, but as the story progresses, we start to move towards the latter. We never really get that true transcendence, but this is only the first novel in a series and while it has a decent ending, it's also clearly setting up a rich groundwork for the sequel.

Kloos has nice, clean, concise prose, and he's excellent at describing battles and explosions and whatnot. The characters are generally likable and competent without being ridiculous caricatures. This isn't a particularly deep novel of characterization, but it's pretty good by the standards of MilSF. The worldbuilding seemed a bit hokey at first, but it gets better as it goes on, and the ending throws a nice little wrench into the proceedings, making it a good setup for the following books. Initially, it almost seemed like this would be one of those novels where our protagonist is propelled through a series of episodic adventures that ultimately lead nowhere, but Kloos manages to keep the narrative tight enough that each combat mission leads into the next in an entertaining fashion that keeps the pages turning.

Thematically, it's a bit straightforward until we get to the ending, which presents a tantalizing reversal of a common trope. Lots of MilSF concerns itself with bug hunts and aliens that are insectoid in nature. In this case, it appears that the human beings might be the insects of the universe (er, metaphorically speaking), which is a pretty clever take on a tired theme, and while Kloos is pretty explicit about this theme, he manages to make it feel earned and not hoary.

Ultimately, it's a promising start, and I'm really happy I decided to read these books. As you might be able to tell from the above, it's a novel that starts off extremely derivative and trope-driven, but it eventually starts to take things into more interesting places, hinting at even more to come. I'm very much looking forward to the next installment, which is more than I can probably say about all of the actual nominees for this year's Best Novel. Of course, I still need to read Lines of Departure before commenting on how it would fit into this year's ballot (had it survived the nomination), but I should probably finish off that Dresden book and Seveneves first... In the meantime, if you're looking for a relatively straightforward MilSF novel series that shows some promise at transcending its roots, this is worth a look.