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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book review: Terms of Enlistment

TERMS OF ENLISTMENT
Marko Kloos
Rating: 7 of 10 


Terms of Enlistment is a military sci-fi novel that will, like John Scalzi's Old Man's War, be compared by many to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  It is the self-published debut novel from Marko Kloos, and it has justifiably been a surprise hit on Amazon, where it has been a top bestseller in science fiction as well as a top 100 seller overall.

Why? Well, there are no shortage of writers, (myself included), editors, and publishers, who would very much like to know the answer to that.

One possibility is that unlike the Heinlein novel, Terms of Enlistment is set in a dystopic future America where the cities are crowded, dirty ghettos, the space colonies are sparsely populated, far away, and nearly impossible to reach, and a permanent state of semi-war exists with the future Soviet Union. Kloos is very in touch with the zeitgeist in this regard; his protagonist doesn't join the military out of a desire for glory or a sense of patriotism, but merely due to the prospect of some solid meals even if he fails the enlistment process.

Another is that Kloos hits the ideological sweet spot, writing about war and guns in the sort of loving, knowledgeable detail that appeals to readers on the right, while never wavering from the equalitarian ideals that are sacrosanct to readers on the left. Beyond the necessary structural assumptions, however, he doesn't appear to be interested in taking sides or going off on tangents to deliver mini-sermons on patriotic virtue like Heinlein or the supreme importance of tolerance like Scalzi. Instead, he stays focused on his story and his characters, much to the benefit of them and the reader.  If none of the characters are particularly deep, neither are they cardboard characters set up to be either the good guy or the bad guy for purposes of Teaching An Important Lesson.

For all the dystopian grime of the setting and the attention to detail devoted to the weaponry, Kloos abides by what has become the SF-MIL trope of a sex-neutral military in which men and women enlist, shower, fight, and bunk together.  That this is entirely absurd is beside the point and in no way detracts from the story, which in fact depends quite heavily upon it.  (Let's face it, if you're going to feature giant missile-resistant aliens, also having female Medal of Honor winners who can best any man in hand-to-hand combat is hardly going to destroy the reader's suspension of disbelief.)  I am arguably one of the foremost critics of the Warrior Woman trope in SF/F, and I barely even noticed it.  With one important and necessary exception, the nominal sex of the soldiers in the book is almost entirely irrelevant.

And that brings us to the third, and perhaps the most powerful element of Terms of Enlistment, the element which is actually hinted at in the title. Underneath the science fiction and the military trappings, the novel is actually a romance novel about a first love that lasts. I don't say this to denigrate the book, but to praise it, as Kloos weaves the elements together so seamlessly that the sheer impossibilities of the romance no more trouble the reader than the ludicrous machinations of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Having been rejected by the fading gatekeepers of SF/F and finding success through making his own way, it may be that Kloos has shown a way out of science fiction's present ideological morass, in offering readers a solid futuristic love story with no shortage of action, in producing a book with strong appeal to both men and women, to both SF's left and right.

Terms of Enlistment is a very readable debut novel that is better than the sum of its parts because those parts fit so well together. It is also a resounding rebuke to the world of professional publishing and its procurement system. One wishes Kloos continued success and hopes that as he is embraced by that world, as he inevitably will be, he does not devolve into yet another preachy progressive SF writer.

Story: 3.5 of 5. It's simple. It's straightforward. It's sufficiently interesting and compelling to hold the reader's attention throughout.  It is essentially divided into two parts; I tended to find the first part more interesting than the second, but at no point did I lose interest in finding out what happened next. There are certainly aspects to the plot that would tend to strain credulity should one wish to dwell on them, but this isn't a novel to make one think, it is one to simply kick back and read through in a sitting or three.

Style: 3 of 5. It's simple. It's straightforward. If there are no fireworks, there are no real clunkers either. The best thing about Kloos's writing style is that it does its job and doesn't get in the way of the story.

Characters: 3 of 5. They are likable and one stays interested in their fates, but they are not what one would call either deep or developed.  We never understand why Grayson, the protagonist, is so hung up on his Navy girl that he is willing to swap services and follow her into space. We never learn why she stays, as far as we know, faithful to him and isn't involved with two or three of the other officers on her ship. We know they care about each other, what we really never find out is why.

Creativity: 3 of 5. There actually isn't much in the way of creativity here, but the dystopic world is presented so competently, so vividly, that I simply couldn't reasonably claim that it is below average in any way. Have we seen it before? Of course, hence the comparisons to Starship Troopers and Old Man's War. But the familiarity with books we enjoyed when we were younger is part of the book's appeal; it is not always necessary to reinvent the wheel.  And if one cannot praise an author who doesn't do something he has no need to do, neither can one criticize him.

