Last week, we reviewed the latest two books from Marko Kloos: Angles of Attack and Chains of Command, which we really enjoyed. We particularly liked the authenticity that he’s imbued in his world, and wanted to ask about how his military service played into his fiction.
Military science fiction (or fantasy) is one of those really strange subgenres where military service comes in really handy: it’s not essential, but you can usually tell when someone’s just working off of impressions, rather than drawing from their own experience. Kloos served in his home country of Germany, and noted that there’s quite a bit from his own experiences that he’s dropped into his novels:
You’re writing military science fiction years after serving in the German military. Can you talk a little about your experiences in the services, and how that’s been informing your fiction?
When I read military science fiction, I can usually tell if the author has served in a military in real life. A lot of people who haven’t served can nevertheless be extremely knowledgeable when it comes to military tactics and weapons (Tom Clancy comes to mind, for example), but there are lots of little details you’ll only know if you’ve walked that particular walk. It’s the small stuff—little sensory details, like what it feels like to step off the bus and out onto those yellow footprints at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, or the hurry-up-and-wait routines of the first few days of boot camp, even the unspoken hierarchy in the chow hall and the tribal rivalries between the different services and branches within them.
I wanted to write military science fiction because it seemed like a handy vehicle to work in my own memories of military service, use all those details and weave them into a narrative while I still remember them. The first novel, Terms of Enlistment, is particularly littered with actual anecdotes from my own basic training. I recycled quite a few real-life events, verbatim D.I. quotes, and even the name of a particularly memorable drill sergeant.
After Basic, Andrew goes off to war, and that’s an experience I don’t share with him because I served in a peacetime army at the tail end of the Cold War. But his basic training looked an awful lot like mine. (He just got to play with cooler toys than we did back in 1989.)
There’s a level of absurdity with the military bureaucracy in your novels, and the main characters are often frustrated by the structure that they have to work with. This is a considerable real-world issue: is this something that you have observed personally?
I was a junior NCO during my time in the German military, so I just barely got to scratch the layers of bureaucracy, but even to a young corporal or sergeant, battling the often dumb and short-sighted Green Machine quickly becomes an unavoidable part of one’s career. So much stuff in the military is calcified habit and bureaucracy. I can’t even tell you how many man-hours I’ve seen wasted because things were done inefficiently, or the NCO or officer in charge was a clueless chowderhead way out of his depth. (We even had a military slang term for career soldiers who were merely coasting through their military service, and who wouldn’t have been able to hold down a job on the outside. We called them Zivilversager—”civil failures”.)
But you don’t make waves because the dumb staff sergeant in charge has the power to turn your life to crap if you do, so you salute and carry on. For example, the NCO in charge of our supply group got a raging case of blustering self-importance when the 1991 Gulf War kicked off, and some peace protester called in a bomb threat to the base. Now, this is a huge base, with several battalions of troops from various branches of the army stationed there. Attack helicopters, a battalion of armored infantry, a regiment of army aviation—lots and lots of troops, a sprawling facility. And his supply group was housed in a building near the center of that huge base. But he was so wound-up and self-important that he had his entire on-duty personnel complement search the basement for bombs. (They never found any, of course, and the “threat” didn’t keep him from going home twenty minutes early as usual.) Dozens of man-hours wasted on stupid stuff because the guy with the most thread on his shoulderboards wants to feel like he’s making a personal contribution to the war.
Any green private who has had to spend a day digging through crates of gas masks and pup tents to find nonexistent bombs they’re not even qualified to defuse quickly learns that the military structure often doesn’t make sense.
You’ve recently written a tie-in comic. How has writing that been a different experience for you?
I didn’t really do the nuts-and-bolts writing on Frontlines: Requiem. I did the outline of the story and came up with the characters, and the super-talented Ivan Brandon turned it into a script suitable for graphic novel format. (Gary Erskine did the art, and Yel Zamor did the ink.)
