SOURCE: "Red Storm Rising," in Time, August 11, 1986, p. 64.
[In the following review, Isaacson offers a generally favorable assessment of Red Storm Rising.]
"What modern combat lacks in humanity, it more than makes up for in intensity," observes a reporter aboard an American frigate that has just repelled a Soviet missile attack. The same could be said of Tom Clancy's new military thriller, Red Storm Rising. In this version of blocs in conflict, the most compelling actors are the high-tech weapons that Clancy portrays with deadly accuracy.
The author, a Maryland insurance broker with a passion for military hardware, blipped onto the national radar screen with his 1984 novel, The Hunt for Red October, a tale of a defecting Soviet nuclear submarine and its conflicted crew. Published by the Naval Institute Press, known primarily for academic and technical journals, the book was praised by Ronald Reagan as "the perfect yarn," became the sleeper of the year and stayed on the best-seller lists for seven months. With his new novel, Clancy has climbed out of the water. This time his subject is nothing less than World War III.
When Muslim fundamentalists disable a crucial Soviet oil refinery, Moscow works out a cold-blooded scheme to prevent the country's economy from collapsing: KGB agents blow up a group of Soviet schoolchildren visiting the Kremlin; the U.S.S.R. then blames the attack on West German terrorists, launches an invasion of Central Europe, captures Iceland and rushes the navy into action in an attempt to control the North Atlantic sea-lanes—all as a ruse for grabbing Persian Gulf oil facilities. The pretext serves Clancy better than it does the Soviets: it provides a fine backdrop for his account of strategies and shoot-outs.
Laymen tend to envision a future world war as instant Armageddon. Clancy knows better. Instead of staging yet another atomic holocaust, he imagines a scenario that accounts for much U.S. defense spending: a protracted showdown arising from a conventional Soviet attack on NATO. Although each side briefly contemplates "going nuclear," neither is willing to reach for the button; instead, the fighting involves a land war on the plains of Germany and games of hide-and-seek on the high seas.
For true military aficionados, the book offers an abundance of informed tidbits: an appearance by the secret radar-evading F-19 Stealth fighter plane, which the Pentagon has refused to admit exists even after one apparently crashed in California last month; descriptions of advances in antisubmarine weapons, among them passive sonars towed by computer-packed surveillance ships; and a stark examination of the critical role that Iceland plays in the naval strategy of the Western alliance.
Most of the material in the book was gathered from a number of unclassified sources and journals. The Navy provided unofficial support, allowing Clancy to visit nuclear submarines and spend a week aboard a frigate. To help simulate the look, sound and feel of combat, he worked with Larry Bond, an ex-naval officer who developed a war game called Harpoon. In it, players simulate naval engagements, using the newest and most sophisticated arms.
Throughout the war, missile and torpedo firings are described in harrowing (and sometimes reassuring) detail, and conversations among radar technicians are loaded with the requisite Pentagon jargon. Clancy convincingly shows the importance of electronic intelligence—gathered by satellites, ships, planes and submarines—to modern warfare. Yet it is an old-fashioned human component that proves to be a critical factor. One of the multitude of subplots involves four Americans wandering the barren terrain of occupied Iceland, reporting Soviet movements on a primitive two-way radio. At first, allied analysts...
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are skeptical about the information, but it turns out to be crucial. Here Clancy goes off automatic pilot; there are even a few romantic interludes, as if to remind the reader that the most brilliantly designed war games must depend, sooner or later, on that unpredictable computer called the human brain.
For Homo sapiens fans, the Iceland episodes will be far too short—they are a mere fraction of the 43-chapter epic. The book has a variety of heroes and villains in its complex weave of plot strands, but the diffuse locales and the lack of an appealing main character make for a somewhat choppy narrative. Intrigues within the Politburo are interspersed with tense moments in the control rooms of submarines deep in the Atlantic, arguments among analysts in Scotland, daring assaults by fighter pilots on satellites, feats by covert commandos and battlefield maneuvers by intrepid tank commanders. The tightly focused Hunt for Red October allowed Clancy to develop the psychological and even religious motivations of the main characters. For too much of Red Storm Rising, the humans are obscured by the afterburn of their weapons systems.
Oddly enough, it is this very flaw that enhances the credibility of Red Storm Rising. World War III, by most postulates, is not likely to involve a grand Tolstoyan sweep of personal valor. Arsenals and tactics might indeed be set in motion by the frailties of flesh-and-blood players, but once launched the lethal machines would take on a life of their own—almost like characters in a novel. That possibility, vividly rendered, is what gives Clancy's book such a chilling ring of truth.
Tom Clancy 1947–
American novelist and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Clancy's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 45.
Clancy is the best-selling author of popular thrillers featuring detailed military weaponry, high-tech espionage, and enthralling geopolitical crises. With the publication of his debut novel, The Hunt for Red October (1984), Clancy became a literary phenomenon, attracting a large and devoted audience that includes statesmen and high-ranking military officials. Several of his novels—The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games (1987), and Clear and Present Danger (1989)—have been adapted into blockbuster Hollywood films. Considered an originator of the techno-thriller, a genre of contemporary fiction embodying combined characteristics of the thriller, spy fiction, and science fiction, Clancy's patriotic, strongly anti-Communist novels appeal to the atmosphere of national pride, military supremacy, and political conservatism at the end of the cold war.
Born Thomas Lanier Clancy Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland, Clancy was raised in a middle-class home by his father, a mail carrier, and mother, a department store employee. An avid reader as a child, he soon developed a fascination with military machines and space technology. He attended local Roman Catholic schools, then enrolled at Loyola College in Baltimore, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1969. While at Loyola, Clancy joined the U.S. Army Officers' Training Corp, but poor eyesight prevented him from serving during the Vietnam War. Clancy married Wanda Thomas the summer after his college graduation and immediately began work as an insurance agent in Baltimore; Hartford, Connecticut; and then Owings, Maryland, at a small insurance firm owned by his wife's grandfather. After purchasing the family company in 1980, Clancy found spare time to study military journals and revive his desire to write. Four years later he published The Hunt for Red October through the Naval Institute Press, a publisher of scholarly titles that had never printed an original work of fiction. Through enthusiastic word-of-mouth endorsements, including a fortuitous comment by President Ronald Reagan who praised the book as "a perfect yarn," The Hunt for Red October shot up best-seller lists to become an unexpected hit.
The incredible popularity of Clancy's first novel was duplicated by Red Storm Rising (1986), produced with the help of war game expert and friend Larry Bond, Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988), Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears (1991), Without Remorse (1994), Debt of Honor (1994), and Executive Orders (1996). With the enormous international sales of his novels, Clancy became one of the most popular and financially successful authors of the 1980s. Three of his novels have been adapted into films—The Hunt for Red October in 1990, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, Patriot Games in 1992, and Clear and Present Danger in 1994, both starring Harrison Ford. Clancy has also produced several nonfiction studies of military organizations and tactics, including Submarine (1993), Marine (1996), Airborne (1997), Armored Cav (1997), Fighter Wing (1991), and Into the Storm (1998). He currently resides at his estate overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in Huntingtown, Maryland.
Clancy's techno-thriller novels revolve around description of advanced military technology and intelligence operations employed by American government agents to subvert the nefarious machinations of international antagonists—mainly Soviets, Middle Eastern extremists, and terrorists. While the instruments of war and espionage figure prominently in his Fiction, Clancy's novels also feature heroic male protagonists whose devotion to country and family underscore their superior moral authority and the triumphant destiny of the United States and its allies. In most of his books this central character is represented by Jack Ryan, a brilliant, though modest and happily married ex-Marine, CIA consultant, stockbroker, and scholar with a doctorate in economics and history. Ryan first appeared in The Hunt for Red October, a suspenseful thriller about the defection of a Soviet nuclear submarine under the command of Marko Ramius, a discontented Russian officer who seeks asylum in the United States. Pursued by both Soviet and American navies, Ramius survives a harrowing underwater chase, torpedo assaults, and a mutinous plot, and is guided to safety by Ryan and Bart Mancuso, captain of the American submarine Dallas. Clancy's second novel, Red Storm Rising, describes a future world war waged between the United States and Soviet Union with conventional weapons. The plot is set in motion when a key Siberian oil refinery is destroyed by Muslim fundamentalists, causing an energy shortage in the Soviet Union. The Russians respond by orchestrating a terrorist attack on their own people, used in turn as a pretext for invading Central Europe and Iceland while seizing Middle Eastern oil fields. Unlike other Clancy novels, Ryan is absent from the story and the protagonist role is shared by several American servicemen. Ryan reappears in Patriot Games to rescue members of the British royal family during a botched abduction scheme conducted by the Ulster Liberation Army, a fictional Maoist faction of the Irish Republican Army. Ryan is knighted by the British and befriended by the Prince of Wales, and returns to teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where members of the ULA track him down to take revenge on him and the visiting royal family. In The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Ryan is embroiled in a complicated espionage scheme involving a jeopardized American spy in the Kremlin and the high stakes race between the United States and Soviet Union to deploy a "Star Wars" anti-ballistic missile defense system. Clear and Present Danger turns to the subject of powerful South American drug cartels and the American war on drugs. In this book, a U.S. president tacitly approves aggressive covert military operations against Colombian cocaine farmers and drug traffickers. When Ryan, now acting deputy of the CIA, discovers the unconstitutional American involvement, he intervenes to rescue betrayed U.S. soldiers cut off deep in the Colombian jungle to perish with their secrets. The Sum of All Fears follows the drastic efforts of an anti-Zionist faction to undermine a recently forged Vatican treaty, proposed by Ryan, to end hostilities among Israelis and Arabs. The terrorists, an amalgam of Arab extremists, European mercenaries, and a Native American activist, detonate a pilfered nuclear weapon in Denver, Colorado, during an NFL Super Bowl game, bringing many casualties and nearly drawing the United States and Russia into war. Without Remorse features another major Clancy protagonist, John Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who returns to Vietnam with specially trained Marines to rescue American POWs. Set in the early 1970s, Kelly abducts a ruthless Soviet agent in Vietnam to force a diplomatic solution and, at home, secretly exterminates a Baltimore drug ring to avenge the brutal murder of his girlfriend. Due to his role in covert activities, John Kelly becomes John Clark with a new identity provided by the CIA. Jack Ryan reemerges in Debt of Honor as a national security advisor, then vice president of the United States, at the center of an international crisis stemming from strained economic relations between the United States and Japan. War breaks out when the Japanese government, newly installed with imperialist corporate tycoons, sabotages American financial markets, invades the Mariana Islands, sinks U.S. submarines, and threatens to use nuclear weapons. Ryan counterattacks with high-tech weapons and sophisticated espionage, involving the participation of John Clark from Without Remorse. In the end, however, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashes into the U.S. Capitol, killing nearly everyone in government except Ryan, who thus becomes the next U.S. president. Executive Orders begins where Debt of Honor leaves off, placing Ryan at the helm of a crippled government while the newly formed United Islamic Republic, a merger of Iran and Iraq, conquers Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and plans to invade Afghanistan and Pakistan with the support of India and China. While struggling to reconstruct the leadership of the United States and the world, Ryan also contends with a deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus and a scheming Montana militia group. Clark returns in Rainbow Six (1998), now resigned from the CIA and leading an elite group of international counterterrorists based in England. Immediately successful in quelling three terrorist attacks in quick succession, the group draws unwanted attention from Soviet, Australian, and American factions.
Clancy is a preeminent innovator of the techno-thriller genre. The huge commercial success and consistently intriguing plots of his action-packed novels distinguish his work from that of other contemporary mainstream authors. While most critics find little literary merit in his work, few deny his remarkable talent as a storyteller and impressive knowledge of state-of-the-art military and communications technology. His detractors are quick to cite many flaws in the quality of his writing, particularly uninspired prose, stereotypical characters, and verbosity. Many critics also object to pervasive examples of jingoism, racism, misogyny, and uncritical acceptance of authority and Judeo-Christian morality in his novels. A staunch conservative, Clancy is hailed by many Republicans and right-leaning readers as a proponent of nationalism and a powerful American military spokesperson. Others view his glorification of advanced weaponry and American ascendancy as a backlash against anti-military sentiment following the Vietnam War and as propaganda for the military-industrial establishment. Despite such criticism concerning his literary skill and political ideals, Clancy has captivated legions of readers with his highly entertaining brand of escapist literature.
SOURCE: "Shadow of a Gunman," in Book World—The Washington Post, July 26, 1987, pp. 1-2.
[In the following review, Hyde praises the entertainment value of Patriot Games, though concludes that the novel is "well below Clancy's previous efforts."]
Tom Clancy's first two books were not so much novels as extended commentaries on war games—which I mean as a compliment, of course, not a complaint. In sitting down to play out Midway, I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have at my elbow, offering advice, except Admiral Spruance himself. But in both those early books, the deck was very much stacked in Clancy's favor. The map board was in place, the pieces arranged, the rules well established. Again, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's interesting to see how Clancy has fared now that he's designed a game all on his own—for Patriot Games is about terrorism, where there are no rules, no uniforms and no set-piece battles at all.
Things begin well enough. Jack Ryan, Clancy's previous hero in The Hunt for Red October, is walking across St. James's Park in London when a splinter group of the IRA attempts to snatch Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Prince William. There's a lot of shooting and blood, but Jack is a good, decent man and an ex-Marine and so he plunges right in and saves the day, despite taking a bullet in the shoulder for his trouble.
A spirited opening. But immediately the book bogs down: we are forced to suffer, along with Jack, through 200 pages of his hospitalization and convalescence. Indeed, all that enlivens this section of the novel is the Royal Family. Of course, they have to be brought in—Jack, after all, has saved two princes of the realm. Graciously, Her Majesty knights him (leaving Maggie and Ron to sort out the legal technicalities) and then lays on a special tour of the Tower of London. This is ludicrous, of course, but it could be worse; you can more or less keep Prince Charles and Prince Philip separate in your mind as you read.
Clancy's difficulty here is that he attempts to assimilate the Royals to American values through the locker room—Charles is an all right guy because he flew Phantoms—and the sitcom: Elizabeth and Philip are old married hands straight out of Father Knows Best, while Di is happily preggers again. This is fine, as far as it goes, but it overlooks the crucial fact that these people are Brits. Clancy doesn't seem to understand that royal gratitude, in such circumstance, would be genuine enough, but certainly wouldn't extend to wanting Jack as a friend.
Still, he finally escapes them, and returns home to Annapolis. There, after a few cloying scenes of suburban bliss—Jack's wife is also expecting—the bracing American air finally gives the plot some get-up-and-go. The terrorists, it seems, are intent on revenge, and when Charles and Diana, on an American tour, drop by Jack's place for barbecue, they take their chance. Soon, we're back in a world of Redeye missiles, Browning automatics and police car chases. On this ground, few people can beat Clancy, and he gives us a bang-up climax with plenty of helicopters, dead bodies and a rousing sea chase—the prince, you'll be happy to know, acquits himself well.