Text sample: All of my roommates have chevrons on their collars. Two of them are E-2s, with single chevrons, and the third is an E-3, a Private First Class, a chevron with a rocker underneath. People don’t usually make E-2 right out of Basic unless they were top flight in their training battalion like Halley, and E-3 promotions don’t ever happen before a year of active service.
“Am I the only new guy in this squad?” I ask.
“Yep,” one of them confirms. “Our platoon got four this cycle, I think, including you. They trickle the new guys in like that, so you can learn on the job. Grayson, is it?”
“Yeah.”
The soldier across the table from me extends his hand, and I shake it.
“I’m Baker. The cheating fuck over there trying to look at my cards is Priest, and the one with the ponytail is Hansen.”
I nod at each of them in turn.
“You’re in luck, Grayson. You’re in the squad with the best squad leader in the entire battalion.”
“In the entire brigade,” Hansen corrects. She has almond-shaped eyes and very white and even teeth, evidence of better dental care than you can get anywhere within ten miles of a Public Residence Cluster.
“Oh, yeah? What’s his name?”
“Her name.” Priest gives up his attempt to sneak a peek at Baker’s cards, and leans back in his chair. “Staff Sergeant Fallon. She used to be a First Sergeant, but they busted her down for striking an officer.”
“I thought they kicked you out of the service for hitting a superior,” I say, smelling a military fish tale.
“Oh, they do,” Hansen says. “That’s unless you’re a Medal of Honor winner. They don’t get rid of certified heroes. It would be bad PR.”
“Medal of Honor?” I ask, and the disbelief in my face makes my three roommates grin with delight. “As in, that blue ribbon with the white stars that goes on top of all the other ribbons?”
“That’s the one. She got it when the NAC did that excursion into mainland China a few years back, at the Battle of Dalian. You get the Medal, you can ask for any assignment anywhere in the Service, and she went right back to her old unit once she was out of the hospital.”
“That’s pretty wild. Is she a complete hard-ass?”
“Not at all. She’s got no patience for slackers, but as long as you pull your weight and don’t look like you’re clueless, she’s hands-off.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I say. “I was expecting...hell, I have no idea what I was expecting, actually.”
“You were expecting some sort of penal colony,” Baker says amicably. “You thought you pulled the shittiest card in the deck when they told you that you’re going TA, right?”
There’s no point denying it, so I nod.
“That’s what everyone thinks at first. We all did. But this is a good outfit. Our sergeants know their shit, and our officers mostly leave us alone. We get the job done, and we look after each other. I’ve been TA for almost two years, and I wouldn’t take a garrison post on a colony if you paid me double.”
The others at the table nod in agreement.
I’m still disappointed about not going into space, and I have no idea whether I’ll feel the same way about the TA in two years. For better or for worse, however, this place will be my home until my service time is up, so I decide that I might as well make the best of it.
“You play cards, Grayson?” Hansen asks.
“Sure,” I say, and pull my chair up to the table.

Labels:

70 Comments:

Anonymous TJIC April 11, 2013 11:03 AM  

Rewriting _Starship Troopers_ is something every generation needs to do. I enjoyed Marko's version; it's a pity that Scalzi's inferior attempt garnered so much attention.

I know Marko is working on a sequel, which will be decent, but honestly I'm looking forward to whatever comes AFTER that - I enjoy his fiction and want to see what else he might do.

Anonymous James May April 11, 2013 11:34 AM  

It's a hundred years from now? That conversation is undetectable from some bar down the street in Anytown America right now.

They couldn't throw in some totally made up slang recognizable in context like a "tra-la-puxer" or "hi-buckler?"

This is why I wrote an SF novel even though I really don't know how: Frustration. My goal was to show I wasn't asleep and not to put someone who read it asleep - in the prose. Speech practically changes every month with young people who would in any case grow old.

Anonymous Erik April 11, 2013 11:44 AM  

I actually liked Scalzi's Old Man's War, for what it was. It suffered from him being a wiseass (and the protagonist was clearly an idealized version of the author himself). There wasn't anything overly creative about it, but it didn't really rub me the wrong way.

This seems decent enough. I'm not a big fan of first-person present tense, though. Always seems more awkward than past. But it's not so much an issue that I won't pick it up at some point. It's good to know that while he's picked up on some of the contemporary tropes, he doesn't choke on them like Scalzi repeatedly does in his later books.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 11, 2013 11:45 AM  

I liked the book as well. Generally agree with your assessment of the parts, although as-a-whole I would grade it slightly better than the sum of the parts. I was reminded more of Joe Haldeman's Forever War in terms of the relationship of the two main characters. The only part that was jarring for me was the Enlisted-Officer divide.

Anonymous Tosser April 11, 2013 11:54 AM  

Not to be too pedantic, but isn't the Medal of Honor awarded and not won?

Anonymous scoobius dubious April 11, 2013 11:55 AM  

“I’m Baker. The cheating fuck over there trying to look at my cards is Priest, and the one with the ponytail is Hansen.”
I nod at each of them in turn.
“You’re in luck, Grayson. You’re in the squad with the best squad leader in the entire battalion.”
“In the entire brigade,” Hansen corrects. She has almond-shaped eyes and very white and even teeth, evidence of better dental care than you can get anywhere within ten miles of a Public Residence Cluster.
“Oh, yeah? What’s his name?”
“Her name.” Priest gives up his attempt to sneak a peek at Baker’s cards, and leans back in his chair. “Staff Sergeant Fallon. She used to be a First Sergeant, but they busted her down for striking an officer.”
“I thought they kicked you out of the service for hitting a superior,” I say, smelling a military fish tale.
“Oh, they do,” Hansen says. “That’s unless you’re a Medal of Honor winner. They don’t get rid of certified heroes. It would be bad PR.”
“Medal of Honor?” I ask, and the disbelief in my face makes my three roommates grin with delight. “As in, that blue ribbon with the white stars that goes on top of all the other ribbons?”