It’s a very different process—with the novels, I am the master and commander of everything down to the smallest detail, but with Gary and Ivan, I had to be more hands-off and trust their vision. They gave me an inordinate amount of control—approving and fine-tuning scripts, putting in changes and corrections, giving guidance on dialogue or visual elements—but the end result is the Frontlines universe as interpreted by four brains instead of just one. I am super happy with the way it turned out.
What has been the response to your novels from real-world veterans? How do you strive maintain a level of reality with this series?
I get a lot of mail from veterans, and it’s uniformly positive. Most vets who feel the urge to send me mail on the Frontlines series comment on the veracity of the military life depicted in the novels, particularly the boot camp sequence, and the culture and relationships between the ranks. It seems that a lot of experiences are universal, at least among Western militaries.
One way I try to maintain a level of realism is by making Andrew’s career path somewhat realistic. In other military science fiction series, the protagonist either starts out at a rank high enough to be influential in the action, or the author rockets them up the ranks so that by book 4 they are a staff or flag officer in command of thousands. Andrew starts as a green recruit, and it takes the poor guy over five years of service just to make it up to E-6 (and even that would be a rocket-fast career in real life.) He does eventually become a junior grade officer in the fourth installment, but only because the Lanky blockade of the Solar System and the chain of military disasters that followed have wiped the cupboard clean of qualified personnel.
I also keep in touch with the military culture, and will occasionally bounce stuff off friends who are either still in the service or have recently left, to make sure the things I need Andrew to do aren’t outlandish Mary Sue stuff that would make a vet do a hard eye-roll. Andrew gets a semi-cool job, but it serves the requirements of the story. He gets promotions, but they are hard to come by and realistically spaced. He gets decorations, but they are appropriate for his actions. Most importantly, I never let him be the deciding factor in any of the battles he finds himself in. He’s not the hero that saves the day with single-handed feats of valor, he’s the grunt on the ground doing his best to survive with what he has at the time.
One sense that I’ve gotten while reading Chains of Command is the peril of a long-lasting conflict: troops become exhausted, diminished and under-supplied. Is this something that you’ve drawn from some of the very real conflicts around the world?
Absolutely. When I look at conflicts like WWI, for example, the pattern is pretty predictable. The first wave of warfighters think they’re in for a splendid little war. They’ll just win it and be home by Christmas with a chest full of medals and a few fallen comrades to reminisce over. Four years later, that generation of troops is gone, wiped out in years of combat in the meat grinder of trench warfare, and the troops that are still on their feet on the German side at the Armistice are green kids who were in eighth grade when the war started, and the few survivors of the war’s beginning are now their senior NCOs: grizzled, shell-shocked, and disillusioned basket cases. War wears out material far faster than peacetime (something the U.S. military knows from the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), and it wears out troops even faster. Combat makes troops age and mature faster than loafing about in a peacetime military, and I wanted Andrew to have a definite progression in maturity and character development with every book.
You’ve built out a really robust universe with your Frontlines novels. Have you ever considered other, non-military novels set alongside the books to explore that world?
Yes, I have. Once Andrew and Halley see their story arc complete for now, I may explore that universe some more from the points of view of some of the non-military characters—some who have appeared in the books already, and some who are new to the readers. I think the Frontlines universe could really gain a lot of substance from their perspectives.
What’s next for the Frontlines series?
I am currently finishing up Frontlines #5, which will be called Fields of Fire. Angles of Attack and Chains of Command in particular spent a lot of time moving the pieces into place, and this book is the one where the big pay-off against the Lankies happens, the combined NAC/SRA assault on Mars, the push to kick the Lankies out of the Solar System. Think of it as “Omaha Beach in Space”, and you’re on the right track.
After Fields of Fire, Frontlines is contracted for at least one more novel, but that one will have to be a surprise. After that, who knows? There’s a lot of stuff that can happen in the Frontlines universe, and there are lots of people in the NAC and the SRA who still have a story to tell.
Chains of Command is now available from 47th North.