There are two problems with this. The first is literary. In the end, Clancy is not quite sure which game he wants to play. Every once in a while, Patriot Games tries to be a spy story, but the intrigue is so feeble and artificial that Clancy quickly gives you the solution to his mysteries and reverts to the pyrotechnics of the adventure yarn. Here, he's more confident, but by dividing his attention he prevents the action from ever gaining momentum.
The second problem is even greater and yet, in a curious way, it saves the book. I can't remember when I last read a novel so politically naive. Clancy apparently subscribes to every single myth in which authority cloaks itself. They're all here: God, the home, the family; law and order; friendly British bobbies and stalwart NCOs—not to mention Her Majesty and Their Royal Highnesses. Of course, the values embodied in these myths are important enough, but surely Clancy doesn't need to take them so literally. The office of the presidency is no doubt worthy of respect, but I'd still be skeptical of Reagan's news conferences: and though I have the greatest appreciation for the extraordinarily fine, and delicate, tradition of authority represented by the monarchy, this doesn't require me to believe that the Princess of Wales has any more brains than Miss Universe.
Still, one should give Clancy his due. He has the virtue of his vice—enthusiasm. And though one can argue that this is the most dangerous virtue of all, it is the moving force in his book. I didn't believe a word of Patriot Games, but I certainly believed that Clancy believed, and that's enough to carry you through.
In short: The Hardy Boys Meet the Royals—well below Clancy's previous efforts, but some pop in the end. Beach bags should be bulging with it all through the summer.
The Hunt for Red October (novel) 1984Red Storm Rising (novel) 1986Patriot Games (novel) 1987The Cardinal of the Kremlin (novel) 1988Clear and Present Danger (novel) 1989The Sum of All Fears (novel) 1991Submarine (nonfiction) 1993Without Remorse (novel) 1994Debt of Honor (novel) 1994Executive Orders (novel) 1996Marine (nonfiction) 1996Airborne (nonfiction) 1997Armored Cav (nonfiction) 1997Fighter Wing (nonfiction) 1997Into the Storm (nonfiction) 1998Rainbow Six (novel) 1998
SOURCE: "White Knight, Green Villains," in New York Times Book Review, August 2, 1987, p. 11.
[In the following review, Thomas offers a favorable review of Patriot Games.]
Just after Jack Ryan, a 31-year-old American tourist and former Marine officer, joins his doctor wife and 4-year-old daughter in a park on the very first day of his first visit to London, he hears an explosion. Or "BOOM!" as Tom Clancy puts it. Two heavily armed men are attacking a just disabled Rolls-Royce. Ryan automatically classifies them as Irish Republican Army terrorists and instinctively, or at least without mulling it over much, blindsides, disarms and cripples one of them and kills the other, but not before being wounded himself in a shootout that takes place within hailing distance of Buckingham Palace.
Upon waking in a hospital, Ryan learns that the limousine's passengers were none other than the Prince of Wales; his wife, Princess Diana, and their 4-month-old infant. For his bravery, Ryan is knighted by an understandably grateful Queen Elizabeth; the British start calling him Sir John, and the reader, disbelief by now totally suspended, is still barely three dozen pages into Mr. Clancy's long and bloody novel about terrorism, revenge and how any number of complicated things really work.
Prince Charles, visiting Ryan in the hospital, confesses to being disturbed by press reports that question his own inaction during the attack. In a burst of robust camaraderie that might make some royalists wince, Ryan assures the Prince: "What do reporters know about anything? They don't do anything, for crying out loud…. You're not some dumb kid, sir. You're a trained pro. Start acting like one." Prince Charles, spine stiffened, thanks Ryan gravely and leaves with a presumably firmer step and steadier eye.
Back in Annapolis, where he teaches history at the Naval Academy while his wife performs eye surgery, Ryan slowly recovers from his wound and politely resists the blandishments of the C.I.A., which wants to recruit him for his brilliantly analytical mind.
Meanwhile, the terrorist band that calls itself the Ulster Liberation Army (U.L.A.), and is referred to as "a Maoist offshoot of the Provos," is dreaming up yet another terrorist operation that will wreak revenge on Jack Ryan in America and also discredit the rival Provos. It's an elegant but flawed scheme that drives Ryan straight into the willing arms of the C.I.A. There he uses the agency's enormous resources in an attempt to track down the terrorists who have nearly destroyed him and his family.
Sandwiched in between all this action are erudite and clear-as-day descriptions of such things as weapons large and small, satellite photography, eye surgery, the interstices of the Naval Academy and what may seem to some like the longest flight the Concorde ever made from Heathrow to Dulles International Airport.
Mr. Clancy's ability to describe mechanisms and how they work with absolute clarity carries over into his characterization. Not only does he make his protagonist, Jack Ryan, a white knight—both literally and figuratively—but he also makes his fellow heroes just as stalwart and nearly as stuffy.
Save for a lone American black, the villains in Patriot Games are all deeply dyed Irish ones, devoid of any compassion or hatred of social injustice or whatever it was, if anything, that turned them into terrorists in the first place.
Yet by sticking to the explicit and obvious, Mr. Clancy—well known as the author of the best sellers The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising—has written a novel that crackles more than it putters and should quite please those who, given the choice, will pick steadfast black and white over doubtful gray every time.
SOURCE: "Making the World Safe for Conventional War," in New York Times Book Review. July 31, 1988, p. 6.
[In the following review, Lekachman offers praise for The Cardinal of the Kremlin, which he considers "by far the best of the Jack Ryan series."]
Jack Ryan, the engaging, all-American hero of Tom Clancy's previous spy thrillers. The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, is entangled here in the high-stakes battle between America and the Soviet Union over the development of Star Wars. Mr. Clancy, a high-tech freak, permits no doubts about the feasibility of a space shield ultimately capable of rendering nuclear weapons obsolete. He is equally certain that, despite Soviet protestations to the contrary, our adversaries have committed more resources to Star Wars technology than we have.
Many technical obstacles impede the superpowers' progress toward a nuclear-free world in which wars will presumably be fought the old-fashioned way—via retail rather than wholesale slaughter. In order to achieve this balance of power, lasers, mirrors and computer software must operate in flawless coordination. After all, a leaky space shield may be worse than none at all if the enemy missiles that penetrate it provoke retaliatory strikes that are promptly followed by counterretaliation. It is needless to add that the country that masters space weaponry first will enormously enhance its bargaining position.
This is the logic that lies behind The Cardinal of the Kremlin, which is by far the best of the Jack Ryan series. In it, Mr. Clancy cuts back and forth from the United States to Moscow, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, touching down at various other locales in between. Nevertheless, it is always clear where we are, since the adventure on which Mr. Clancy sends us is of high quality. And while his prose is no better than workmanlike (the genre does not, after all, attract many budding Flauberts), the unmasking of the title's secret agent, the Cardinal, is as sophisticated an exercise in the craft of espionage as I have yet to encounter
According to Mr. Clancy, the Russians and the Americans each lead and lag in some aspects of the exotic Star Wars technology. Both sides deploy their finest scientists and engineers in search of solutions to problems so intricate only genius-class I.Q.'s can comprehend let alone solve them. The American ace is a certain Maj. Alan Gregory, a 29-year-old graduate of West Point who is the author of a doctoral dissertation on high-energy physics that is immediately classified Top Secret. Awed colleagues compare him to Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson. Like his Soviet opposite number, Col. Gennady Bondarenko, Gregory is devoted to achieving his country's technological primacy.
Research of the sort that Gregory and Bondarenko conduct is all very well, but theft can yield results a lot quicker. The American spy in the Kremlin, who is entrusted with this chore and who has been passing important information to the C.I.A. for three decades, is a highly decorated hero of World War II, the Great Patriotic War in Soviet parlance. His opposite number in America, who operates undercover for the Soviet Union at the laboratory where Gregory does his research, is a neurotic lesbian. Another of America's human assets turns out to be a man called simply the Archer, a heroic leader of the Afghan resistance who directs an assault on a Soviet research center that is temptingly close to the Afghan border.
Mr. Clancy keeps his readers well abreast of current politics and psychological theories as well as the latest technology. Part of the intrigue of the novel concerns the intricacies of power struggles within the Kremlin, where a character who resembles Mikhail Gorbachev does battle with an intractable ideologue modeled on Yegor Ligachev, the Soviet leader's second in command. A document very much like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty waits to be signed. An unreformed K.G.B. perfects the sensory-deprivation torture pioneered by Len Deighton in his 1963 novel, "The Ipcress File." And when American special forces are compelled to mount a "wet operation" in order to rescue Major Gregory from Russian agents, they fly in a psychiatrist to cope with the trauma that is induced by killing another human being. (Although this latter is a pleasant conceit, Mr. Clancy does not always come up with believable plot twists. In one of the less credible episodes, for example, his hero, Jack Ryan, lectures no less a personage than the Soviet General Secretary on the superiority of space shields over old-fashioned MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction.)
Mr. Clancy's publisher recently announced that he has signed a multi-book contract. I look forward to each one of the volumes yet to come, not least because their appearance will testify to Jack Ryan's continuing success in averting the next world war.
Flick, Arend. "Traitors and Heroes." Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 July 1987): 1, 10.
Offers tempered evaluation of Patriot Games.
Gibson, J. William. "Redeeming Vietnam: Techno-Thriller Novels of the 1980s." Cultural Critique 19 (Fall 1991): 179-202.
Explores the sociocultural context and function of the techno-thriller, including Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising.
Lernoux, Penny. "Just Say Colombia." Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 September 1989): 4.
A generally favorable review of Clear and Present Danger.
Miles, Jack. "An SDI 'Hamlet' without the Prince." Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 August 1988): 6.
Offers tempered assessment of The Cardinal of the Kremlin.
Shiflett, Dave. "The Clancy Solution to Drug Dealing." The Wall Street Journal (13 August 1993): A5.
Offers qualified praise for Without Remorse.
Stone, Oliver. "Who's That in the Oval Office?" New York Times Book Review (22 September 1996): 16-7.
A tempered review of Executive Orders.
SOURCE: "Crackdown in Colombia," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 13, 1989, pp. 1, 8.
[In the following review, Thomas offers a favorable assessment of Clear and Present Danger.]
In his search for a fictional clear and present danger that the nation might attack with its latest military hardware, Tom Clancy, novelist laureate of the military-industrial complex, has discovered the drug cartel that operates out of Medellin, Colombia, and that is getting enormously rich from America's apparently insatiable demand for cocaine.
And a rousing adventure it is, too, what with a fake military hanging aboard a Coast Guard cutter, plus several squads of U.S. Army infantrymen, all superbly trained killers, who are covertly infiltrated into Colombia only to be abandoned by a feckless national security adviser to the president.
There is also the reappearance of Clancy's favorite hero, Jack Ryan, U.S. Marine, stockbroker, history professor, knight of the British realm and now next in line to be the CIA's deputy director.
Not yet 40, Ryan reflects on his career with understandable satisfaction: "He's made his money in the brokerage business—and the money was still growing; he needed his CIA salary about as much as he needed a third shoe—gotten his doctor's degree, written his books, taught some history, made himself a new and interesting career, and worked his way to the top."
But before Ryan makes his presence known rather late in the novel, Clancy introduces us to the president, who's pretty much of a bubblehead, the slippery director of central intelligence and the first Jewish director of the FBI, who is assassinated while on a supposedly secret mission to Colombia.
Thus, the cat is set amongst the pigeons, and from there on the action intensifies. An American fighter pilot is ordered to shoot down unarmed planes suspected of drug smuggling. The U.S. infantrymen, Latinos all, are ordered to eliminate a number of coca leaf processing plants along with any number of Colombia peasants who, to me, immediately brought to mind visions of Juan Valdez.
But the novel's two most interesting antagonists are the pseudonymous Mr. Clark of the CIA and the equally pseudonymous Senor Gomez, a KGB-trained agent, now in the pay of the drug lords. Clark is a professional CIA killer, who admits he hasn't been given much work lately. Gomez, on the other hand, has only contempt for his rich employers, and is convinced that he himself could be a far more cost-effective lord of all drug lords.
Clancy displays his usual fascination and familiarity with the latest war toys, which he describes with gee-whiz enjoyment: "They're testing a new system called LPI—Low Probability of Intercept—radar … because of a combination of frequency agility, reduced side-lobes and relatively low power output, it's damned hard to detect the emissions from the set."
But what I appreciate even more about Clancy is his ability to crawl inside the heads of his characters and reveal their innermost thoughts because, I suspect, he is right on the mark. The low-wattage president, for example, is much given to musing aloud, either to himself or to the mirror, and his thought fragments are chilling. "'It's time those bastards were taught a lesson,' the President thought aloud." Some 250 pages later: "'Okay,' the President of the United States told the mirror. 'So you bastards want to play.'"
In yet another moment of introspection, the president thinks about how the world really works: "Terrorists, criminals, all manner of cowards … regularly hide behind or among the innocent, daring the mighty to act … but sometimes they had to be shown that it didn't work. And that was messy, wasn't it? Like some sort of international auto accident … But how the hell do I explain that to the American people?"
The might of the United States—Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, CIA and FBI—is employed to make that international auto accident happen. And to avoid having those Americans who do the killing perceived as mercenaries off on a bloody spree, Clancy gives virtually all of them a friend, lover or relative who has been devastated by drugs. This is known as taking out insurance.
Still, Clancy brings it off because he is a writer with the ability to make a convoluted tale as clear as the directions on a match folder. This is no small art, and if his asides and philosophical ramblings make your teeth hurt, you can always chuckle, sigh or ignore them and get on with a cracking good yarn. I know I did.
SOURCE: "Just Say Nuke 'Em," in New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, p. 9.
[In the following review, Wise offers a tempered assessment of Clear and Present Danger, which he describes as "a ponderous thriller."]
"It was odd, Cutter thought, how ideas grow. First the President had made an intemperate remark after learning that the cousin of a close friend had died of a drug overdose."
Next thing you know, Vice Adm. James Cutter, the President's national security adviser (and a certified baddie in Tom Clancy's new techno-thriller, Clear and Present Danger), has a chat with the C.I.A.'s senior spook. Before you can say Jack Armstrong, a team of Army commandos is assassinating workers at coca-processing sites in the jungles of Colombia and Navy smart bombs are blowing up the haciendas of the Medellin cocaine cartel, killing women and children as well as the evil drug lords. The body count is high.
Clearly, the new President has gone far beyond Nancy Reagan's "Just say no." A covert war has been launched against the drug cartel, and all the sophisticated weaponry, laser beams and enormous firepower so dear to Mr. Clancy's heart are unleashed.
At first, the reader might erroneously conclude that the author approves of these murderous and illegal activities—illegal because nobody bothered to tell Congress, and the President's complicity remains fuzzy. Echoes of Iran-contra are clear and present.
Aboard a Coast Guard cutter, where men are men, the legendary captain Red Wegener stages a mock execution to wring a confession from a suspected murderer and enforcer for the druggies. The suspect's arm is broken for good measure. Army commandos threaten to feed a drug-running pilot to a monster alligator, a method of eliciting information not contemplated by the Supreme Court in its Miranda decision. We are left with a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Clancy is not a staunch supporter of due process.