HOW ON EARTH can any of you stand to read prose like this? I mean, it's bad of course, but it's not the most appalling gibberish in the world; it's just..... it isn't good. WHY read it? Why tolerate things that aren't at least good?

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 11, 2013 12:17 PM  

Genuine question, Scoob; What makes this prose bad? I'm not a writer certainly, although having been in the military this conversation has verisimilitude for me that's probably blinding me to the way it is conveyed too.

Anonymous Keeg April 11, 2013 12:28 PM  

Thanks for posting this, Vox. I'm inclined to try this book.

As for the sample....ehh. Not scintillating, but not so awful that I'd want to stop reading after one page (like I did with Eregon).

As for OMW, I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. It had moments of brilliance (the hyper-advanced religious alien frenemies), along with a few groaners (Stomping? That's how you kill thousands of tiny aliens? Stomp on them? Really?).

Troopers, of course, is just non-stop awesome. I like it so much (that and Dina Meyer) that I sat through that shitty movie version *twice.*

Anonymous Daniel April 11, 2013 12:28 PM  

The bureaucracy will call you a medal of honor recipient. Regular people call them "winners" all the time, for a fairly decent reason, I think. Kind of tricky to get one if you aren't a winner.

And Scoob, I happen to like your writing too. I wonder what that makes you...

Anonymous Meh April 11, 2013 12:30 PM  

It's a hundred years from now? That conversation is undetectable from some bar down the street in Anytown America right now.

That was the problem I had with Richard K. Morgan's "Altered Carbon" -- which I am still trying to read but it's taking a long time because I don't like it much.

Supposedly it is set 500 years in the future, but despite the advanced technology, it still feels like the 20th century.

That, and there's a lot of inane Catholic-bashing, which so far as I can tell is completely gratuitous to the plot. Guess Morgan had to establish is Leftist author-cred.

Blogger IM2L844 April 11, 2013 12:37 PM  

HOW ON EARTH can any of you stand to read prose like this?

It's tough.

Blogger Nate April 11, 2013 12:42 PM  

No thanks.

Anonymous Keeg April 11, 2013 12:45 PM  

"It's a hundred years from now? That conversation is undetectable from some bar down the street in Anytown America right now."

I'm more of a fantasy reader, but I notice that, too: characters supposedly from hundreds of years in the past using 21st Century figures of speech. Annoying. Sloppy and annoying.

Anonymous Azimus April 11, 2013 12:48 PM  



Yes but for every Keeg there are a thousand Joe the Plumbers who put the book down after 5 minutes of decyphering period-based dialogue. And editors want to sell books to the Joe the Plumbers. It is a business afterall...

Anonymous Azimus April 11, 2013 12:51 PM  

HOW ON EARTH can any of you stand to read prose like this? I mean, it's bad of course, but it's not the most appalling gibberish in the world; it's just..... it isn't good. WHY read it? Why tolerate things that aren't at least good?

It's light prose. Its not the deep, contemplative, philosophic mind of the next Napoleon, its a buck private of the infantry, apparently. It fits the character.

Anonymous Nah April 11, 2013 12:59 PM  

And editors want to sell books to the Joe the Plumbers. It is a business afterall...

That ain't true or the editors wouldn't be trying to push all that commie "encounter with the otherness / articulation and exploration of marginalised and subaltern voices" crap. Joe the Plumber doesn't give a shit about the "Otherness" -- or if he does, he wants to see the "Otherness" blasted apart with pulse rifles.

Anonymous robh April 11, 2013 1:02 PM  

Have to go with scoob here. The excerpt does not make me want to slog though this. Makes me think of Starship Troopers fan fiction or something.

For example,
"The soldier across the table from me extends his hand, and I shake it."

This type of voice is huge red flag for me. This is the way I wrote when I was 13 years old.

This is why I have pretty much given up on SF. I will pick up an anthology at the library once in a while, but as Vox has noted, they pale against the Hugo anthologies and such that I was reading as a teenager in the 80's.

Anonymous scoobius dubious April 11, 2013 1:02 PM  

"Its not the deep, contemplative, philosophic mind of the next Napoleon"

It doesn't have to be deep and contemplative; in fact, given the genre, that would be a weakness.

It just has to not sound like the bloody gears getting stuck inside a trash compactor, as a rabid weasel is accidentally ground to chunks within. It just has to not sound horrible and make my ears hurt, and give me a headache that will last for the rest of the day.

I'm not asking for a lot here, I don't expect Samuel Beckett every day of the week, especially not in SF... all I'm asking for, is to not be tortured. These people are supposed to be professional writers, for pity's sake. If an airline pilot flew a plane the same way most of these mooks write, then everybody would die.

Blogger Conan the Cimmerian, King of Aquilonia April 11, 2013 1:12 PM  

and Dina Meyer

Guns are always on topic.

