The Hunt for Red October

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Perhaps the most unusual fact about this best-seller and one which explains much about its theme and problems is that it was published by the United States Naval Academy. To a great extent, this thriller is an unabashed tribute to the technological achievements of American navy personnel, who are trained to use computers, sonar, and secret detecting devices and to operate offensive and defensive ships in and on the sea and in the air.

There are three heroes in the book--Russian sub commander Marko Ramius, American CIA agent Jack Ryan, and the machines. The machines are by far the most interesting and well-developed. The submarine commander is a close second, while Ryan, the supposed central hero of the tale, is the most stereotyped and undeveloped of the three.

The tale itself has two variants, problems that have to be dealt with in capturing Red October. First, there is a KGB spy on the defecting sub whose job it is to destroy the vessel if it looks as if it will fall into enemy hands. Second, there is the problem of obtaining the sub for study without having to return it to the Soviets after the defection. The American CIA agent and the Soviet sub commander join forces with a plan to carry out the defection.

In spite of its problems, an air of tension does prevail throughout the novel, particularly in those scenes aboard the Soviet sub in which the commander must both defect and, with the help of his co-conspirators, keep the crew from knowing what is happening. Clancy is also clever enough to keep five or six narrative questions in the air so that he can end chapters with a teaser, thus making the reader read on for the answer.

The central attraction of the tale, however, remains the detailed accounting of the triumph of American military technology over Soviet science. The reader will probably close the final page of the book feeling somewhat safer than he did when he picked it up.