Wrong. Enter Jack Ryan, the C.I.A. good guy, who gradually uncovers the covert plot. Ryan not only saves the American troops—or what is left of them—in the jungles of Colombia, he saves Clear and Present Danger from being just another beach thriller to enjoy among the sand fleas.
The issues raised are real ones, and a jump ahead of the headlines. Does the drug traffic threaten America's national security? And if so, is the Government justified in murdering the suppliers? Jack Ryan is troubled by these questions (although not too much), and so he and the rest of us should be. It is not beyond belief, after all, that a President would encourage the C.I.A. to send covert teams against the Medellin chiefs. Ryan concludes that this might be all right if Congress declared war on the drug cartels.
For Clancy fans, it probably won't make the least bit of difference that his dialogue has not improved one whit since The Hunt for Red October. One sample will suffice. A Cuban intelligence agent working for the drug lords beds down the vulnerable, widowed secretary to the Director of the F.B.I. Their pillow talk includes this exchange:
"'It isn't just police work. They also do counterespionage. Chasing spies,' she added.
"'That is CIA, no?'
"'No. I can't talk about it, of course, but, no, that is a Bureau function.'"
And Mr. Clancy's readers won't be disappointed in the exhaustive list of gadgetry. He grooves on the Ground Laser Designator and the Varo Noctron-V night-sighting device, which help the C.I.A. drop the GBU-15 laser-guided bomb from a carrier-launched A-6E Intruder medium attack bomber. And so on, and on. Mr. Clancy lovingly describes the hardware of death; he is an indecent docent in a gallery of horrors. Heads roll (literally), body parts fly, blood flows.
It all takes a long, long time. The plot moves slowly, like a great, clanking clock, on the order of Big Ben. We see the gears turn and hear the machinery creaking and wonder if the big hand will ever get round. The patient reader is rewarded, however, the last hundred pages move with the speed of light.
But the excitement comes too late. Mr. Clancy has produced a contradiction in terms: a ponderous thriller. It won't bother his devotees, or the sand fleas.
SOURCE: "Operation Showboat: A Real War on Drugs," in The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 1989, p. A10.
[In the following review, Abrams offers a favorable assessment of Clear and Present Danger.]
Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger begins with a president sitting in his high-backed, bullet-resistant chair in the Oval Office, grumbling to his national security adviser. "I promised the American people that we'd do something about this problem and we haven't accomplished …," he says, crossly buttering a croissant.
Mr. Clancy's new thriller revolves around the question: What do we do about drugs, when all the speeches are over? For Mr. Clancy's president, code name Wrangler, the answer is calling up the military in a covert operation after drug lords murder a high-ranking U.S. official. Soon, there's an undeclared war under way in Colombia, while the talk continues in Washington. Mr. Clancy revels in the proficiency, bravery and successes of the servicemen, but enough goes wrong with Operation Showboat to leave the reader wondering whether military action would ever work in the real world.
Which is about where the debate stands now in Washington: Civilians muse about hitting the traffickers hard, while the top brass at the Pentagon resists involvement as bitterly as it does a budget cut. The generals seem to fear taking on an ill-defined, and perhaps hopeless, task. They worry about the increased temptation for corruption. They view anti-drug activity as police work, if not indeed social work. And they point to the federal forces already mobilized and stepping on each other's toes: The Justice Department, the CIA, the U.S. Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the newly formed drug czardom.
One can certainly agree that as long as Americans demand more and more cocaine, and pay endless billions for it, no action on the supply side can possibly succeed. Demand reduction is the only long-term solution. Yet the generals, and others who counsel action only on the demand side, are wrong. In the short run, tough action to interdict supply routes, blow up laboratories and capture and extradite traffickers is critical. It will reduce the supply of drugs and, perhaps even more important, give the countries fighting on the front lines—Colombia, Peru and particularly Bolivia—the moral support and the resources they need to resist the immense power of the drug lords.
Since it is our citizens who, after all, create the cocaine market, do we have the right to urge those fragile Latin democracies to wage war on drugs if we plan to take a pacifist stance? Military action is no panacea, but it is an essential tool in this war as in any other.
Mr. Clancy grasps well the need to help, not blame, democracies fighting hard against drugs. Says his FBI director, later murdered by the drug mafia: "Colombia is trying damn hard to run a real democracy in a region where democracies are pretty rare … and you expect them to do—what? Trash what institutions they do have?… go fascist again to hunt down the druggies just because it suits us?" What helps to make Clear and Present Danger such compelling reading is a fairly sophisticated view of Latin politics combined with Mr. Clancy's patented, tautly shaped scenes, fleshed out with colorful technical data and tough talk.
Mr. Clancy's convincing portrait of Cuba under Castro comes through the comments of the novel's foulest character—a former Cuban intelligence officer who now works for the drug chieftains. Credit the author with a good nose for news about to happen. We read the ex-officer's musings and memories of the Cuba he left behind just as the headlines have reported Stalin-style show trials in Havana. Never mind Castro's most pious disclaimers, and the hanging of his close associates: Cuba is heavily involved with drug trafficking, and the new wave of repression is entirely consistent with the brutal, cynical communist system Mr. Clancy's villain recalls with great fondness.
The Cuban reflects happily that today "the yanquis had not yet discovered within themselves the courage to act in accordance with their power." It is clear that Mr. Clancy thinks this leaves the world a far less safe place.
Clear and Present Danger is another in Mr. Clancy's Jack Ryan series, focusing on the escapades of Ryan, his friends and family, and the assorted villains he meets. In The Hunt For Red October, Red Storm Rising and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, the bad guys were some type of communist: in Patriot Games they were terrorists. A few other familiar characters are also reintroduced, although Mr. Clancy minimizes character development and concentrates on his story—to put it politely.
Faithful fans of Mr. Clancy will not be disappointed with Ryan's new incarnation as "DDI," official lingo for deputy director of the CIA for intelligence analysis. Like Mr. Clancy, Ryan shows no signs of slowing down, much less losing his grip. It takes about five chapters to get all the characters straight, after which you won't stop until you hit the last pages, when Ryan and the president confront each other over the usefulness and legality of covert operations. With its allusions to events past and present, Clear and Present Danger makes absorbing reading.
SOURCE: "A Missile for Every Occasion," in New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1991, pp. 9-10.
[In the following review, Kondracke offers a favorable assessment of The Sum of All Fears. According to Kondracke, "In its plotting, vividness and suspense, this is Mr. Clancy's best book since The Hunt for Red October."]
One of Tom Clancy's many gifts as a writer of thrillers is that he constantly taps the current world situation for its imminent dangers and spins them into an engrossing tale. In 1984 and 1986, before United States-Soviet relations had begun to thaw, Mr. Clancy wrote The Hunt for Red October, in which the defection of a Soviet submarine captain nearly provokes World War III, and Red Storm Rising, in which a conventional World War III nearly leads to a nuclear war. In 1987, when Muammar el-Qaddafi seemed a greater menace than the Kremlin leadership. Mr. Clancy explored America's vulnerability to international terrorism in Patriot Games. In 1988, in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, he took the rivalry between Mikhail Gorbachev and his old-guard opposition, added some Afghan freedom fighters and a Star Wars arms race, and once again conjured up the specter of Armageddon. In 1989, with the cold war really ending, he mixed the then-trendy drug war with rogue White House operations a la the Iran-contra affair and cooked up a threat to constitutional liberty in Clear and Present Danger.
And now, after a two-year lull, The Sum of All Fears is exactly that: a treasure trove of geopolitical terrors. The cold war is over and the Gulf war has made a Middle East settlement possible. Ah, but what's peace for us good people is disaster and betrayal for the bad people, including Palestinian terrorists, European ultra-radicals and former East German secret police and military scientists. They get together, obtain a slightly damaged Israeli nuclear weapon and try to turn it into an H-bomb that, once exploded, will cause hardliners in the United States and the Soviet Union to seize control from panicked leaders and plunge the good guys into all-out war.
That's the main plot, based on the all too plausible present-day danger of nuclear proliferation. But it's another of Mr. Clancy's gifts that he can keep several sub-plots and sub-sub-plots in the air at the same time. In this book he's outdone himself. There is almost as much submarine action here as in Red October. There is as much intra-Soviet intrigue as in Cardinal of the Kremlin, more Washington intrigue than in Clear and Present Danger and all the terrorist and antiterrorist action of Patriot Games. There's also some conventional combat, as in Red Storm Rising, and even a touch of drug peddling.
In fact, Mr. Clancy does more than just keep all of these balls in the air. He makes his multiple sub-plots vivid by creating a set of characters to bring each one alive. The nuclear plot features a devout Palestinian guerrilla commander who's dying of cancer, a Red Army Faction survivor who's lost his wife and children to the cause of world revolution, one Arab and one German scientist who grow to respect each other even though their relationship is destined to end in murder, plus an American Indian militant who likes football.
The submarine plot is carried by an overambitious captain and his wise black executive officer, plus assorted admirals and enlisted men back from previous novels. In Moscow, there's a reformist president modeled on Mikhail Gorbachev, plus a dedicated democrat who's also a C.I.A. mole, and an honest K.G.B. man. In Washington, there's an arrogant President, a scheming female national security adviser, a lazy C.I.A. director and dozens of F.B.I. men, C.I.A. men, Secret Service agents and military officers. Mr. Clancy's characters are drawn with enough individuality so that, even if they aren't forever memorable, one doesn't need a score card to keep them all straight.
Back again as our intrepid hero is Jack Ryan, who has risen from his roles as a C.I.A. analyst and Naval Academy instructor to be Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, Middle East peacemaker, the target of White House plotting and, ultimately, moral giant and savior of the world. Mr. Clancy has been criticized by some reviewers of his previous books for making Ryan an unbelievable paragon. This time out Mr. Clancy has given him flaws. Ryan smokes and drinks too much. He ignores his wife and children. He resents not getting credit for his achievements. He yells at people. He even suffers a bout of impotence. (Yes, for the first time, there's sex in a Tom Clancy novel.)
Mr. Clancy uses Ryan's flaws to carry his story along—his temper, for example, almost brings on the Apocalypse—but in the end they are just not credible. In moments of truth, we know Ryan is going to perform heroically, and he does. In his next novel (there are hints that it will be about a Japanese attempt to conquer the world economically), Mr. Clancy ought to keep Ryan a Superman in mufti.
As in all his previous novels, this one bulges with technological verisimilitude. In the earlier books, Mr. Clancy taught his readers more than any but experts could possibly absorb about submarine operations; air, land and sea war strategy, satellite photography; ballistic missiles and missile defense; small unit tactics, and the highest of high-tech communications. In this novel, he does the same with nuclear bomb fabrication, though he says in a postscript that he has altered some details so no one could use the novel to build a bomb.
I am not qualified to judge whether Mr. Clancy has got his technology right, but in a field I do know—Washington journalism—he is dismally inaccurate. The wicked national security adviser gives Washington's top investigative reporter and White House correspondent a false story accusing Ryan of sexual infidelity and professional ineptitude. The reporter, whom Mr. Clancy describes as a man of integrity and experience, writes the story as told to him without ever checking with Ryan or anyone else, even though he knows he is being manipulated. The story is leaked on "deep background," which normally means that no source is to be used; Mr. Clancy wrongly says the term means that an "administration official" can be cited.
When the falsehood of the story is made plain to him, the reporter then confidentially reveals the name of his source to a colleague of Ryan's, instead of blowing open the whole seamy (and also politically important) article in his newspaper. Mr. Clancy correctly understands that unsourced leaks are often used in bureaucratic warfare in Washington, and that some reporters will print anything. What he doesn't appreciate is that good journalists always check.
This is not a huge flaw, nor are such implausibilities as having all the Middle East's key disputes resolved in a matter of weeks and having the master terrorist carelessly drop fake identity cards with his picture on them in a waste basket near the body of a man whose throat he has just slashed, even if he does expect all the evidence to be incinerated in a nuclear blast. If there is anything significantly wrong with this book it is that it's just too long—and, at three pounds, almost too heavy for a beach bag.
In its plotting, vividness and suspense, this is Mr. Clancy's best book since The Hunt for Red October. To sustain interest, however, we simply do not have to watch each turn of the lathe and each shaving of plutonium that goes into making an H-bomb. This book remains a whiz-bang page-turner, but to be honest, not all the pages get read.
SOURCE: A review of The Sum of All Fears, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 4, 1991, pp. 3, 8.
[In the following review, Shacochis offers praise for The Sum of All Fears.]
OK, all of you despondent Desert Storm junkies, cheer up—the adventure continues (for a whopping 800 pages; none of this Wham, Bam, Thank You, Saddam stuff). The Sum of All Fears is the perfect panacea for anyone experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the Gulf War, unwilling to trust the White House to co-produce the sequel.
Whoever spends the bucks on Tom Clancy's sixth novel should be able to figure out how decent people become drug addicts, since Clancy is to storytelling what a voracious crack habit is to cocaine, firing narcotic blasts of 100% pure plot right down your pipes. And yet, if you're hankering for a little Escapist Lit from the guy, forget it; his MO is to animate the newspapers, enriching the radioactive wastes of international headlines with the intent of making himself the unequaled superpower of the best-selling universe.
To start with, our noblest aspirations, our prettiest dreams for the latest of our splendid little wars have come true. Is the would a safer place now? You bet. And it would be even safer, muses our hero, Jack Ryan, deputy director of Central Intelligence, "if we could just do something about the Israeli side … It would be nice, he thought, to set the whole area to rest."
Nice, yeah. Count me in. Jack has a terrific idea, which he floats before the President's chief of staff and national security adviser. What if we turn Jerusalem into an International City of God, an ecumenical DMZ, administered by representatives of the three most trouble-making religions with dibs on the place, and persuade the Vatican to help us broker the deal, get the Swiss guard to police those holy mean streets, permanently station an armored U.S. Cavalry regiment on Israeli soil, give back the occupied territories, and that's that, and Earth can take a well-deserved vacation from the routine of 9-to-5 carnage?
Everybody agrees: nice. Yet, it's the same old pipe dream until the Arabs Finally wise up, do the Martin Luther King thing, the Gandhi thing, organize a nonviolent sit-in, even singing "We shall overcome," to protest the plan of 10 fundamentalist rabbis to rebuild Solomon's Temple. While the CNN cameras roll, the Israeli police force fires rubber bullets into the demonstrators, who react, even as they are dying, with another chorus of the civil-rights anthem. A cross-wired Israeli captain goes berserk, murdering a young Palestinian leader in cold blood, close up and personal, for all the home viewers to see.
Oops, Israel's claim to moral superiority flies right out the geopolitical window. "A country whose police murder unarmed people has no legitimacy," pontificates the national security adviser. "We can no more support an Israel that does things like this than we could have supported Somoza, Marcos, or any other tin-pot dictator."