Dina is a nice piece of eye candy, though her guns would be better if they were a b/c cup rather than the a/b cup that they are.

But she gets the big bonus extra credit for being a red head.
Red heads, truly what gentlemen prefer.

Anonymous Heh April 11, 2013 1:13 PM  

Well Scoob there is a reason the prose in question was self-published...

Blogger Nate April 11, 2013 1:13 PM  

dialog is extremely difficult guys. For some folks it doesn't come naturally at all.

Anonymous Joe Doakes April 11, 2013 1:15 PM  

Scoobius, how would you rate this:

"For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to
say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own,
until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This
impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them
from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former
existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form
part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and
restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed."

Personally, I quit reading five lines in. But I made it throught the selected text in the book review. Cheesy dialogue and pointless action is still better than interior monologue, not matter how perceptive, insightful or well written. And doubly so in a SF/F book.

Anonymous Erik April 11, 2013 1:16 PM  

"The soldier across the table from me extends his hand, and I shake it."

It's not great, but neither is it as bad as quite a bit I read from self-published authors--or authors getting published by the legacy press, for that matter. It's functional, but hardly off-putting.

A good editor would have cleaned up quite a bit of this mess. But torture? Not really. Not compared to what the typical SF publishers are shoveling these days.

"That was the problem I had with Richard K. Morgan's "Altered Carbon" -- which I am still trying to read but it's taking a long time because I don't like it much."

I liked Altered Carbon well enough. But I've yet to ever see a far-future SF novel sound like anything but how people sound today, so it's simply not something that bothers me enough to make a big deal of it.

Anonymous Jack Amok April 11, 2013 1:16 PM  

If editors are trying to sell to Joe the Plumber, they're doing a crappy job of it. Joe the Plumber, if you remember, was opposed to Obamanations like high taxes. SF/F editors are trying to sell to Jane the Withered Spinster and Gilbert Gamma the IT Hero.

As to the prose, I'm with Scoob. What's wrong with it? Erik's right that the tense is a poor one. I suspect novelists who write in the present tense are subconsciously writing a screen play, and it fubars the suspension of disbelief for me. Comes across as stage directions rather than a narrative. But the big problem is the dialog. Wooden. Doesn't flow. Not much difference in voice between the characters. They all speak with the same cadence and attitude. Can't tell who's speaking without looking at the "said Fred" (or in this case, "says Fred").

But if the book is good, sometimes a prose deficiency will fade into the background. Not sure if I'll give this one a try or not though, but I appreciate the review.

Anonymous scoobius dubious April 11, 2013 1:24 PM  

"how would you rate this:

"For a long time I used to go to bed early"

How would I rate that? Well for starters, it's a bad translation. The original text starts like this:

Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure.

Forget the subject matter, which may or may not bore you, depending on your personal preferences; can you not hear the musicality of that, that it's good prose? Can you not hear how utterly crappy the English rendition is?


Anonymous joe doakes April 11, 2013 1:24 PM  

Hey James, dialogue too 21st century for you? Not authentic to the period? You might enjoy this . . .

"Behind her farre away a Dwarfe did lag,
That lasie seemd in being ever last,
Or wearied with bearing of her bag
Of needments at his backe. Thus as they past,
The day with cloudes was suddeine overcast
And angry Jove an hideous storme of raine
Did poure into his Lemans lap so fast,
That everie wight to shrowd it did constrain,
And this faire couple eke to shroud themselves were fain."

Except . . . it's not such a quick read as the simple barracks dialogue in the review, is it? Much more of this and we're looking at actual work, which is not why we buy SF/F books. So maybe we sacrifice authentic slang to keep the story moving? Is that so bad?

Blogger JartStar April 11, 2013 1:29 PM  

Terms of Enlistment is a very readable debut novel that is better than the sum of its parts, in part because they fit so well together.

The novel works because of the above, even with some bad dialogue.

Anonymous Jack Amok April 11, 2013 1:29 PM  

So maybe we sacrifice authentic slang to keep the story moving?

Go pick up a copy of Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome. It was written 120+ years ago. The writing and the dialog are noticeably different than what you'd hear today, but it doesn't stop the story from moving.

Anonymous joe doakes April 11, 2013 1:29 PM  

Sure, Scoob, I can hear the difference . . . French is prettier than English. But I'm buying an SF/F novel, not a phonograph record, so the gracefulness of the language isn't the point.

Let me ask it another way: did you like the soldiers' dialogue in The Wardog's Coin? Catch 22? How should soldiers speak to be authentic to the period but also pleasing to your ear?

Anonymous joe doakes April 11, 2013 1:34 PM  

Jack, you're right, there are examples of wonderful dialogue in great literature. But there are competing complaints in these comments: the dialogue between enlisted soldiers isn't authentic to the period, and it's not melodic.

Yes. That's because they're grunts. That's how they talk. The actors' deliveries in Act of Valor were painfully wooden . . . but the word choices matched what I heard around Camp LeJeune.

I think you guys are trying to have it both ways and missing the entire point of the passage.

Anonymous scoobius dubious April 11, 2013 1:39 PM  

"I can hear the difference... French is prettier than English."

