Interview with Marko Kloos
A look at his forthcoming Frontlines novel
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I hope that you had a restful Memorial Day weekend. It’s a day that often finds me in a reflective mood. I majored in history and military history in college and grad school, and specifically studied the men from Norwich University who went off to fight during World War II. They had some pretty incredible stories, and accomplished some hard-to-imagine things: landing on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day, fighting in the deserts of Africa during the early days of the war, and on Pacific islands.
You can see some pictures from my 2011 Belgium trip here.
Early in my career as a writer, I began to mesh my interests in military history and science fiction. I looked at the types of stories that military SF authors were writing, and eventually worked with my friend Jaym Gates to launch our own take on the genre in War Stories: New Military Science Fiction.
Our take on the genre was one of the characters, rather than grandstanding on lofty political ideals. The goal was to look at how warfare impacted the soldiers and others caught in its midst, and what lessons we could learn from that.
It’s that approach that attracted me to Marko Kloos’s writing. In 2013, he self-published his debut, Terms of Enlistment, (he later signed with Amazon’s 47 North and republished it) and followed up with numerous sequels: Lines of Departure, Angles of Attack, Chains of Command, Fields of Fire, and Points of Impact. Those novels followed Andrew Grayson, a young man from the slums of New England who turns to military service simply to ensure that he’ll have another meal. Things soon get complicated: the North American Commonwealth is at war with the Sino-Russian Alliance throughout inhabited space, only to make first contact with a hostile and very deadly alien race known as the Lankies. The books are quite a bit of fun, and you can read a fuller review of them over here.
What Kloos brings to the table here is a sense of authenticity: he served in the German military towards the end of the Cold War, and it’s apparent: his take on the genre feels plausible and realistic, and it’s rife with little details that civilians just won’t pick up.
After that, he went and took a break from the series, turning to a new project, The Palladium Wars, an original space opera set in a new world from him. The first novel, Aftershocks, follows a war veteran on the losing side who’s trying to rebuilt his life, and runs into some issues. The second book in the series, Ballistic, is out today.
In December, Kloos will be returning to the Frontlines universe with a new installment of the series: Orders of Battle. This new installment takes place a couple of years after Points of Impact:
It’s been four years since Earth threw its full military prowess against the Lanky incursion. Humanity has been yanked back from the abyss of extinction. The solar system is at peace. For now.
The future for Major Andrew Grayson of the Commonwealth Defense Corps and his wife, Halley? Flying desk duty on the front. No more nightmares of monstrous things. No more traumas to the mind and body. But when an offer comes down from above, Andrew has to make a choice: continue pushing papers into retirement, or jump right back into the fight? What’s a podhead to do?
The remaining Lankies may have retreated in fear, but the threat isn’t over. They need to be wiped out for good before they strike again. That’ll take a new offensive deployment. Aboard an Avenger warship, Andrew and the special tactics team under his command embark on the ultimate search-and-destroy mission. This time, it’ll be on Lanky turf.
No big heroics. No unnecessary risks. Just a swift hit-and-run raid in the hostile Capella system. Blow the alien seed ships into oblivion and get the hell back to Earth. At least, that’s the objective. But when does anything in war go according to plan?
A couple of weeks ago, Kloos unveiled the cover for Orders of Battle, and I spoke with him about what to expect when the novel comes out in December.
You recently took a short break from Frontlines after six straight installments, and launched your Palladium Wars series. What did you learn from Frontlines that you applied to those books?
I didn’t bring much over from Frontlines. In fact, I set out to make Palladium Wars different from Frontlines in almost every respect. Frontlines is written in first person present tense, and Palladium Wars is written in third person past tense. Frontlines is “young man goes to war”, Palladium Wars is “old(er) man comes home from war.” Frontlines is a single-POV narrative, Palladium Wars has multiple POVs that take turns and sometimes intersect.
I learned that a novel with multiple POV characters is both easier and harder to write (for me, anyway) than a first-person narrative. It’s easier in that I can put characters where I need them to be to drive the story, and add or remove POV viewpoints as required. In Frontlines, we only see what Andrew sees, and it can be hard to get him where he needs to be without resorting to trickery or coincidence. It’s also easier to write around a chapter where I get stuck because I can just pick up another POV thread and continue that one while I think about untangling the narrative in the stuck chapter.
But it’s also harder because I have to interweave and bounce multiple narrative strands off each other and keep them all in a common continuity, whereas Frontlines is just one linear narrative. I want to think that my skills have definitely improved due to the need to flex different writing muscles, so to speak. But I’ll leave that judgment up to the readers.
Did you find taking that break from Frontlines beneficial? What did you take from that break that you were able to apply to the series?
It was immensely beneficial, even if I did get some flak from a few readers for daring to start another series when they were waiting for more Frontlines. But I really needed a bit of mental distance from that universe to come up with more stories worth telling. As long as it takes a few days to read what takes a few months to write, readers will want more books as quickly as possible.
But there’s a real chance of burnout for the author when they feel pressured or obliged to crank out stuff at a relentless pace. Someone was commenting on my blog on how they were looking forward to the next Frontlines novel but wished it could have come last year or the year before, and I responded “So do I!” But the truth is that I couldn’t have written that novel a year or two ago because the creativity tank in my brain hadn’t refilled yet.
The long break gave me time to really look at new concepts and do a lot of research, then let that data percolate in my brain to see how I could apply it to the Frontlines universe and make it the basis for some new and exciting twists and settings. And that percolating takes time.