Not exactly words resonating with truth, but Jack Ryan's Vatican initiative—called Project PILGRIMAGE—jumps to the top of the list on Washington's dance card. The Russians come on board, natch. The Saudis, the Swiss. President Bob Fowler, a Quayle-like clone destined to become the Great Peacemaker (and later, in the clutch, the Crown Prince of Inadequacy), does some plain-talking: "We let Israel know that they either play ball or face the consequences, and that we're not kidding this time." Israel acquiesces. The deal is cut; the applause is euphoric.
But hold on, there's a 50-kiloton fly in the ointment. Not everybody, it seems, appreciates the New World Order; for instance, at least four terrorists nostalgic for the Cold War harbor a death wish for the Zionist Promised Land. Their agenda's fairly strict, and when they come into possession of a thermonuclear device—well, you knew it was going to happen some day—they detonate the sucker. In the ensuing confusion, Washington and Moscow prepare to nuke the daylights out of each other.
If Tom Clancy could only write as astutely as he narrates, if he found people as compelling as he finds facts and mechanisms and systems—weapons; cybernetics; intelligence-gathering systems—then perhaps Clancy would be our Tolstoy, rather than a Michener of the spook parade, the Stephen King of national-security affairs.
His characters are Front Page People, never penetrating their stereotypes, never shedding their prepackaged traits and images, and they can offer a reader no more emotional involvement than you might invest in a good Super Bowl learn that's not your own. A lot of men are required to prove their manhood here, which I suppose explains why Clancy foreshadows his plot development with all the subtlety of a female dog in heat. And speaking of females, the author apparently doesn't like them much, especially the small-breasted variety.
Still, the scope is awesome, few writers have the muscle for it, and who wants to read Virgil at the beach anyway, when you can dig into Clancy's stash and blow your head right off with blockbusting excitement. What I'm saying is, whatever your gender, The Sum of All Fears will appeal to the most boy part of you.
Hey, Clancy: thumbs up, power weenie. You kicked ass.
SOURCE: "Very Popular Mechanics," in The New Yorker, September 16. 1991, pp. 91-2, 94-5.
[In the following review, Menand provides analysis of The Sum of All Fears and Clancy's popularity.]
I counted fifty-six references to coffee in Tom Clancy's new thriller, The Sum of All Fears. It's a long book, nearly eight hundred pages; still, that's a lot of coffee. Clancy's people need the caffeine, though, because freedom needs their vigilance. They are the intelligence analysts, fighter pilots, submariners, air-defense monitors, radar and sonar operators, secret-service agents, and other military, paramilitary, and civilian personnel on whose alertness the national security depends.
To describe Clancy's feeling for these people as respect is inadequate. He loves them; and his love includes an attentive sympathy for the special demands that a constant state of readiness, and the many cups of coffee needed to maintain it, can make. It is not unusual for one of his characters, in the midst of a sudden crisis that requires his complete concentration and on whose outcome the future of our way of life just might depend, to recall with a small but gratifying sense of relief that he has recently made a trip to the bathroom.
There is something charming about a writer who, out of sheer infatuation with his subject, is capable of this sort of unaffected tactlessness, and it will be pretty clear to most readers of The Sum of All Fears that whatever it is Tom Clancy has, success has done nothing to spoil it. Clancy's own story is by now fairly well known. Less than ten years ago, he was a Maryland insurance agent; it was a steady job, but he wanted to be a paperback writer. He wrote in the time he could spare from his work and his obligations to his family, and his first effort was published, in 1984, by the Naval Institute Press, a noncommercial publisher in Annapolis which had never handled an original work of fiction before. The novel was The Hunt for Red October, a story about a Soviet nuclear submarine whose officers defect to the United States and bring their boat along with them. Soon after it came out, a Washington lobbyist (or so the story goes) sent a copy to the Reagans as a Christmas present. Nancy Reagan read it and passed it along to the President, who pronounced it "the perfect yarn." This well-placed endorsement (from a man who, whatever his shortcomings, does know something about yarns) helped make the book a national best-seller. Clancy quickly produced four more thrillers featuring the protagonist of Red October—an intelligence expert named Jack Ryan. They became best-sellers, too; the last of them, Clear and Present Danger, which appeared in 1989, is reported to have sold more copies than any other novel published in the nineteen-eighties, and Clancy now probably earns more for his books than any other writer in the world. But his work retains its homemade character; he is still, in his relation to the world he has imagined, a slightly awestruck amateur.
The clearest sign of this is his abiding admiration for professionalism. His heroes are daring and manly enough, but they are not cowboys. They are organization men, highly trained, disciplined, clean-cut, and honest, men who know how to push the edge of the envelope without tearing it. They are impatient with weak authority, but disrespectful of it only when a point of personal honor is at stake—just as they are blunt and sometimes vulgar but never (by their own lights, at any rate) tasteless or cruel.
Their professionalism makes them decent. It also makes them, in spite of their wholesomeness, a little bit cynical: because they know how hard it is to live up to principles, they know how easy it is to cheat on them, and this knowledge makes them at times acutely aware that the world is probably not entirely worthy of their dedication to its survival, and that there is something faintly absurd about their insistence on maintaining such high standards of conduct.
Clancy sees—and the perception is, I think, the one genuine imaginative accomplishment of his writing—that this cynicism must be a part of the kind of characters he creates. But he cannot share it. He cannot allow virtue to be its own reward; he must allot the virtuous every earthly reward, too. And he cannot allow crimes against virtue—even the most pitiful and craven ones—to escape retribution. He wants the world to be worthy of his heroes' exertions. He knows that he is writing fairy tales, but cannot keep from begging us, like Peter Pan, to clap our hands and make it so.
The idea in The Sum of All Fears is that the bad fairies have got hold of a nuclear bomb and it's up to the good fairies to keep them from starting the Third World War. The bad fairies here are a sorry group; after all, the world's supply of bad fairies has fallen off rather sharply since 1984. In The Hunt for Red October Clancy was able, without departing much from official attitudes, to portray the leaders of the Soviet Union as unwashed thugs, people who routinely concluded policy disputes by having the losers shot. In The Sum of All Fears, though, the Cold War is over, and the Soviets have become friendly and well intentioned. The Soviet military, in particular, is praised for its competence and integrity, and the Soviet President, a Gorbachev-alike called Narmonov, behaves much more nobly in the book's climatic episode than his American counterpart, a vain, ineffectual fellow (he's a liberal) called Bob Fowler.
The book begins by tidying up the one nagging trouble spot left in the new world order. It has Jack, now the deputy director of the C.I.A., whip up a peace plan for the Middle East. Jack's brainstorm is pretty simple—but then that's always the way with the really big ideas, isn't it? His plan is to evacuate the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and hand it over to the Palestinians; make Jerusalem a dominion of the Vatican governed by an interfaith troika of clerics and policed by the Swiss Guard; and guarantee Israel's security by stationing American troops there permanently. The Israelis (in an extremely feeble concession to reality) are made to have a few reservations about this plan. But the rest of the world is enthusiastic, the Israelis come to realize that it's in their interest to cooperate, and the treaty is signed by the major powers, under the vague auspices of the Pope, in a ceremony at the Vatican.
Although some people—President Fowler, for instance—are ready to beat their swords into plowshares on the spot, Jack knows better. As he observes during a diplomatic chat with a Saudi prince (over coffee that is described as "thick, bitter, and hideously strong"): "Sir, the only constant factor in human existence is change."
Two teams of spoilers quickly (well, fairly quickly) emerge. The first is made up of President Fowler and his national-security adviser, a former political-science professor from Bennington called Liz Elliot, with whom the President happens to be sleeping. (They're both single; it's not that kind of book.) They are weak, ambitious people who resent Jack's brilliance and professionalism; they refuse to give him the credit he deserves for his peace plan, and plot to drive him out of the Administration.
The other bad fairies are a multicultural coalition of terrorists led by the notorious Qati, a fanatical anti-Zionist. His principal cohorts are Günther, a former member of a defunct German terrorist outfit, and Marvin, a Native American activist. Not a very impressive array of villains, you say. But suppose these folks were to come into possession of an atomic bomb that had been lost by the Israelis in the Golan Heights during the 1973 war; and suppose they were to buy the services of a former East German nuclear engineer, and he were to use materials from that bomb to manufacture a much more powerful hydrogen bomb; and suppose they were to take this hydrogen bomb to Denver and try to detonate it at the Super Bowl in the hope of triggering a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union—not because that would solve the Palestinian problem or restore the rights of Native Americans but just because they are nasty, resentful people who, thanks in part to a series of personal disappointments, are filled with general misanthropy. Suppose these things (and throw in a couple of submarines), and you have supposed The Sum of All Fears.
For this is the most doggedly straightforward of stories. There are no puzzles to be solved and no secrets to be uncovered. We can't completely anticipate everything that is going to happen, of course, but as soon as something does happen we are almost always told everything we need to know about it. This directness pushes events forward without distraction and serves the book well when the climatic scenes are finally reached. But it is a very long way to the climax, and for the greater part of the book the sense of slowly unravelling mystery which one associates with most spy stories and other kinds of thrillers is almost entirely absent.
This is so, I think, because Clancy appears to have, as a writer, no technical resources for producing mystery. His chief device is to report a conversation and leave out the most important part. Here, for example, is Jack Ryan coming up with his peace plan during a meeting with members of the President's staff (they're drinking Coke, by the way, which, in addition to the caffeine, provides a quick energy boost):
"You thinking about something, Jack?" Alden asked.
"You know, we're all 'people of the book,' aren't we?" Ryan asked, seeing the outline of a new thought in the fog.
"And the Vatican is a real country, with real diplomatic status, but no armed forces … they're Swiss … and Switzerland is neutral, not even a member of the UN. The Arabs do their banking and carousing there … gee, I wonder if he'd go for it …?" Ryan's face went blank again, and van Damm saw Jack's eyes center as the light bulb flashed on. It was always exciting to watch an idea being born, but less so when you didn't know what it was.
"Go for what? Who go for what?" the Chief of Staff asked with some annoyance. Alden just waited.
Ryan told them.
He doesn't tell us, though. It doesn't matter, since the plan is explained several chapters later and its details have no bearing on anything that happens in the interim. But it's Clancy's idea of suspense.
Jack himself, though he's a kind of superagent, is essentially an upright guy who's supposed to save the day without breaking the rules, and this means that he's never a particularly vivid character. One gets, for instance, almost no sense of what he looks like. It doesn't help much to learn, in one of the love scenes he's given (with his wife, and expressly for the purpose of making babies), that his hands are "strong but gentle." He is several times compared, by his nemesis Liz Elliot, to James Bond, and it's clear that we are supposed to regard the comparison as inaccurate, and an insult to Jack.
What is true of Jack is true of the rest of Clancy's people: they're cut out carefully along the dotted lines. If the story requires a professor, he will be absent-minded; if it requires a young cop, he will be gung ho and a little undisciplined. Politicians are fickle and self-serving, and reporters are jaded scandal-hounds. Asian-Americans have faith in education; Israelis are abrasive; Jesuit seminarians are more worldly-wise than they let on and don't mind sneaking a small glass of sherry before lunch.
That Clancy's world is mostly male is probably for the best, because when he creates a female character he cannot, for reasons that are not obvious to me, resist humiliating her. A female television reporter refuses to wear a bulletproof vest when she goes to interview a terrorist being staked out by the F.B.I., and when the terrorist is shot in the face and killed in front of her, his blood soaks her blouse. She is made to vomit from the shock and to rip off her shirt, "forgetting that there was nothing under it." Another woman, a convicted murderer, hangs herself in her cell after removing her dress and bra. A third, a housewife, is stripped and assassinated, and her body is sliced into pieces with a chain saw. The major female character, Liz Elliot, is grasping, contemptible, and a sexual predator. Her plots, needless to say, explode in her face, and at the end of the book her reaction to the global crisis she is supposed to help the President deal with is so hysterical that she has to be sedated.
This is all standard action-adventure stuff, no doubt, and it wouldn't be worth mentioning if it were not so unlike Clancy's treatment of his male characters. Plenty of his men die violently, and their deaths are recounted in detail that is certainly pointless enough ("The bullet entered the back of Fromm's skull, soon thereafter exiting through his forehead"), but Clancy has a kind of boyish respect for them all. Even his terrorists are accorded a certain dignity; they are, after all, by virtue of their bravery and dedication, psychotic mirror images of his heroes. But the women are punished. And not only the bad ones. Jack's wife, Cathy, though she's a crackerjack eye surgeon and supermom, is the subject of what must be one of the strangest lines ever written to conclude a love scene: "And then it was over, and he lay at her side. Cathy pulled him against her, his face to her regrettably flat chest."
Clancy's reputation is based not on his mastery of any of the standard storytelling techniques but on his enthusiasm for hardware: he is the inventor of the "techno-thriller." Before Clancy, technology in spy thrillers usually took the form of doomsday machines and fantastic gadgets to whose mechanics (except for guns) the hero was indifferent. ("Try to pay attention, 007.") What Clancy discovered when he wrote The Hunt for Red October was that instead of writing "The submarine started to submerge" you could write
The reactor coolant pumps went to fast speed. An increased amount of hot, pressurized water entered the exchanger, where its heat was transferred to the steam on the outside loop. When the coolant returned to the reactor it was cooler than it had been and therefore denser. Being denser, it trapped more neutrons in the reactor pile, increasing the ferocity of the fission reaction and giving off yet more power. Farther aft, saturated steam in the "outside" or nonradioactive loop of the heat exchange system emerged through clusters of control valves to strike the blades of the high-pressure turbine—
and people would line up to buy it.
The featured technological attraction in The Sum of All Fears is the nuclear bomb, of course. Many pages are devoted to its construction—there is a great deal of talk about tungsten-rhenium, beryllium, gallium-stabilized plutonium, and laser interferometry—and we are treated to a slow-motion account of what happens when such a bomb goes off:
The plasma from the immolated straws pounded inward toward the second reservoir of lithium compounds. The dense uranium 238 fins just outside the Secondary pit also flashed to dense plasma, driving inward through the vacuum, then striking and compressing the tubular containment of more 238 U around the central container which held the largest quantity of lithium-deuteride/tritium. The forces were immense, and the structure was pounded with a degree of pressure greater than that of a healthy stellar core.
And so on. That we are to take all this seriously is made clear by an afterword in which the author explains that "certain technical details have been altered" in order to prevent readers from trying to build nuclear bombs in their basements.
It is certainly possible that my ignorance of how submarines run and why bombs explode is even more woeful than I suspect it is; but "The plasma from the immolated straws pounded inward toward the second reservoir of lithium compounds" is actually slightly less meaningful to me than "All mimsy were the borogoves." That Clancy's sentences about nuclear technology are grammatical is one positive indication that he actually understands what he is talking about, and is not simply paraphrasing some physics textbook; but it is the only indication I feel confident about. Millions of readers obviously feel differently, and either find these descriptions illuminating or don't care that they don't.