No, that isn't what's happening... and by the way, French ISN'T prettier than English. One admires French for its precision and its particular music (it is, after all, one of the world's eight or so indispensible languages), but English is the most flexible and vast language the world has ever seen. English is also much more capable of being funny, and in more varied ways. I'd rather read good English than anything else on planet earth.

"How should soldiers speak to be authentic to the period but also pleasing to your ear?"

The way anybody should speak, to be etc etc: they should be well written. That pile of bird-pellets cited above was not.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 11, 2013 1:42 PM  

"As to the prose, I'm with Scoob. What's wrong with it? Erik's right that the tense is a poor one. "

Ok, that's more like it. I was looking for an actual technical description of what was wrong, not a florid "cable TV is worse than.." description of what wrong was like, e.g.: Scoob's funny, but less-than-helpful Gerbils-in-the-gears.

I've read hundreds of books for work and pleasure, often have to write technical documentation, but linguistics and grammar rules have long since been moved to spinal memory below conscious thought. That stuff being forgotten, I'm lacking the tools to quantify and describe prose in a technical fashion: which why I asked Scoob the question. Bad prose is like Obscenity for me: I can recognize it when I see it, but have difficulty precisely describing it.

The dialogue here was a little clunky to my eye, but I wouldn't have called it bad. Other parts of the prose seemed fairly fluid to my amateur eye.

Adding to that is the fact that I've been in conversations that were just as clunky in real life when i was in the military. Late teens, early 20's gun-bunnies playing cards doesn't come across like Sophocles.

So, hearing terms like First Person Present is dimly dragging me back to Elementary School... Would you say First Person Past tense works better?

Anonymous Jack Amok April 11, 2013 1:44 PM  

I think you guys are trying to have it both ways and missing the entire point of the passage.

Nah, I'm not saying it's a bad book. In fact, it's a bit unfair of me to compare an author's debut with Jerome K. Jerome's masterpiece. It probably sounds like I'm bashing the book, but I don't mean to. I just don't think the dialog in the excerpt is very good and was trying to explain the reasons why.

As to having it be both realistic and melodic? Well, melody isn't really what I'm talking about. In fact, for me the dialog of the grunts is a little too wordy. For instance:

“Oh, they do,” Hansen says. “That’s unless you’re a Medal of Honor winner. They don’t get rid of certified heroes. It would be bad PR.”

I'd expect that to be more along the lines of:

"Oh, they do," said Hansen. "Unless you're a Medal of Honor winner. Bad PR to crap on your certified heroes."

In fact, flow is something "grunt dialog" tends to do better than "received" dialects. Again, not trashing the book. Remember, feedback is a gift...

Anonymous Jack Amok April 11, 2013 1:46 PM  

Would you say First Person Past tense works better?

I'd suggest Third Person Past tense for almost anything other than a hardboiled detective story.

Anonymous Alexander April 11, 2013 1:53 PM  

The problem in the prose is the spoon-feeding. Real dialogue has taken a back seat.

For example, the correct response to being told by a colleague that your boss of what you believe to be some backwater operation is actually some national hero badass is some degree of "are you fuckin' serious?" not "let me respond in such a way as to give the dimensions and color of the medal we are talking about."

We don't need to know that detail, we certainly don't need to know that detail right now, and that detail is impeding the flow of how actual human beings converse.

I'm sure that the author gets most of his facts right and that's always pleasant, especially if you are professionally familiar with the topic at hand. But this hints at a book that's going to include dialogue over how to shine a belt buckle just to prove that the author really does know how it's done 'for real'.

Anonymous scoobius dubious April 11, 2013 2:01 PM  

I'm not going to run a seminar here on the difference between good and bad English prose, I don't think VD would appreciate the intrusion. But here is an example of good English, that isn't deep or philosophical or trying to be profound. One could come up with examples like these all day long (and maybe somebody should, just not me). Granted this is done in the form of song lyrics, not strictly prose; and yet, you can see if you look carefully, what makes it good. (Copied from memory, not off the internet, which is one of the ways that I know it's good.)

From Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," where characters frequently burst into musical-comedy song formats, two WWII British officers spontaneously serenade an oversexed American interloper...

TANTIVY: The Englishman's very shy,
He's none of your Casanova,
At bowling the ladies o-vah,
Americans lead the pack.

OSBY FEEL: You see, your Englishman
Tends to lack
That recklessness trans-Atlantic,
That women find so romantic,
Though frankly I don't see why.

TANTIVY: If one could only ally
American bedroom know-how
With British good looks, then oh-how
Those lovelies would swoon and sigh.

BOTH: But you and I know
The Englishman's very shy.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 11, 2013 2:09 PM  

"But this hints at a book that's going to include dialogue over how to shine a belt buckle just to prove that the author really does know how it's done 'for real'."

Got it, that makes sense. Thank you.

In this particular example you may be more right than you know. One of the lessons you get early in the .mil is not to fuck up by way of forgetting to salute someone who has it coming. That is a mistake you don't make twice. Medal of Honor winners are right up at the top of the saluting food chain and trainees are taught to look for the medal wrap or the ribbon with "white stars on a blue field".