You mentioned in your cover reveal for Orders of Battle that it takes place a couple of years after Points of Impact, and that Andrew Greyson has moved onto another phase of his career. What can we expect from this book?
We’re in a different spot now from the emergency days where humanity was on the verge of extinction by the Lankies. A few years have passed, and humans and Lankies have a sort of stalemate going on where neither side is actively pushing. The humans have enjoyed a long breather, but the relative peace has taken some of the edge off the military even as they’ve been able to rebuild their forces and fill up their ranks.
Now that Andrew has had time to deal with his combat-induced PTSD, he finds that he too is losing his edge. Part of him misses the challenges and the adrenaline of battle. So when his SOCOM boss gives him a shot at a combat deployment into Lanky-controlled space, he takes it. It’s a recon run to start preparing for the next phase of the war, the reclaiming of the human colonies overrun by the Lankies. And like all battle plans, this one doesn’t quite go as plotted, to put it mildly.
Why the time jump?
I wanted to see how Andrew would deal with serving in a peacetime military. He has to deal with the fact that he’s now one of the “old guard”, the battle-tested veterans who are in charge of troops that have never seen combat, and fellow officers who are so eager to prove themselves in battle that they practically stand in line for a shot at a garrison rotation on Mars so they can get a combat award. (We haven’t seen a Lanky ship in the Solar System in years, but there are still some stragglers underground on Mars, so that’s the only chance for enemy contact.)
Humanity is still at war with the Lankies, but the four-year lull in Lanky incursions has turned the Corps into something like a peacetime service. The combat vets have either left the Corps or moved up into senior leadership positions, and there are now junior NCOs and lieutenants who have no combat experience at all.
It’s a strange place for Andrew, who has been in near-constant combat right through the end of book 6, and I wanted to explore what kind of effect that sort of environment would have on someone who has been put through the wringer for years.
You hinted that we might learn something about the Lankies — what are you excited for readers to learn about them?
Oh, goodness. They’re so alien, in every conceivable way: where they live, how they evolved, how they travel between the stars, why they keep hopping from planet to planet. People have been theorizing about the Lankies for years, and in this book I’m starting to take the lid off.
Let’s just say that even though Andrew has been around them for many years in battle, he’s about to discover that the galaxy is a really scary place, and that there’s stuff out there that frightens even Lankies.
It's been eight years since you published Terms of Enlistment. How have you seen the military world change in that time, and how have you incorporated that into this series?
Among other conflicts, we’ve seen the resurgent bellicosity of Putin’s Russia—their brazen invasion of the eastern Ukraine, and their annexation of the Crimea, which made their NATO neighbors very jumpy. I served in a NATO army at the very end of the Cold War, and when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist, the European government all acted as if there would never be a threat again—certainly not one that required keeping around all those expensive battle tanks and warships.
So from the mid-1990s on, the European militaries were mainly just used as cost reduction targets as their government deflated military budgets and retooled their armies toward limited conflict and peacekeeping missions. There’s this German term called “kaputtgespart”, which roughly means “broken by skimping”, and that’s what happened to the military there in the last 25 years.
Now they once again have a powerful Eastern neighbor who have already demonstrated that they’re perfectly willing to use conquest by force if it suits their national interests. We either act as if the current state of geopolitics is going to continue indefinitely, or we prepare for the last war we fought, and then we have to retool our gear and our tactics in the middle of the battle at great financial and human cost when the next war is nothing like the one before it.
For Frontlines, I wanted to work in this cyclical nature of threat management that military bureaucracies and civilian leaders seem to fall into, and look at the effects of it on the troops on the ground. Andrew has been at war and under enormous stress for years, and now he’s spending his days training people and basically doing an admin desk job, and he finds that it’s hard to keep an edge when the prospect of battle becomes a more distant abstraction every year.
What's next for the series? You noted that there'll be a book 8 in the works. Do you have an end-game in mind for the series? What's next for the Palladium Wars series?
Orders of Battle starts a new Frontlines story arc that I’ve projected to go for three books, but I am notoriously bad at estimating the amount of story I can fit into a book. (I had to split up Chains of Command and turn the second half of it into Fields of Fire, for example, and Chains still ended up being 120,000 words and the longest novel in the series.)
But I’ve gotten better at tightening my plotting with the experience of threading multiple POV chapters in Palladium Wars, so I expect that I won’t overshoot my goal by much. So—two more Frontlines books to serve up this new arc, and then we will see what comes next. I do have an end-game in mind, but I am in no particular rush to get there.
As for Palladium Wars, I know the rough story arc but I also know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of it with the first two books, so I can’t even begin to guess how long that series will run. (Frontlines was supposed to be a trilogy, if that tells you anything about the accuracy of my predictions.) I suppose it will depend on how well the series is received, which determines how eager my publisher will be to sign contracts for more books! But my plan for the next few years is to get out a Frontlines and a Palladium Wars book every year, with other projects sandwiched in between as I have the time. (I still write for Wild Cards, and I also want to get back into shorter fiction that isn’t connected to any of the established properties.)
Orders of Battle will hit stores on December 8th.
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Stay tuned for the next edition of this next newsletter, which will round up the SF/F books hitting stores in June.
Loved it, Marko is my favorite SF writer right now. I can't wait for Orders of Battle and I have Ballistic shipped!
Happy to hear you're not in a rush to head towards that 'end game'. You see that a lot in serialized television. A problem comes up, and it's solved within an episode or two. Unfortunately, real life isn't like that and that's what I like about Frontlines. Sometimes a 'problem' occurs over the span of one's life, or can perhaps become multi-generational. Keep keeping it real Marko.