Whether fiction helps shape the world or only reflects it is a question that is usually answered according to one's taste for the particular fiction involved. But it is interesting that among Clancy's earliest admirers in the Reagan White House were Robert McFarlane, when he was the national-security adviser, and John Poindexter, who succeeded McFarlane at the National Security Council in 1985. For The Hunt for Red October reads today (subject matter aside) as obviously the novel of Iran-Contra. It is fairly radiant with the conviction, so central to the belief system that made the Iran-Contra affair possible, that the national security is much too important a matter to be left to those candy-colored clowns we call the Congress; and it makes the same adolescent identification between great heroism and great secrecy which is manifest in the symbol of Iran-Contra, Oliver North.
The recent war in the Persian Gulf is referred to several times in The Sum of All Fears; and that war, as it played on American television, was unmistakably a Tom Clancy war. The wizardly technology that turned battle into a game of reflexes, like Ping-Pong, and the astonishingly detailed intelligence, gathered by electronic-surveillance devices that seemed able to tell us everything there was to know about the enemy until our bombs struck, but had nothing to report about the aftermath—it was all a spectacle after Clancy's own imagination. And then, interviewed as they walked to and from their amazing airplanes, there were the warriors themselves—clean-cut, professional, apparently indestructible, and, ever so slightly, cynical.
SOURCE: "The Genesis of the Techno-Thriller," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 24-40.
[In the following excerpt, Ryan explores the origins and defining characteristics of the techno-thriller genre as popularized by Clancy's best-selling novels. Though Clancy is widely regarded as "the wizard inventor of the techno-thriller." Ryan cites literary precedents in the work of Jules Verne.]
When Thomas Leo Clancy was a boy in Baltimore, he wanted to be a soldier. His heart beat for the stars and stripes. On good days he could catch the scent of sea spray from Chesapeake Bay. In his student years at Loyola College he carried no signs and made no audible protest. His mind was elsewhere, weighted stem to stern with the lore of the sea and warships. What he really wanted was to fight for his country in Vietnam. This didn't happen. His eyesight was, and is, too weak for combat. He was never a U.S. Marine. Too bad. Clancy was no doubt cut out for this, in spirit and sensibility. His intellect is keen and disciplined. And utterly military.
Instead, Tom Clancy became a writer of big books. Hefty novels for summer beaches or those long airline flights to spots where Clancy never goes. His first, The Hunt for Red October, arrived for sale in late 1984. Clancy's stars were clearly in place for Christmas. The publisher was the U.S. Naval Institute Press. Clancy's first book was the Institute's first gambit at publishing original fiction. It caught good attention in official Washington, D.C. Here at last was a fresh new thriller for career professionals in the Defense Department. Some important people in the State Depart-ment's diplomatic corps read the book and passed it around. The novel was mentioned at parties. A copy was placed under the White House Christmas tree. Not long after New Year's 1985, President Ronald Reagan told a Time interviewer that Red October is "the perfect yarn."
Only a few have questioned that praise. The book has no doubt carved a niche in cultural history as a phenomenon of the 1980's. It proved to be a pace setter for Clancy's further authorship and an impressive model to all Clancy disciples and imitators. This was the new way into big bucks from books. Surely this was a business after all … Or was it?
William S. Burroughs once asserted to me that every novelist writes as well as he or she can. He means that all writers produce at the peak of their skills or forms no matter what they say to seminars or interviewers. In the end, the collective aim of Melville. Faulkner, Kerouac, Mickey Spillane, and Iceberg Slim has been to earn two or three squares a day by one's pen. So if it's a business, it has some integrity.
The phenomenology of Clancy and devotees in his train occurs in literary circles. What spurred this discussion was the quick-draw jargon or newspeak of those three-minute oracles who review books for the mass media. I remain unwilling to call those persons critics. But their mission is to pinpoint trends, fads, shifts in the psychotic American breeze. By the late 1980's, one or more of them were calling Tom Clancy the wizard inventor of the techno-thriller.
To accept this blurb as literary history is to admit that Clancy created a new genre fiction. When his Red October and Red Storm Rising (1986) were published, no one else seemed to be writing or even talking about his kind of novel. Then came Stephen Coonts with Flight of the Intruder (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1986) and Harold Coyle with Team Yankee: A Novel of World War III (1987). In short order a battalion of mimickers brought up the rear. Their colors are brazen and evident. Meanwhile, Clancy's sixth novel, The Sum of All Fears, was published by Putnam's in August 1991.
The techno-thrillers stand tall and thick in bookstores. The paperback renderings shimmer with glossy inks (good for reading in foxholes and duck blinds) and comic book graphics. The stories ring with patriotic fervor and a Manichean discernment of good versus evil. You always know your enemies. You quickly spot the good guys. You know from the outset which side will win because destiny commands it. These books are the proving grounds and playing fields of a warrior class. Heroes abound in the stories, most of them soldiers, seamen, fighter pilots, military officers, spies, or other mavens of espionage. The novels arc just long enough to become variously exciting, laborious, and silly. The plots and crucial sequences always rely on advanced technology for waging war. This quality of the techno-thriller links it to science fiction. Remember that or underline it. What annoys many readers is that such SF purists as Isaac Asimov and James E. Gunn sacrifice character development for scientific explication in their stories. The techno-thriller makes a similar sacrifice much of the time and mounts a paradox. Heroes and other soldiers are game pieces, mannequins, cardboard stand-ups in a showroom window. They have all the human complexity and élan of the Blackhawks or Batman and Robin of the World War II comic books. In inverse proportion, the Soviet enemies, terrorists, and other villains are sculpted to deliver character traits and singular menace. This is the case in all of Clancy's published novels to date.
My initial supposition about the audience for these books was that only the techno-freaks attached to research and development firms, or troops in "Ollie's Army," would ever buy them. Those are in fact the true zealots. But much of the English-reading world has ingested works of this genre. C. S. Forester's "Hornblower" series and George MacDonald Fraser's "Flashman" frolics have now been outclassed—for now, at least—by Clancy's chronicles of Jack Ryan. I was bound to be curious sooner or later. With a lot of bothersome questions, I first approached Tom Clancy, and later, his friend Stephen Coonts.
If there is a new genre, Clancy denies any connection with it. He insists that he writes novels, and they are thrillers. To make much more of it is to test his anger. He referred to Michael Crichton's big seller, The Andromeda Strain (1969). "If anybody invented the techno-thriller, what about Crichton when I was in college? All you're doing is describing tools used by your characters. Technology is another word for tools."
The matter of Clancy's characters and how they function is a short subject made long by engaging the author in debate. He believes that he's done an exemplary job. His reinforcement comes from "people in the business" who read his books right on time and comment that what he does well is "capture the personalities." But what business is he talking about? The genre fiction that used to be just for newsstand pulps? What people in what business?
Not long after reading Clancy's The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988), I got hold of a short story he had published in a high school literary magazine. Its title is "The Wait." Printed in 1965, it indexes the personality of a teenager who's patriotic and fine-tuned to world affairs. His concerns then are his concerns now. Clancy loathes revolutionaries and guerrillas, most likely because they flout the law. He emulates the tough, faceless soldier who puts his life on the line against Communism. "The Wait" is precisely the same schmaltz on a sub roll that he's been packaging for "thrillers" ever since. If Clancy refuses to own up to the techno-thriller, he might grant instead that he has given us five or six national security Westerns. The cowpokes wear black shoes and know how to fight showdowns with computers. Those are Clancy's people. Their business may not be for our eyes and ears. But trust Clancy.
He told me of a conversation from 1987, when he and his family visited England a second time. "A friend of mine was the skipper of H.M.S. Boxer, a frigate," he said. "We were having lunch in his stateroom aboard. He looked at me and he said, 'Tom, the technology in your books is not terribly impressive, but I think the characters are bloody accurate.' I wanted to grab him by the throat and say, 'Why don't you tell the God-damned critics?' But the people in the business tell me that the technology is no big deal, because any fool can do that. What I do well is capture the personalities."
What I've heard and read is just the reverse. Clancy has prodigious facility with high technology but his characters are tilting scarecrows. His third novel, Patriot Games (1987), deals less with war technology than with law enforcement and shooting it out with urban guerrillas. When we spoke, he said he regards this novel as his finest. Most reviews faulted this book more than his others, and on the same grounds. Only he and those "people in the business" have kind words for his characters. But the book sold extremely well as usual. Clancy need not defend himself.
In conversation with him I pushed the issue of his characters, perhaps a bit too far. I asked, for example, whether Prince Charles had shown any reaction to Clancy's portrayal of him in Patriot Games.
"No more than President Reagan had a reaction to the fact that there's a president in Red October, Red Storm and Cardinal," he said. "He was a generic character. He was never intended to be Charles, Prince of Wales. He's just a character. If in any American political thriller novel you have a president, you don't necessarily mean President Reagan or President Ford or President Carter. You just mean a person who has the job. I simply treated the Prince of Wales as the same sort of literary invention. If you pay close attention there are enough clues to tell you that it's not Charles."
Again, please take note. The techno-thriller is bound to be inhabited by generic characters. Once the reader has expended those brain cells in processing data on machineries of devastation, he is perhaps amenable to drastic suspensions of disbelief. The existence of parallel worlds, for example. The one on which we walk, eat meals, read books, watch television, and gratefully go to sleep. The other is for Clancy's callow Prince, his renderings of nameless U.S. presidents who attain to dullness and stupidity, a martinet national security advisor named Jeffrey Pelt, a CIA director known as Judge Moore. Men with jobs. With each big book we get a cigar box full of tin men with guns. In the usual course of things, Clancy's women are as wan and insipid as tea left standing for three days. Clancy's recurring hero is Jack Ryan, very square and very opaque. With every book Jack's ties to the CIA are tighter. He advances upward, gets richer. The nation relies on him more and more. He could run for Congress if we ever knew anything meaningful about him.
Clancy insisted more than once that he writes about a "generic category of hero." The idea by itself is specious outside the comic books. All the same, the legions of devotees who read his novels have not diminished. He tells a good story, spins an exciting yarn. The characters don't accomplish a thing in the techno-thriller. They generate no electricity. They are understood only by what they do. Their definition is the purpose of their mission.
Readers of this genre fiction are apt to find escapist fun but little or no artistry. Clancy told me that he thinks of himself as an entertainer with no pretense to literary matters or concerns. In my own fashion I looked for a durable message in the works of Tom Clancy. He often denies that he ever intends any such thing. But I asked anyway. In all those Cold War potboilers, isn't Clancy saying that there are ways to wage peace through a new balance of power in the world?
"You may be right," he answered. "As Claudius Appius the Blind said, 'Si vis pacem parate pro bellum…. If you desire peace, prepare for war.' The other thing I say in there is that people we have wearing uniforms and carrying badges are important members of our society and entitled to respect. They don't have halos. You may not always want your daughter to go out and date one. But we should treat them decently because they're out there for us. The Pentagon Navy is not the same as the fleet Navy. I know that. And that may find its way into my next book."
Following the success of his Team Yankee, Harold Coyle wrote Sword Point (1988) and Bright Star (1990), both techno-thrillers from Simon & Schuster. Coyle is a friend to Tom Clancy, as is Stephen Coonts. After his Flight of the Intruder, Coonts encored with Final Flight (1988), then The Minotaur (1989) and Under Siege (1990). Standing in Clancy's long shadow is no encumbrance for the other two. They are where they are because Clancy was the pathfinder….
Some years ago, metacritics and a few popular novelists wrote and lectured on moral fiction. Where are those debates today? The techno-thriller and its practitioners may be standing athwart. Tom Clancy, for one, made it clear to me that he has no interest in contemporary literature as Literature. He perennially scorns any salon environs. He spoke of the legendary Algonquin Round Table in pejoratives. Never studied the modern novel as a course, never took creative writing in a school setting. He has warmth and praise for Frederick Forsyth as a wordsmith but would much prefer to talk about how his friend Freddy so spellbinds a reader with elegant language that he or she becomes a character such as Jackal. Forsyth is plainly Clancy's ideal. That is, for Tom Clancy he is a contemporary paragon. Underline contemporary.
For Coonts the works of Eric Ambler were sublime, especially two thrillers from 1943: A Coffin for Dimitrios and Journey into Fear. Today he admires John le Carre. The Little Drummer Girl he calls a masterpiece. But he finds the novels about George Smiley "too cerebral." Even in thriller genres there are lines rarely crossed. John le Carre may prove to be more daring than his younger frères in the business. But don't look for Smiley in a techno-thriller.
As with Clancy, the techno-thriller does not exist as a distinct genre for Stephen Coonts. Or so he says, when you first ask.
Coonts and Clancy are now fast friends. On many scores their opinions are alike. They no doubt swap war stories and gripes about book reviewers in the mass media. On the techno-thriller, Coonts remarked, "There's nothing new about it. I know that Tom sat down consciously to write a modern submarine tale that he hoped would be as good as Run Silent, Run Deep, by Edward L. Beach , and told in the same style. In that novel you have all the elements of what is now called a techno-thriller. The military guys are the heroes. The tale is told in carefully crafted, solid, accurate technical details, all part of the story. You're told what it is the crew is doing and why they're doing it. That sets up the scene and the conflict, so it's part of the story. And it's an action-adventure story. Those are the elements of the so-called 'techno-thriller.'"
He said he didn't read The Hunt for Red October until his own first novel was accepted for publication by the U.S. Naval Institute Press. Coonts told me he intended a flying story modeled after Ernest K. Gann's Fate Is the Hunter (1961). That impressive book is a work of nonfiction. Coonts chose to write a novel because he believed the form would allow him generous space to interweave his own Vietnam experiences with those of other pilots.
"Gann puts you in the cockpit in an unobtrusive way," Coonts indicated. "He explains to you what the hell it is they're doing in there. You can't understand the story he's telling unless you realize what the pilots are doing. That's the essence of what Flight of the Intruder tries to do. You don't understand the problems Jake and Morgan and Tiger Cole have unless you understand what they're up against. How the airplane works, how the system works. You can't understand what it feels like to fly at 400 feet at night over North Vietnam dodging the flak, until you get a feel for what the crew is doing. And how Jake flies the airplane, and what he's looking at. The story can't be told without those details."
He credits Tom Clancy with rescuing the story of the hero in uniform and making it shine. After a long lapse the publishers could sell those swagger-and-salvo books in high volume. It isn't corn and camp any longer. So says Stephen Coonts. He looks back at 20 years of American fiction and sees the military image scarred by Vietnam recoil. The man in uniform was often painted as psychopathic, perverted, and criminal. But didn't the splendid novels of James Webb accomplish this revision years before the techno-thriller? Not as Coonts reads the flow chart. Jim Webb writes best sellers but they don't reap the rewards of the mammoth Clancy sagas. To Coonts this profit margin is ultimately a line of demarcation. On one side are war novelists the likes of Webb, James Jones, and Tim O'Brien. Their priorities have to do with realism and art. On the other are the new breed of genre writers who are mass-producing techno-thrillers. The difference for Coonts is between what he calls "realistic, thoughtful novels" and "popular commercial fiction" which "makes absolutely no pretenses of being literature."