Blogger Magson April 11, 2013 2:10 PM  

One of the reasons it's doing so well is probably due to the fact the Larry Correia pimped it on his blog a few weeks back, so a lot of his following went out and snapped it up. I'm one of them, but I've been reading Correia's "Hard Magic" (quite excellent, IMO) so I've not yet gotten around to Kloos's book yet. Soon. . . . .

Anonymous Jack Amok April 11, 2013 2:11 PM  

Oh, I forgot humor. First Person Past works great for noir and humor.

Anonymous Azimus April 11, 2013 2:15 PM  

Nah April 11, 2013 12:59 PM And editors want to sell books to the Joe the Plumbers. It is a business afterall...

That ain't true or the editors wouldn't be trying to push all that commie "encounter with the otherness / articulation and exploration of marginalised and subaltern voices" crap. Joe the Plumber doesn't give a shit about the "Otherness" -- or if he does, he wants to see the "Otherness" blasted apart with pulse rifles.


You've moved a little farther upstream than where I was. I am referring to Joe the Plumber reading about the Otherness being blasted apart by pulse rifles in prose that flows smoothly into his brain, rather than requiring him to check the dictionary every 8th word.

Blogger Giraffe April 11, 2013 2:18 PM  

“Medal of Honor?” I ask, and the disbelief in my face makes my three roommates grin with delight. “As in, that blue ribbon with the white stars that goes on top of all the other ribbons?”

That is just bad. I'm not sure what he was trying to do with the last line be he makes the character look like a fool.

Anonymous Athor Pel April 11, 2013 2:27 PM  

" joe doakes April 11, 2013 1:34 PM

Jack, you're right, there are examples of wonderful dialogue in great literature. But there are competing complaints in these comments: the dialogue between enlisted soldiers isn't authentic to the period, and it's not melodic.

Yes. That's because they're grunts. That's how they talk. The actors' deliveries in Act of Valor were painfully wooden . . . but the word choices matched what I heard around Camp LeJeune.

I think you guys are trying to have it both ways and missing the entire point of the passage."





I'll go one step further. The kind of dialog you'll hear among real soldiers of any kind is going to be very crude and a lot of what they say in unguarded moments will likely make a civilian squirm... or nauseous, unless that civilian is former military.

To put it another way, what they say and how they say it will make their Momma cry. In fact it takes some time once they get out to break the habit.

They don't talk nice, they don't refrain from insulting someone that asks for it, they aren't articulate unless the insult requires it.

They're grunts, jarheads, squids and zoomies. They speak from the gut and the gonads. They dream of food, sleep and the sex they aren't having. They live for today and the only tomorrow that matters is their date of release from service, unless they're career military and only God can help those sad bastards.


Got it?


Anonymous Koanic April 11, 2013 2:32 PM  

Gay, will not read. At least in Vampire Earth the woman warriors are genetically souped up by psychic aliens. At least in Starship Troopers we get to see infantry chicks die badly, and inappropriately undermine unit morale in the showers. Tits.

BTW, above paragraph is best review ever.

Anonymous Athor Pel April 11, 2013 2:33 PM  

"scoobius dubious April 11, 2013 2:01 PM
... [edited for brevity]
BOTH: But you and I know
The Englishman's very shy."



That's just fooking gay.



Anonymous VD April 11, 2013 2:51 PM  

That is just bad. I'm not sure what he was trying to do with the last line be he makes the character look like a fool.

No, he's expressing incredulity in an ironically witty manner. It's the author's voice showing through the character. As in:

"He's the President."
"He's the President? As in, the guy who lives in the White House?"

Anonymous Heh April 11, 2013 2:57 PM  

No, he's expressing incredulity in an ironically witty manner. It's the author's voice showing through the character. As in:

"He's the President."
"He's the President? As in, the guy who lives in the White House?"


It was done better by Snake Plissken -- "The President of what?"

Blogger Giraffe April 11, 2013 3:31 PM  

No, he's expressing incredulity in an ironically witty manner.

It just sounds so awkward. I've noticed that you do that sometimes in your own books. Perhaps it is just my own bias, but it has a nails on the chalkboard squick effect on me most of the time. I don't think people speak that way very often, and when they do, it is with people they know and are comfortable with.

It's the author's voice showing through the character.

As Jack pointed out. Humor works better in first person past. I think there are more opportunities to inject a little wit without messing with the dialog.

I used to read Marko's blog. I can't remember why I quit reading, but I think it might have been for some leftist nonsense.

For 2.99, I think I'll put it on the maybe list.

Anonymous gwood April 11, 2013 4:04 PM  

"...but as Vox has noted, they pale against the Hugo anthologies and such that I was reading as a teenager in the 80's."
The Golden Age of Science Fiction is whatever was being published when the reader was a teen.

Anonymous scoobius dubious April 11, 2013 5:37 PM  

"That's just fooking gay."

