Clancy has stated that he does not like to analyze the themes of his books. “A theme to me is a question that a high-school English teacher asks,” he told an interviewer, explaining that his literary concerns were with more essential matters. “In the real world, and that’s what I try to write about as basically as I can, somebody has to get the job done.” Nevertheless, there are obvious themes in Clancy’s works. Clancy claims that, like most Americans, he is entranced with technology, and “the military happen to have the best toys.” If so, it is not surprising that The Hunt for Red October became a best seller. From the opening paragraph, the reader is caught up in the world of men at war, a world about which Clancy seems exceptionally knowledgeable. The attempt of the Soviet captain Mark Ramius to turn his nuclear submarine over to the Americans shows both sides caught in a web of circumstances that could lead to nuclear war between the superpowers. The author’s expertise in military technology and in the minds and mores of those who fight—or, to use Clancy’s words, those who must get the job done—is compelling and convincing.
The harnessing of the latest military technology to a plot in which a nuclear war is a possible outcome is a combination likely to attract many readers. Clancy, however, denies that he either invented what has been called the techno-thriller or that his writings should be so labeled. Clancy claims that he aims merely to be as accurate as possible; because he is writing about war and terrorism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, technology must play a central role.
Technology, however, is not the master of humanity in Clancy’s fiction. The machines can do only what men and women would have them do. Obviously, technology can be used for destructive and immoral purposes. Underneath the violence, there are pervasive elements of good and evil in Clancy’s novels. Evil generally results from corrupt institutions, false ideologies, and immoral values. Although the author was strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and what it stood for—The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin all depict the Soviets as the mortal enemies of American values and institutions—many of Clancy’s Soviet characters are sympathetically drawn.
The Soviet world portrayed in Clancy’s novels, however, is not morally or spiritually equal to the West. In Clancy’s works, the Soviet system devalues traditional religious and spiritual values; humans are no better than animals, and international terrorists are no more than common killers. Morality and immorality are opposing foes in Clancy’s novels, and the good always win in the end. Neither pacifism nor neutrality, however, can preserve the West and its Judeo-Christian ethic; in Clancy’s literary world, military values and strengths are necessary and imperative. Fortuitously for him, his early publications coincided with a political generation eager to shake off the perception of American weakness and debility that followed the Vietnam War. It is no wonder that the Reagan White House found in Clancy a kindred spirit.
Clancy, though, has little respect for most politicians; too often they are amoral, committed to their own careers. The unnamed president in The Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin is often too pragmatic, but ultimately he makes the correct and necessary decisions. The same president is diminished in Clear and Present Danger because of his concern with his coming reelection campaign. President Fowler, his liberal successor, is worse, combining ignorance and arrogance, and he almost starts World War III by threatening to use nuclear weapons against the Soviets in The Sum of All Fears. Individual politicians may have vision and competence, but most of Clancy’s are simply concerned with keeping their offices at any cost. In Executive Orders, when his protagonist, Jack Ryan, becomes president after a terrorist attack kills the incumbent president, Ryan appoints successful businessmen as his close advisers because, unlike self-serving politicians, they have amassed great fortunes while serving the common good through their private enterprise accomplishments. Although Clancy’s books are populated by military figures, his alter ego in his novels is Jack Ryan, a civilian. Ryan, who has a doctorate in history and has made a small fortune in the stock market, saves the heir to the British throne in Patriot Games, becomes a consultant to the CIA and the national security adviser, and finally ascends to the presidency itself. Ryan is not a superman—he has a fear of flying and a weakness for cigarettes—but in the convoluted plots of Clancy’s books, Ryan is forced into the world of terror and war. He then becomes the man who, in Clancy’s phrase, gets the job done.
Ryan is not the leading figure in all Clancy’s books; however, he is the thread that ties the many subplots and numerous characters together. Clancy’s works can thus be read as a whole. Not only Ryan but many other figures also appear and reappear, sometimes as major characters, other times in smaller parts. A character such as John Clark plays only a small—although crucial—role in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, but he has a much larger part in Clear and Present Danger and the lead role in Without Remorse.
Reviewers have criticized the lack of character development in Clancy’s novels. While the dialogue is generally satisfying, many of his characters are indeed one-dimensional figures. Clancy is writing largely about desperate crises; action, not introspection, is perhaps expected. The character of Ryan, however, does evolve from novel to novel. By the time that The Sum of All Fears was published in 1991, Ryan was in his forties, working too hard at the CIA, neglecting his family, worrying about his inability to take his young son to a baseball game, and drinking too much. Even his marriage seemed in danger. The centrality of the family is an underlying theme in Clancy’s works; Ryan’s own family is the model modern family.
The ultimate crisis of Patriot Games sees Ryan defending his family and home from a terrorist assault. The family personifies and preserves the moral and religious values crucial to society. It is a deeply conservative and traditional view that is undoubtedly related to the author’s middle-class Catholic background; that synthesis of traditional values with the latest technology and the threat of total war explains his great popularity.
The Hunt for Red October
First published: 1984
Type of work: Novel
A Soviet submarine captain attempts to defect to the United States.
Clancy’s first published novel, The Hunt for Red October, became a runaway best seller. Writing at a time of heightened Cold War tensions, Clancy touched a deep chord. Soviet submarine captain Mark Ramius is disillusioned by the communist system and the Soviet state. His wife, a former ballerina, died on an operating table at the hands of a drunken doctor who, because of his Communist Party connections, was not punished for his misdeed. The leading Soviet expert in submarine tactics, Ramius decides to defect to the United States.
A number of themes common to Clancy’s work appear in The Hunt for Red October. His knowledge of submarine technology and tactics carries the reader into an underwater world that, because of the technological framework, seems more fact than fiction. The Soviets do not want a nuclear war, but they might resort to war to recapture Ramius and his submarine, and power divorced from morality could well destroy the world. Ramius, driven by family feelings and moral considerations, transcends a system that has proved to be an evil failure.
On the other side is Jack Ryan, a consultant to the CIA. Because he is only a professor of history, he lacks the authority government office might give him; he is neither a high-ranking military figure nor a politician. Ryan is an Everyman who is willing and able to do what is necessary. Eventually, Ryan boards the Red October and is forced to kill a committed young communist who has been ordered to sink the submarine rather than have it fall into American hands. Although his submarine is damaged, Ramius sails his ship into an American port. Ryan has received an education in the necessity of using power, political and military, to maintain the good society: It is not enough merely to write about history.
As in all...
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