Publishers have been contracting writers by the score to pound out techno-thrillers. The result has been a glut of this kind of book in the nation's drug stores, airline terminals, newsstands, supermarkets and—oh yes!—book shops. The mass-market paperbacks are frequently emblazoned with glossy allusions to Clancy and Coonts in their cover copy. This no doubt hastens the heartbeat of millions and does honor and justice to the genre. It also proves to the publicists in New York that you can always sell chicanery with its own gimcracks.
"I think that ultimately it's a fad," Coonts remarked. "A lot of the books are mediocre at best. I see a lot of shoot-'em-ups out there with high-tech stuff thrown in but not essential to the story. It's terrific that the guys who write them are breaking into publishing. Halleluia! But I think it'll pass. How many times can you do the next Korean War or the war in the Mideast? There's a limit on this stuff, and I think it's fast being reached. Tom Clancy can write anything he wants because he's a good-enough storyteller. He will always be able to sell his books. I'm a whole notch down from the public acceptance Tom Clancy's got. I'll have to grow and change to survive. But I guarantee you, I'm not about to do a book about the next Korean War or the war in the Mideast. I don't think the publishers are going to keep buying this stuff."
Recently I took a look at what is available around Washington, D.C., where five-dollar paperbacks are sold. Richard Herman, Jr.'s Force (1991) … about war in the Mideast. Patrick F. Rogers' War God (1990) … about facing the Soviets with SDI. Hostage One, by David E. Fisher and Col. Ralph Albertazzle (1990) … about the abduction of the U.S. President by a high-tech loony. Herbert Crowder's Ambush at Osirak (1989) … about war in the Mideast.
One of the problems confronting writers in this genre is collaring a plausible villain. Cessation of the Cold War has all but eliminated the Red Army, the KGB, and other Russian golems. The Gulf War didn't last long enough to suit the television networks, let alone the quick-book publishers. "The terrorists are the only plausible villains around right now who are obvious," Coonts said. Tom Clancy rounded up terrorists, gangsters, and corrupt public officials foreign and domestic when he wrote his big one for 1989, Clear and Present Danger. What we get is a pretty nifty book about the international drug war. Jack Ryan reappears as a three-star hero: CIA deputy director, concerned parent, and law-abiding citizen.
Jack Ryan would epitomize the "generic hero" if, as a character, he didn't raise such aggravating questions about himself. Annoying, because answers are never forthcoming. Reviewers and other readers often guess that he's the Walter Mitty projection of Tom Clancy.
Stephen Coonts presents another troublesome "generic" in the invention of Jake Grafton. Why should he warrant our attention? "Jake believes in himself," Coonts told me. "He is Everyman, with common sense and ability to do a good job. Jake Grafton is not wise, witty, or handsome. He is average. Jake is not a believer in high tech. Far from it. Jake has been in combat. He knows that, in real combat, anything more complex than a pocket watch won't work. Gadgets don't thrill Jake and don't thrill me! Jake is a timeless hero. I think that's Jake's appeal. He appeals to something basic in all of us."
But again, the hero of a brace of techno-thrillers has dimension because he has a job that he must do. This goes for all the techno-thrillers. The genre is about war, real, imagined, or inevitable. The job is warfare, the heroes are warriors. A case can be made that the authors in this genre are opting for a warrior class. Clancy denies that he's glorifying any such class but defers to the multivolume "Brotherhood of War" series. Those popular thrillers are the work of Coonts' friend Bill Butterworth, using the nom de plume W.E.B. Griffin.
When he was a third-grade pupil, Tom Clancy began reading the fabulous novels of Jules Verne (1892–1905), the French author justly celebrated as the father of science fiction. Always an avid reader, Clancy has remained close to science fiction, for the pleasure of it and doubtless the inspiration in its other-worldly possibilities. While an English major at Baltimore's Loyola College, he completed an independent study program in science fiction. His reading list included Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, John Wyndham, Philip Wylie, and Isaac Asimov. He reached back to a literary genre that had captured his boyhood. It was clearly his intent to write science fiction stories. This he did, in some quantity, but was never fortunate to sell a single one to any publisher. Clancy told me that he never throws anything out. So, it's a safe bet that his SF manuscripts exist. Intuition tells me that they're probably well above average for contemporary SF tales. They would be the proving grounds for the techno-thriller.
Stephen Coonts insisted to me that he writes about people and "not hardware." High technology doesn't impress or inspire him. Long ago he was turned off by science fiction. Instead he is immersed in the idea of change within a story. How an author deals with changes in points of view, especially from a cockpit and through a bomb sight. Clancy refers back to the eternal "What if …?" of the science fiction visionaries. He applies their search for possibilities to modern warfare and foreign policy concerns. Among those classic prophetic writers, Jules Verne stands clearly apart as Tom Clancy's avatar.
In The Hunt for Red October, Clancy introduces Captain Marko Ramius, intrepid commander of the Soviet submarine Red October. Ramius is a man of parts. In early chapters the reader discovers his substance and ideals. Ramius proves to be more interesting than any other character in the story. His resemblance to an earlier seafaring warrior is unmistakable. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) is considered by many to be Jules Verne's finest work. Its central figure is Captain Nemo, master of the mysterious submarine Nautilus. When Verne wrote his novel, submarines only broke the waves in the minds of dreamers. What Clancy wrote about was a submarine so ingenious that the most sophisticated sonar devices could scarcely trace its undersea whisper.
Verne's portrayal of Nemo remained cryptic. The indomitable submariner reappeared, a dying man aboard his Nautilus, in The Mysterious Island (1875). For all the readers knew, Captain Nemo was the sullen, embittered enemy of all oppressors. An undersea Robin Hood who settled scores and took out his personal vengeance on the world's maritime traffic. A close look shows no sure enemy to Nemo. In the last analysis he was a renegade avenger, an outlaw genius. Aside from his obvious rage and high-handed intimidation, he displayed noble traits. Near the close of The Mysterious Island, we learn that Nemo was an Indian prince whose family was slaughtered during the English colonial wars. His life mission had been revenge.
Jean Jules Verne, grandson of the great storyteller, relates how the author held vehement political convictions. He was incensed at the Russian oppression of the Polish people and others in Eastern Europe. Much of this acrimony found its way into an early draft of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne was prevailed upon by his business-wise publisher, Jules Hetzel, to purge any political material for the sake of high-volume international sales. Details of this restraint on the author are revealed in his grandson's Jules Verne: A Biography.
Nemo the obsessive-compulsive maverick is reincarnated as Ramius in The Hunt for Red October. He reappears as the Soviet defector in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, but only the mincing, incoherent shade of the pirate who stole away with the Red October. Tom Clancy summoned perhaps his only realized fictional character and set him adrift.
The authorship of Tom Clancy resembles Jules Verne's in an important way. Both men are telling prophetic stories dealing with quirks or innovations in scientific technology. In all important cases, knowledge of what is going on—or what is anticipated—is known to only a select cabal of men (and no women). Only in rare instances do any of these men ever impress us as well-conceived or realized personalities. This is all right with Clancy because his men are "generic." Jules Verne was criticized when the details of Nemo's Nautilus nearly put the character Nemo in total eclipse. Nonetheless, Verne taught Clancy, and Clancy taught "generics" to all the rest.
Those cells of privileged information aren't very interesting in Tom Clancy's books. Nearly always they are cadres of intelligence and secret weapons specialists who read Clausewitz in day school. Just drop a name like "Angleton" and you'll get a round of precise talk on the difference between strategic and tactical. Here are the Hollow Men. Heroes all.
Clancy told me that his favorite of his own novels is Patriot Games, the one he said was most "savaged" by reviewers. The story is outrageous and the characters are mostly clods. Technology is at a minimum. Instead we get bombs and an assortment of firearms, and the Clancy method of repelling international terrorists. The cabal is a bestiary of Irish nationalist guerrillas led by Sean Miller, a convicted bomber. In another place I have argued that Tom Clancy has such esteem for this work because it offered him an opportunity to pare his personality three ways. Accept Jack Ryan as Clancy's idealized self, no matter how loudly he denies it. His "generic" Prince of Wales appears callow, open-faced, a clean slate for the sage lessons of Jack Ryan. This Prince is an innocent with the power potential to be a warrior king. Perhaps another Clancy ideal. Sean Miller represents a special menace. When Jack Ryan testifies at the Old Bailey, he is chilled by Miller's cold stare. Clancy needed to create a duel, a shoot-out at Baltimore's Dundalk Marine Terminal, to do away with this ogre. I remain convinced that Sean Miller is Clancy's dark familiar, his Doppelgänger, the armed and dangerous one. Sean Miller is all that Clancy is not. Disorderly, unmilitary, reckless, anarchic. Clancy told me that he began to write Patriot Games well before he wrote The Hunt for Red October. By the luck of the Irish, the reading public came to know Tom Clancy far ahead of his prideful Patriot Games.
Curtis Church wrote a perceptive "Foreword" to the omnibus volume, Works of Jules Verne (1983). Therein, Church indicates Verne's schizoid outlook on modern science and its potentials. As much as he enjoyed science study and marveled at scientific advances, he dreaded the consequences of technology in mischievous or diabolical hands. Church further points to Verne's projection of his own personality in Captain Nemo and in Phileas Fogg, hero of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873; British, 1874). Thus the cabals, the secret enterprises of men who take dares and risk lives—their own or others. Jules Verne was a precise and thorough researcher. In his time he could never be faulted for inaccuracy. His personal insistence was on the plausible. The same is true of Tom Clancy today. He insisted to me that he has always relied on open, unclassified, or declassified source material, even though some of his novels have stunned and confounded people in Defense, as much of Verne was prophecy a century and more ago.
Verne's cabals are clusters of well-meaning eccentrics with mighty purpose. Like Clancy's heroes, they're going to have their day no matter what. In A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864; British, 1872), the sojourners underground are members of the Literary Society and Mechanics' Institute, which publishes educational books. Its roster includes "many foreign scholars of eminence" who are "honorary members." The gathering place is Hamburg. In From the Earth to the Moon (1865; British, 1873) and its sequel, Round the Moon (1870), Impey Barbicane and his fellow space travelers are officers of the Baltimore Gun Club, comprised of "artillerists" and sundry other militarists chiefly obsessed with warfare. In Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg belongs to London's renowned Reform Club. Verne paints the club and its doings in lavish tones of opulent idleness. The all-male membership indulges in high-stakes gambling. Such a wager sends Fogg and his plucky valet, Passepartout, on a trip around the globe. In The Mysterious Island, five balloonists are stranded on what turns out to be Captain Nemo's secret island hideout. The men are an engineer, a journalist, a seaman, a black man who had been a slave, and a child. Jean Jules Verne has interpreted this configuration allegorically as the five who "represent the successive stages in the evolution of mankind." The novel begins at the close of the American Civil War. When Nemo is discovered, he is given ample room for philosophy.
Jules Verne loved the United States. He visited this country in the early spring of 1867 and traversed New York State, from Manhattan Island to Buffalo and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. His letters and diaries from this vacation were ultimately the grist of one of his last novels, Master of the World (1904; not in English till 1914). This relatively short work is a true techno-thriller as the genre has been described. It brings back an earlier Verne villain, Robur the Conqueror (1886). The character Robur is a rogue scientist. His aim in the second tale about him is world domination. He pilots an infernal machine that can zoom across land, sail the seas and fly through the clouds. He commands a skeletal crew of loyal henchmen. Only this cabal knows about Robur's machine, called "the Terror," and its hiding places in the Appalachians and the Great Lakes region. The man sent in pursuit of "the Terror" is John Strock, "head inspector in the federal police department at Washington." He tracks Robur to Niagara Falls and then the Gulf of Mexico. At the close, the reader can only presume about Robur's destruction.
Old and sick at the turn of the 19th century, Jules Verne was wealthy, respected, admired—and jaded. When he died, March 24, 1905, he had excited more than four generations of young readers. He had made an adventure of science, geography, and certain ideas about geopolitics. In the long run he trusted less in the future of science. His life had spanned too many wars, too many imperialist land grabs accomplished by advanced war technology. He could read a newspaper and conjure the visage of a Robur or a Nemo, just across the Rhine or floating in the Strait of Dover. If the planet would make room for new sciences, systems, and machinery, would there be new ethics and morals also? Verne wouldn't live to know.
I don't know whether Tom Clancy's editors or publishers have tried to restrain him from expressing any ideas. His patriotism is evident in all he has written. His Russophobia was conspicuous in three of his first four novels. Uniforms, badges of authority, military decorations, Army tanks, Navy battleships and pep talks on the Strategic Defense Initiative can all make life worth living for him. When asked by others about the end of the Cold War, he said that he would almost surely continue to write political thrillers.
What does all this say about the techno-thriller genre? Is it for fun and escape, or is it a bill of goods? Maybe it is both. Jules Verne couldn't be reached for comment. But I don't think he ever conceived a novel about science and propaganda.
SOURCE: "The Smell of Napalm in the Morning," in New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1993, pp. 13-14.
[In the following review, Liddy offers tempered criticism of Without Remorse, though concedes that "of the millions bound to read it, few will not enjoy it thoroughly."]
It may seem a bit early, but why not revisit the cold war? After all, successful authors have been dining out on World War II for half a century and, if memory serves, they didn't wait long to start. The trick is to use the hottest part, Vietnam, and throw in a parallel story of revenge in the dirty world of drugs and prostitution that metastasized in our cities' streets as our involvement in Indochina progressed. In terms of the internal architecture of Without Remorse, the weaving of the two plots around the central actor in both, one John Kelly, the Navy Cross-winning former Seal introduced in earlier Tom Clancy novels, the author performs the trick well. His plotting is symmetrical and the satisfying resolution a setup for yet another sequel. If Mr. Clancy can cure Kelly's addiction to introspection (completely out of character for a Seal) Kelly will be a lot more popular than Jack Ryan, the hero of Patriot Games and other books.
The year is 1970, and the United States Government sends Kelly (nom de guerre John Clark) on a special mission to Vietnam just when he is fighting a self-declared war at home employing the same skills. The bad guys on the domestic front have anticipated the plot of a "Miami Vice" episode by more than a decade with the method they have devised of smuggling heroin into the United States, and have earned Kelly's lethal enmity by killing a close friend. Both plots are advanced by the plan-disrupting effects of leaks. No one in this book can keep his mouth shut, and that includes Kelly, who should know better.
Mr. Clancy's latest action thriller is certain to join his unbroken string of best sellers. Of the millions bound to read it, few will not enjoy it thoroughly.
Those few who won't will belong to either or both of two small, ever diminishing groups: those familiar with the operation and correct use of small arms (as we spend less and less on recruitment and training of the armed forces) and those familiar with the correct use of the English language (as we spend more and more on our public school systems). Both, unable to put down such a good story, will become increasingly exasperated at errors that could have been avoided easily.
To give Mr. Clancy the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the reason his description of how to make a suppressor to muffle the report of a firearm would leave a graduate of the mechanical shop class at Benedict Arnold Junior High laughing is that it's an attempt at social responsibility (we can't have all those grammar school kids carrying handguns with suppressors). But I doubt it. Mr. Clancy is one of the good guys. He correctly fingers the American left for supplying intelligence to the enemy during the Vietnam War, and his idea of proper behavior during that era would not serve as an outline for a biography of President Clinton.