Maybe, or maybe not. But either way, it's still very good English, as opposed to this clanking drivel:

Priest gives up his attempt to sneak a peek at Baker’s cards, and leans back in his chair. “Staff Sergeant Fallon. She used to be a First Sergeant, but they busted her down for striking an officer.”
“I thought they kicked you out of the service for hitting a superior,” I say, smelling a military fish tale.
“Oh, they do,” Hansen says. “That’s unless you’re a Medal of Honor winner. They don’t get rid of certified heroes. It would be bad PR.”
“Medal of Honor?” I ask, and the disbelief in my face makes my three roommates grin with delight. “As in, that blue ribbon with the white stars that goes on top of all the other ribbons?”
“That’s the one. She got it when the NAC did that excursion into mainland China a few years back, at the Battle of Dalian.


I'm going to have to swallow like an entire bottle of Percocet to rid myself of that awful noise.


Anonymous Jack Amok April 11, 2013 5:52 PM  

Well, though I agree with Scoob about the dialog, I can't recommend his attempt at improving it.

Anonymous James May April 11, 2013 6:07 PM  

I wasn't trying to say the dialogue is good or bad so much as wanting it to reflect at least some awareness of WHEN it's occurring. It's one thing to say it's 2108 and another to weave that into the narrative's prose aside from obvious expressions of tech.

It's 2013 and there's an awful lot of novels. If this is an artistic expression, a writer should make a case for themselves - why this one, how are you different? Show me something - not a lot, just something - a little something.

I just want to know the author is not asleep at the wheel and to show me why they're writing, why they're a writer. After all, I'm not reading just to pass time til I die.

Even one word, put in in only 10 different places can emphasize a thing and not get in the way. It can tell me an author is there and aware and saying "See, I'm here. Don't worry. Trust me and enjoy the ride."

Dialogue is a matter of taste and that doesn't equal a review, not do I want to criticize an author for a book they didn't try and write in the first place.

It's a delicate dance with many different solutions. In the end, the solution will and must be unique, otherwise what is an artist? Alter dialogue too much and it's a distracting ADD fest.

The fact is that many SF authors use dialogue that is time bound and not time specific. But the way to get away with that is to indicate, with certain cues, that we may be listening to people talking in a way that is different a lot more than is actually being shown.

Doing that can indicate wholesale changes of culture without having to pound it home relentlessly and get in the way of everything. Heinlein might have the character strike a cigarette to life and at least decades of culture are brought to life in that one single act.

When the USDA got caught out recently making employees recently chant against themselves racially, I took the mission statement from the guy's website.

In order to make it futuristic but indicate it was the same PC, I used two words - "glee" and "glo."

I combined them, used them in front of words, etc. "Glee" had obvious connotations but without, I thought, being too timebound. I used them in a context that made it obvious they were synonymous with multiculturalism and diversity. Using "race pimp" or some other thing like that would've been nonsensical. Making up a simple word like "unmajority" in this context is actually using a paragraph and telling backstory covering decades and depraved cultural mindset. How did that word come about? Well, we know how it did. I also made up a fake book called "Diversi-glee Initiatives, Gender, Glo and Cross-Cultural Lines."

So, a couple of words can indicate the entire thrust of a culture and balance out phrases like "pulling your own weight," because the author is letting you know they are aware and at least trying and that you are indeed in another world. Turn a phrase on its head fer cryin' out loud - it won't kill you. Can't the "wee small hours of a gray day" be the "small gray hours of a wee day?" Just for grins? To wake me up?

Anyway, that's how I think about such things.

Anonymous Tosser April 11, 2013 8:26 PM  

@Daniel

Thank you.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 11, 2013 8:41 PM  

@Scoob:

"That's just fooking gay."

Maybe, or maybe not. But either way, it's still very good English, as opposed to this clanking drivel:


Yeahhh, I think the difference between a Producer of Prose(tm) and a consumer of prose is on display here. Worse yet, my soullessly pragmatic inner engineer is rearing its ugly head after ruthlessly bitch-slapping the Mac-using, beret-wearing inner Artiste.

I totally get your point contrasting melliflous prose with grating prose.

However, when reading for pleasure, I am more interested in the contents of the vessel rather than the vessel itself...substance over style and all. Ideally, yes I would love to have great story and prose, but I'll gladly suffer bad prose for a good story, or serviceable prose for a merely decent story.

A clunky dialogue erring on the A.D.D. side where the protagonist gets the low-down on his shit-hot platoon and their water-walking leader is certainly more appealing to this Philistine than the liquid Rogers & Hammerstein concluding that a studly American with English good looks could really rack the booty. :-)

Anonymous Ha April 11, 2013 8:48 PM  

However, when reading for pleasure, I am more interested in the contents of the vessel rather than the vessel itself...substance over style and all. Ideally, yes I would love to have great story and prose, but I'll gladly suffer bad prose for a good story, or serviceable prose for a merely decent story.

My students often whine that I should grade for the content of the ideas rather than form / style / grammar.

I tell them that crappy ideas are usually crappily expressed, and good ideas are usually well-expressed.

Anonymous James May April 11, 2013 9:02 PM  

There's a fine line between well-expressed and conformity. That's why E. M. Forster asserted that grammar in the hands of a pedant could be dangerous. I assume because of the notion that it suppressed art.

Blogger Some dude April 11, 2013 9:11 PM  

Thank you!