Now there's nothing wrong with not knowing how to accomplish something so unusual as the manufacture of a suppressor, but if you don't know, why attempt it? It is gratuitous in any event, like naming the brand of the hero's suntan lotion (Coppertone). Just say he did it and move on. If not, find out how from someone who knows and who will, presumably, understand that it is necessary to provide a means to attach the device to the barrel of the pistol.
Even more irritating is Mr. Clancy's interchangeable use of the terms "magazine" and "clip." They are not the same. The M-1 Garand rifle, for example, uses a clip. The handgun of choice of John Kelly, the formidable 45-caliber ACP Colt model 1911 A-l semiautomatic military service pistol, uses a spring-loaded magazine, not a clip. It gets worse. Kelly, like all Seals a small-arms expert, is described as disassembling his chosen handgun in a manner that is mechanically impossible. (No, I'm not going to tell you how to do it properly. This is, after all, supposed to be a book review, not a field manual. The problem is that as I read the book, from time to time I got the impression that it was a field manual, albeit one issued during the Carter Administration.)
Then there is the battle scene in Vietnam, earlier in the war, wherein Kelly, supposedly a superbly trained and disciplined member of the psychologically and physiologically toughest special warfare-special operations organization in the world, is inserted alone in country on a mission to capture and bring back alive a specific enemy officer. Because Kelly witnesses that man doing some particularly nasty things before the rest of the team arrives, he mounts a one-man attack on 11 enemy soldiers and deliberately kills the officer he was sent to retrieve. Moreover, another of the enemy is "hosed down" with a fully automatic carbine by Kelly "emptying his magazine" (all remaining 22 rounds!) "into the running figure." That's no way to expend ammunition when you start out with only 180 rounds, surrounded by the enemy and deep in country.
We come now to that most lost of causes, the English language. Again, to be fair to Mr. Clancy, what follows is undoubtedly attributable to the appallingly under-reported nationwide editors' strike.
It is one thing to have a character ignorantly or carelessly confound the forms of the intransitive verb "lie" with those of the transitive verb "lay"; indeed, it may be required for verisimilitude (although not, one would hope, in the speech of Miss Sandy O'Toole, a nurse practitioner and the possessor of a master's degree, who nevertheless orders her patient to "lay down"). The striking editors could have been counted upon to point out, among other things, that "free" does not take "for"—one may get something "for nothing" but, if so, it is free; that there's a difference between "nauseous" and "nauseated," et cetera, ad nauseam.
Then there is my favorite passage in the book: "Food, nourishment, strength. He reached into a pocket, moving his hand slowly and withdrawing a pair of food bars. Nothing he'd eat by choice in any other place, but it was vital now. He tore off the plastic wrappers with his teeth and chewed them up slowly. The strength they imparted to his body was probably as much psychological as real, but both factors had their uses, as his body had to deal with both fatigue and stress." To say nothing of indigestion. Those plastic wrappers are hard on the stomach, even when chewed up slowly the way your mother always told you.
Enough. Eons ago, tribesmen sat around the campfires as the tellers of tales engaged their imaginations. A few years from now, Mr. Clancy will have a hearty last laugh on the few of us who care about these things as his visage fills the television screen, enabling him to deploy his narrative gifts to the delight of millions of graduates of "outcome based education," their illiterate little minds brimming with self-esteem, held in thrall by a master storyteller
SOURCE: "Red Storm Rising: Tom Clancy Novels and the Cult of National Security," in Diplomatic History, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 599-613.
[In the following essay, Hixson examines the cultural significance of American jingoism and the glorification of advanced weaponry in The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin. According to Hixson, Clancy's novels "can be interpreted as popular representations of Reagan-era Cold War values."]
They're not just novels. They're read as the real thing.
—Former Vice President Dan Quayle on Tom Clancy's novels
Prominent midcentury American social critics Dwight MacDonald and Clement Greenberg, inspired in part by Frankfurt school intellectuals, decried the growing influence of the mass media and popular culture on postindustrial society. They asserted that kitsch, ersatz culture for the masses, as represented in radio, television, popular music, cartoons, advertising, paperback novels, and the movies, would overwhelm the avant-garde and undermine elite, or high, culture. For many years, historians, who were among the last social scientists to take popular culture seriously, followed the lead of these intellectual critics in their disdain for the tastes of the masses. With the advent of the new social history, which focused on nonelites, and the recognition of the significance of the expansion of leisure time in postindustrial society, however, studies of popular culture have gained legitimacy. In recent years, for example, analyses of the popular culture of the Cold War have made significant contributions to our understanding of how Americans coped with atomic age anxieties and how they internalized the anti-Communist consensus.
Serious analysis of popular culture may be particularly relevant to understanding the 1980s, an era in which a Hollywood actor became one of the most popular chief executives in the nation's history, partly on the basis of his skill at invoking themes drawn directly from popular culture. To cite a few examples, Ronald Reagan once threatened a veto by assuming the role of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry ("go ahead, make my day"). On another occasion he promised to take the country "back to the future" and, recalling his own most famous role as the dying Notre Dame football player, he urged George Bush to "win one for the Gipper" in the 1988 presidential campaign.
Reagan's allusions to well-known movies suggest the extent to which popular culture leaves an imprint on mass consciousness. Because popular culture often conveys symbols and ideas that are familiar rather than original and is usually less developed aesthetically than elite representations, it has traditionally been condemned by intellectuals. But, as the "great communicator" himself clearly understood, lack of artistic merit does not render a book or film irrelevant to the public consciousness. Quite the contrary, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once lamented with respect to literature, there are two kinds of books in the modern world: those that are unreadable, but are actually read by a great many people, and truly accomplished works, which are read by relatively few.
Students of popular culture have noted that its most successful practitioners are those who express what the audience yearns to hear and see. The "traditional function of popular culture," they argue, is to "articulate an existing idea, attitude or concern and, in the process, to reinforce people's convictions." Or, put another way, "The most important single function of popular culture [is] the dissemination of common values, symbols and attitudes in such a manner as to create sociocultural consensus."
Accordingly, research in mass culture should be useful to diplomatic historians, whose proper purview includes analysis of consensus making in foreign policy, especially in a democratic society. By exploring the relationship between popular culture and actual national security policy, foreign relations historians can better analyze the process through which society absorbs and perpetuates predominant themes of national security discourse. Use of popular culture allows the diplomatic historian to exploit a wider range of sources and include in the analysis the "bottom up" masses, whose exclusion has been the source of no little debate. Finally, such research lends itself to modernist methodologies, such as the "new cultural history," further enhancing the ability of diplomatic historians to interface with their colleagues in other fields.
In recent years, revealing studies have appeared on the popular culture of the Cold War, although most have focused on Hollywood representations. Relatively less attention has been paid to popular fiction. Studiously ignored by diplomatic historians has been the paperback spy thriller, even though it has been a highly popular genre and one with obvious Cold War resonances. Further research in this area might well illuminate popular perceptions of American foreign policy at a given point in time and might even represent the past more fully than traditional studies based solely on presidential decrees, State Department documents, and other official records.
The best-selling novels of Tom Clancy, the most popular writer of any type of fiction in the 1980s, with sales of more than thirty million books in the United States alone, show how fruitful research into this genre can be. Three of Clancy's novels—The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin—can be interpreted as popular representations of Reagan-era Cold War values. They reflect both popular perceptions of Soviet behavior and the predominant national security values of the Reagan era. They also perpetuate myths about the American past and reinforce the symbols, images, and historical lessons that have dominated Cold War discourse.
Clancy's novels are best understood in the context of the evolution of the thriller genre and the Cold War itself. Although espionage is sometimes described as the world's second oldest profession, it was not until the twentieth century that the spy thriller emerged as a distinct genre. The celebrated Dreyfus case in fin de siécle France and the bitter international rivalries that characterized the twentieth century created the conditions in which the new genre flourished. As one scholar has observed, "Thriller literature is crisis literature and has arisen in the same century as crisis theology and an existential philosophy, as a response to the crisis of our civilization."
Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903), Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907), and, most outstandingly, John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) laid the foundation for the modern thriller. Buchan pioneered the formula of the heroic epic in which the gentleman amateur (Sir Richard Hannay in the Buchan novels) survives harrowing chases and direct encounters with evil and exotic villains in order to save Great Britain from intricate plots formulated by (usually German) spies. The highly moralistic heroic spy story formula dominated the genre until the 1950s, when the public, "tired of a devastating war and fearful of a nuclear future, clearly wanted escape, adventure, heroism, and romance, but remained suspicious of the pieties, the ascetic moralism, and the high-toned patriotism of the Buchan tradition."
It was in this climate that the morally ambiguous novels of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John le Carré emerged. These authors wrote not merely spy tales but literature, and, in marked contrast to Buchan's heroic epics, their stories explored the excesses of superpatriotism, conflicting loyalties, and the complexities of the "the human factor," as Greene entitled one of his novels. There was little trace of the moral certainty characteristic of the heroic epic formula in Greene's Quiet American, in which CIA agent Alden Pyle kills innocent civilians in a reckless attempt to spread American values in Vietnam. Even more unsettling was le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, published in 1962 and still considered the masterwork of spy fiction. In that novel Alec Leamas, the protagonist, finds himself trapped between the two in some respects indistinguishable Cold War antagonists. Betrayed by his own side and left alone out "in the cold," Leamas and his lover can only "come in" through their deaths at the Berlin Wall in the book's climactic scene. Le Carré's fiction reflected the daily uncertainties of real life spying, which the CIA's legendary counterintelligence specialist James Angleton, himself once accused of being a "mole" for the KGB, lamented had become a complex "wilderness of mirrors" in which it was difficult to separate the patriots from the traitors, good from evil.
While the fiction of Ambler, Greene, and le Carré took the Cold War and its moral ambiguities seriously, Ian Fleming's James Bond could not resist the temptation of parody. Agent 007—the special designation gave him "a license to kill"—inhabited a world that shared characteristics with both Buchan's and le Carré's formulas. Like Buchan's Hannay, Bond lived in a manichean and melodramatic world in which the forces of evil—usually in the form of racially indeterminate characters such as Goldfinger and Dr. No—ultimately failed in their attempts to subvert world order. Unlike Hannay, but like the characters of Ambler, Greene, and le Carré, Bond operated in the context of a national security organization, which by this time had become a permanent fixture of Cold War fiction. After all, not even 007 could have been expected to tackle such postwar leviathans as SMERSH or SPECTRE without benefit of institutional support.
Although he stopped well short of outright satire, Fleming did not ask the readers of his fourteen Bond novels to take them too seriously. In any case, readers (including John F. Kennedy) were more entranced by the exotic locations, fast cars, casino gambling, and furious sexual liaisons with the likes of Honeychile Rider and Pussy Galore than in any serious reflections on the complexities of the Cold War. As John Cawelti has noted, "Fleming changed the spy story from a set of images heavily loaded with moral content into stories suffused with an amoral hedonism." By the time Albert R. Broccoli began to produce the Bond films, especially those starring Roger Moore, the parody that had lain just beneath the surface of the Fleming novels had become the centerpiece of films that attracted a cult following. Fleming's Bond was the most popular suspense hero since Sherlock Holmes and may yet enjoy an equally long literary and celluloid life.
Americans were heavy consumers of such spy stories, all of which were crafted by British authors, but the novels of Mickey Spillane were the first authentically American bestsellers to incorporate Cold War themes. While Spillane's Mike Hammer properly belongs to the genre of the hard-boiled detective, he could hardly avoid contact with domestic Communists, the "reds" who had infiltrated America's homes, schools, churches, cinemas, and, of course, the State Department in the early postwar years. From 1947 to 1952, Spillane's novels sold millions of copies even as the United States committed itself to global containment and the extirpation of domestic communism. Spillane's popular fiction reinforced the predominant national security values of the early Cold War much as Clancy's would do in the renascent Cold War of the Reagan years.
There was nothing subtle or morally ambiguous about Mike Hammer or Tiger Mann, an espionage agent who appeared in some of Spillane's later novels. They confronted evil villains, often either Communists, women, or both—and killed them. In Spillane's first novel, I, the Jury (1947), Hammer names himself judge, jury, and executioner of the woman who had been his lover but also, he discovered, had killed his partner. The book, which sold over eight million copies, was followed by equally lurid and misogynist releases such as Vengeance Is Mine! (1950), My Gun Is Quick (1950), The Big Kill (1951), and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). While real American soldiers were fighting communism in Korea, Spillane published One Lonely Night (1951), in which Hammer exalted in killing more people in one night "than I have fingers on my hands. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it…. They were Commies … red sons of bitches who should have died long ago."
The series of rapid fire confrontations with evil seems to have exhausted even Spillane, who became a Jehovah's Witness and retired in 1952, only to reemerge in 1961, in the midst of the Kennedy Cold War crises, with a popular new series of novels. In Bloody Sunrise (1965), Tiger Mann, formerly of the wartime Office of Strategic Services but now an operative in a civilian anti-Communist agency, expresses the frustrations of unrepentant Cold Warriors embittered over the failure to defeat communism, even in "our own backyard." "This country wasn't founded on a goddam octopus government that lets mice like Castro and Kremlin bums pick us apart," Tiger Mann declares. "When something gets screwed up and the striped-pants boys can't handle it and the politicos are scared to death to touch it for fear of stepping on somebody's toes and maybe not getting reelected, then we do something about it."
From the mid-sixties to the late seventies, with the morally ambiguous spy formula pioneered by Ambler, Greene and le Carré dominating the genre, it was evident that Spillane's manichean imagery had been displaced. The Vietnam War, Watergate, revelations of CIA misconduct, détente, and the arms race all served to reinforce the ambiguities of espionage and international relations. It had never been more difficult to discern the good guys from the bad. Some of the most successful thrillers of this period led the reader to identify with evil doers. In Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal (1971), readers find themselves admiring the professionalism of the assassin whose mission is the elimination of Charles de Gaulle. In Jack Higgins's The Eagle Has Landed (1976), the reader is drawn to the actions of Nazi airborne commandos who aim to kill Winston Churchill, rather than to a heroic protagonist on the "right" side in World War II. In Len Deighton's Spy Story (1975), the evil doers are prominent Englishmen. Thomas Grady's Six Days of the Condor (1974), later made into a popular movie starring Robert Redford, had the CIA cynically liquidating its own people because they had learned too much. The popular novels by Robert Ludlum did feature a traditional hero overcoming long odds in high-stakes confrontations with evil, but Ludlum employed a variety of villains, including even the FBI, and thus did little to eliminate moral ambiguity.