I think the female warrior trope is an ancient fascistic concept going back to Plato. I never liked him, i thought he was a smart ass from nearly the beginning of his book.

Anonymous The other skeptic April 11, 2013 11:46 PM  

Apropos of the Warrior Female trope, Castrated male beating up female MMA fighters (are they really fighters?)

Anonymous scoobius dubious April 12, 2013 6:26 AM  

Just as an exercise, and not really to prove a point (which can't of course be proven anyway), here's an example of how I might --there are many choices-- translate the opening of Proust's novel.

Here is what Proust says:

Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure.

Here's what I think I'd say in English, taking lots of liberties, mind you, in order to fully express what I believe he meant by the oddness of his original phrasing...

"For quite a long time, for no real reason that's clear to me, I got into the habit of putting myself to bed at an unusually early time of evening."



Blogger Ecclesiastes April 12, 2013 7:14 AM  

Vox,

Some characters are fools and, when the main character is to mature, he too may begin as a fool.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 12, 2013 9:36 AM  

"My students often whine that I should grade for the content of the ideas rather than form / style / grammar.

I tell them that crappy ideas are usually crappily expressed, and good ideas are usually well-expressed"

I wouldn't argue with that, especially at the school-level. Students need to learn the "right" ways to do things first. They can improvise later. Although I'm betting you haven't read many technical papers :-) I'm pretty much of the mindset that the quality of the idea is often inversely proportional to the quality of the presentation on paper.

However, clunky, arrhythmic prose is not the same thing as grammatically error-laden prose. I'll tolerate clunky prose for the sake of the story, but plain old sloppy grammar and/or spelling will get me to drop the read like a bad habit.

Anonymous Ha April 12, 2013 10:19 AM  

Although I'm betting you haven't read many technical papers :-)

In my other guise, I proofread technical papers written by engineers. In that case, the content is good but the prose is awful, and seriously hinders them getting their points across. That's not really the same thing as novel, though. I can't even think of an example of a novel that had great ideas but clunky prose. Bad prose usually makes me throw the book away before I've had time to see the "good ideas".

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 12, 2013 2:03 PM  

" In that case, the content is good but the prose is awful, and seriously hinders them getting their points across."

As I said, the quality of the content is often inversely proportional to the quality of the writing. :-) I consider my technical writing to be average in general; however, I'd say that it is well above average compared to that of other engineers. Tragic.

I've read a few novels that were good stories, yet had clunky prose, and one or two that had bad prose. I'm sure that my tolerance for bad prose is increased by my relative ignorance of grammatical rules in the same manner that bad math might not drive you to stop reading.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 12, 2013 2:05 PM  

*not to say that you are bad at math, per se. Feel free to insert subject matter outside your area-of-expertise. :-)

Anonymous Emperor of Icecream April 12, 2013 3:57 PM  

**Kloos abides by what has become the SF-MIL trope of a sex-neutral military in which men and women enlist, shower, fight, and bunk together. That this is entirely absurd is beside the point and in no way detracts from the story**

Barely detracts form the story? Try 'it detracts so massively that anybody who actually has any military experience or who has known any men or women can't finish the book.'

What a load of crap this book was.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 12, 2013 4:16 PM  

@Emperor

Did you actually read it? The future unisex .mil wasn't what strained my suspension-of-disbelief...but something else about the future .mil did really bother me.

If you read it, and you're ex-mil you'll know what I'm talking about.

Anonymous Emperor of Icecream April 12, 2013 4:42 PM  

DT,
I started it but had to put it down after a couple of chapters. If the unisex mil where men and women were treated as completely fungible didn't strain your suspension of disbelief, you need a new suspension. Book was garbage.

Anonymous Darth Toolpodicus April 12, 2013 5:30 PM  

@EoIC

"the unisex mil where men and women were treated as completely fungible"

heh...that's why this is filed under fiction. The part that really strained it for me was a description of open Officer-Enlisted fraternization.

The rest of the story was plenty entertaining.

Anonymous Emperor of Icecream April 12, 2013 5:57 PM  

Yeah. To be honest, that's the part where I actually stopped reading (you're talking about his girly from basic), but the fungible stuff sucked hardcore and I would have stopped soon anyhow because of it. Basically, the part with the open officer/enlisted fraternizing combined with the complete ignorance of the way the male-female thing actually works convinced me that not even a fictional military could function like that, so I stopped readgin. I am only willing to accept fundamental changes in human character and biology if there is an in-story reason for it or if the characters are aliens or something.

Anonymous Obvious April 13, 2013 5:52 PM  

Open Officer-Enlisted fraternization is permissible in the US military if a prior relationship exists. There are plenty of open Officer-Enlisted couples extant in today's military.

Also, it amuses me to see a bunch of people who haven't recently served whining about women in the military. Women being allowed into Combat Arms MOS will no more change things on a functional level than the repeal of DADT did.

Blogger Markku April 14, 2013 9:33 PM  

"For quite a long time, for no real reason that's clear to me, I got into the habit of putting myself to bed at an unusually early time of evening."

To actually prove a point, this is the Finnish translation (Pirkko Peltonen & Helvi Nurminen) of the opening sentence:

Pitkät ajat menin varhain nukkumaan.

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