By the late 1970s, however, the malaise of the Carter years and frustration over the sense of impotence fostered by the "Vietnam syndrome" created conditions conducive to both the revitalization of the Cold War and the reemergence of the heroic epic formula with Tom Clancy as its champion. Jimmy Carter had begun his presidency by calling on the country to rise above its "inordinate fear of communism," but by the end of his term he had lost public support for his handling of foreign affairs. The Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rejection of the SALT II treaty, and fears of Communist advances from Central America to the horn of Africa all combined to create a sense of crisis that Reagan exploited in his 1980 landslide election victory. The new president, drawing on the same Hollywood images of the cowboy that he had once romanticized on the "General Electric Theater" and "Death Valley Days," pledged that the nation would once again "stand tall" in world affairs. Vowing to contain communism across the globe, Reagan ordered a massive strategic buildup and employed military power in Lebanon, Grenada, and Libya. When the USSR shot down a South Korean civilian airliner (Flight 007, no less) that had penetrated deep into Soviet airspace on 1 September 1983, Reagan promptly declared, without evidence, that the Kremlin knew it was a commercial airliner but committed the "crime against humanity" all the same. Reagan responded to an outpouring of concern over the threat of nuclear war by abandoning a ten-year-old moratorium on defensive systems in order to promote the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which he asserted would one day render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Just as Mickey Spillane reinforced the Truman administration's national security values, which found expression in NATO, Korea, and the global confrontation with communism propounded in NSC-68, Tom Clancy's work was the fictional incarnation of the Reagan administration's Cold War policy. Clancy's novels challenged the morally ambiguous Ambler-Greene-le Carré paradigm by reviving the heroic epic formula first popularized by John Buchan. Clancy's plots hinged on manichean struggles that invariably climaxed in the unambiguous triumph of good over evil. His protagonist, Jack Ryan, was in many respects a modern Sir Richard Hannay: clean-cut, patriotic, ingenious, and triumphant. Unlike Hannay, who was a product of pre-World War I innocence, however, Jack Ryan could not hope to win the epic struggles of the late twentieth century without the backing of a dedicated national security establishment and the ready availability of the most sophisticated military technology. And unlike James Bond, Ryan would never gamble and had little time for anything more than perfunctory sex, sometimes explicitly for procreation, and only with his wife. By "just saying 'no'" to vice, Ryan embodied the Reagan administration's "family values" as well as its national security policy.
Clancy's novels hinge on what might be called the cult of national security, a set of assumptions and policy formulations to which the Reagan administration adhered. Reviving orthodox perceptions of the early Cold War, Reagan administration national security planners embraced worst-case scenarios of Soviet behavior based on the assumption of the existence of a totalitarian regime bent on global expansion and. ultimately, "world domination." They perceived the USSR as beyond reform and utterly cynical with respect to the means it might employ to achieve its aggressive design. The cult of national security arrogated to Washington the primary responsibility to contain and deter the Soviet Union, thus invoking a language that reinforced the Cold War preoccupation with the adversary's capabilities rather than its intentions. National security policy also sanctioned intervention on behalf of authoritarian regimes, using, once again, the words containment and deterrence—defensive terms that implied that Washington actually sought to promote self-determination. The cult of national security mandated strict control over foreign policy by the executive branch of government and sought to manage or subvert, sometimes through covert, illegal, or constitutionally questionable means, congressional and public opposition. Adherents of the cult of national security equated negotiation with Communist adversaries with Munich-style appeasement and sought to discredit domestic proponents of détente.
Clancy's texts, like the Reagan administration itself, not only reflected the cult of national security but apotheosized the American dream as well. Indeed, Clancy's own rise from Maryland insurance salesman to best-selling author and newsweekly cover star rivals any Horatio Alger tale. His six (through 1992) espionage and national security novels all topped the best-seller list for months and were translated into several languages, making him arguably the most widely read author in the Western world. Hollywood converted both The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games into commercially successful films.
What accounts for the mass appeal of Clancy's novels? Even some of his most avid readers admit that the books do not thrive on literary merit. Clancy may be a more accomplished stylist than Spillane, but just barely. Critics have called attention to his "undistinguished prose"; "wooden dialogue"; "plastic characters … on a Victorian boy's book level"; and "rubber-band plot[s] that stretch credibility to the breaking point." Although Clancy sometimes succeeds in building suspense toward a page-turning climax—the elementary requirement of the genre—even in this respect he is no Frederick Forsyth. "If you don't share Clancy's reverence for the spectacle of a gigantic national-security apparatus mobilizing to repel foreign evildoers," noted critic Terrence Rafferty, "[Clancy's] stories are just a bore—you settle back in the bulletproof limo, close your eyes, and try to shut out the driver's jabbering."
Rather than thriving on their literary merit, it seems likely that Clancy's novels sell at least in part for the same reasons that Ronald Reagan was an immensely popular president. Much as Reagan did, Clancy rewards the public by invoking powerful themes that are embedded in the American cultural tradition. Perhaps the most potent theme invoked by both Reagan and Clancy is the enduring mythology of American exceptionalism—moral, political, and technological. In all three novels analyzed below, the American heroes—invariably patriotic white males employed by the nation's military or intelligence services—are virtuous products of a materially successful pluralist democracy. As yet another critic has noted, "What Clancy has to offer—and it makes his books emblematic of the Reagan administration's self-image—is an old-fashioned sense of certitude, righteousness and derring-do." Clancy's patriotic heroes are highly skilled, disciplined, honest, thoroughly professional, and only lose their cool when incompetent politicians or bureaucrats gel in their way. Their unambiguous triumphs over evil provide symbolic relief from the legacy of the Vietnam War, the country's most recent actual conflict, in which military victory proved illusive and distinctions between good and evil proved illusory. There are numerous parallels between Reagan and Clancy. Clancy buries the legacy of Vietnam, just as Reagan attempted to do. Like Reagan, Clancy evokes nostalgic memories of American innocence and military victory in World War II, the "good war" in which the United States (the critical role played by its allies, especially the Soviet Union, having been minimized in U.S. cultural discourse) defeated Hitler as well as the "Japs" and enjoyed unparalleled security through its monopoly on atomic weapons. Clancy's texts thus complement the "Dr. Feel-good" Reagan era in that they succeed in reinvesting American culture with nostalgic images of military victory over external demons, and they resist accommodation to a new status of "relative decline" in world affairs.
Clancy's novels reinforce American exceptionalism by demonizing both foreign enemies and domestic political foes, much as the Reagan administration did also. As political scientist Michael Paul Rogin has argued, "political demonology" has been "a continuing feature of American politics." "The inflation, stigmatization, and dehumanization of political foes" reflect "a countersubversive tradition that exists at the core of American politics, not at its periphery." The monsters that have stalked American cultural history include "the Indian cannibal, the black rapist, the papal whore of Babylon, the monsterhydra United States Bank, the demon rum, the bomb-throwing anarchist, the many tentacled Communist conspiracy, [and] the agents of international terrorism." The Clancy novels employ Stalinist imagery, for the same reason Reagan did, to demonize the Soviet "evil empire" while promoting the mythology of American exceptionalism and the cult of national security. Clancy's demonization of the USSR and manichean imagery reflect a pattern of countersubversive behavior that has been embedded in American culture since colonial literature reduced the frontier to a struggle between the Indian savage and the hunter hero.
The Clancy novels demonize not only the external enemy but the internal one as well. Because the stories reflect and promote one conception of national security, they vilify American liberals, academics, homosexuals, the news media, and other putative challengers of the Cold War ethos. Like past proponents of red scare hysteria over internal security, Clancy's novels suggest that the United States could be undermined from within by spies and dupes of the international Communist conspiracy.
The triumph of American virtue only partially accounts for the appeal of Clancy's novels; equally important is how the heroes of his fiction triumph. Clancy's novels attach great importance to salvation through technology. Buchan's hero used only his own ingenuity to overcome evil doers. Although James Bond did employ deadly gadgets to get himself out of tight spots, he disdained being briefed about them ("Try to pay attention, 007!") and never used them to achieve the ultimate conquest of his adversary. Clancy, on the other hand, a self-confessed "technology freak" with a sure grasp of military hardware, has made his mark as "king of the technothriller." Virtually without exception American weapons—from nuclear submarines to the Stealth fighter to SDI—work unerringly and are decisive in the final resolution of his plots. Consistent with Reagan's promotion of such programs as the MX "Peacekeeper" missile and SDI, Clancy's texts encourage the view that bolstering strategic arsenals, far from posing a threat to human existence, will enable the nation to deter and if necessary defeat aggressors as it fulfills its role as the exceptional guarantor of world order.
Clancy's first and perhaps best-crafted novel, The Hunt for Red October (1984) contains all these elements—an emphasis on American exceptionalism, demonized enemies, and an array of high-tech weaponry. The enduring appeal of the book stems in part from its success as a classic thriller. It is, one reviewer noted, "the most satisfactory novel of a sea chase since C. S. Forester perfected the form." The plot centers on the defection of a Soviet captain (Marko Ramius) to the United States in his nation's most advanced nuclear submarine while the Soviet navy gives chase and American officials try to clear his path. Despite the privileges that accrue to the Soviet navy's top submarine pilot, Ramius chooses to defect because he had begun to question Communist orthodoxies, and indeed had become "an individual in his thinking, and so unknowingly committed the gravest sin in the Communist pantheon [sic]."
Thus, the first forty pages of the novel establish the demonic nature of the USSR as the reader begins to identify with a Soviet protagonist who is exceptional because he acts as an individual in a regimented society founded on terror. (According to Clancy, the Soviet Union of the mid-1980s was still a state in which the KGB could "order the execution or imprisonment of a hundred men without blinking." In contrast to the redoubtable Ramius, most Soviet characters in Red October are dull-witted true believers in Marxism-Leninism. Clancy's American characters refer to the average Russian as "Ivan," evoking a more "terrible" image than does the noble-sounding Ramius, who is a Baltic European.
While the Soviet characters bumble their way toward strategic defeat, Jack Ryan and his colleagues skillfully guide Red October to U.S. shores, pulling off the whole enterprise so that neither the Soviets nor the American public are even aware of it. The novel highlights a U.S. intelligence operation that is both covert and successful, thus reassuring readers that their intelligence services may be accomplishing great things without their knowledge. U.S. intelligence services, the story suggests, should be amply funded and given license to conduct their business without the burden of external oversight. During the Iran-contra imbroglio, the Reagan administration showed that it shared the same view.
Through the character of Peter Henderson, Clancy underscores the dangers of democratic oversight while demonizing opponents of the national security cult. After progressing from Harvard, where he was an editor on the Crimson as well as an activist against the Vietnam War, Henderson became an aide to a U.S. senator and a KGB spy. The Henderson character alerts the reader to the dangers of congressional oversight by suggesting that congressmen may unwittingly pass information through disloyal aides into the hands of the tireless agents of international communism. Moreover, Henderson's character suggests that those who were involved in the antiwar movement and those with "liberal East Coast" and "liberal media" connections are potential traitors.
Despite the Henderson-Hiss-Lattimore attempts to stab America in the back, the mission succeeds, Ramius gains freedom, and Jack Ryan trumpets U.S. exceptionalism and material abundance. He informs a group of incredulous Russians that the United States is a land of unparalleled material wealth and equal opportunity. "Anything you want…. Beef, pork, lamb, turkey, chicken…. The United States feeds itself and has plenty left over…. Everyone has a car. Most people own their own homes…. The fact of the matter is that in our country if you have some brains … and you are willing to work … you will live a comfortable life even without any help." Moments later, Mannion, a black U.S. sailor, informs Ramius that all the Soviet propaganda he has heard about racism and the white bourgeois ruling class in America is just that—propaganda. Much like the Reagan administration itself, Clancy's characters dealt with poverty and racial inequality by acting as if they did not exist.
While demonization of the Soviet Union is an important element of The Hunt for Red October, it plays an even greater role in Clancy's second work, Red Storm Rising (1986). As the title image suggests, the novel emphasizes naked Soviet military aggression against the West. More than any other Clancy novel, Red Storm Rising promotes the worst-case scenarios of Soviet military behavior upon which the cult of national security depended. The book begins with dark-skinned, Koran-toting, Allah-quoting Soviet Muslim fanatics sabotaging a huge Siberian oil refining complex, thus depriving the USSR of 34 percent of its crude oil production and risking an internal rebellion on the part of "the faceless collection of men and women who toiled every day … in factories and on collective farms, their thoughts hidden behind unsmiling masks." The Soviet defense minister declares at an emergency Politburo meeting that "we must obtain more oil. It is as simple as that." Because not enough can be purchased, he concludes that "we must take it." The plot of Red Storm Rising thus reinforces the nightmarish image of an unstable totalitarian state that might at any moment resort to foreign "adventurism" to solve problems that flow from domestic instability. Like the Soviet bear, a large and powerful beast with a primitive mentality, Soviet leaders arc violent and unpredictable. "In the Politburo, as in the jungle," the narrator avers, "the only rule was survival."
While the West is lulled to sleep by the détente line promoted by the new Communist party general secretary, the real decisions are being made in the Defense Ministry, which opts for total war to secure Soviet dominance of Europe and the Persian Gulf. Thus, the Politburo votes overwhelmingly (in the midst of a failed campaign in neighboring Afghanistan) to risk nuclear war by seizing the Persian Gulf after first launching an all-out invasion of NATO-occupied Western Europe. The Hitlerian nightmare unfolds with a reprise of Munich, as the Kremlin leadership trumpets détente before the world community and even proposes a 50 percent reduction, with verification, of superpower nuclear arsenals.
After encouraging appeasement in the West, the Soviets initiate hostilities in the most cynical fashion—by killing innocent Soviet children in a Kremlin explosion and blaming it on West Germany, which they then invade. After neutralizing Europe, the Red Army extends its blitzkrieg by invading Iceland in order to seize control of the Atlantic. Soviet storm troopers smash the tiny, nonviolent country, which is defended only by a national police force.
During the Icelandic invasion, Soviet soldiers kill the mother, father, and dog of a young—and of course pregnant—Icelandic woman, who is herself subjected to a gang rape. The rape and the subsequent rescue scene revive a narrative formula first popularized by James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales and cemented in American cultural discourse ever since. The Cooperian mythology revolves around scenes of captivity, savagery, and violent regeneration through the heroism of the solitary hunter. In this case the solitary hunter is Mike Edwards, an air force lieutenant stationed at a NATO outpost on the western coast of Iceland. Like the self-made men who "tamed the frontier" before him, Edwards is not by nature a violent man, but even the mild-mannered air force meteorologist is compelled to adopt the savage frontier ethos. Sickened by the brutal rape and murders, Edwards and his fellow GIs cannot restrain themselves from summarily executing the Soviet prisoners who committed the atrocities. (The Icelandic woman falls in love with Edwards two days after being gang-raped.) The Russian soldiers thus merge with Spillane's "red sons of bitches" and with the savage Indians, Filipino "goo-goos," "Huns," "Japs," Nazis, and Vietnamese "gooks" as barbaric enemies who must be exterminated.
The Stealth fighter and bomber aircraft represent the theme of salvation through strategic technology in Red Storm Rising. "We nearly defeated you," the defeated Soviet General Alekseyev explains. "If those damned invisible bombers of yours hadn't hit our bridges on the first day, or if we had managed to smash three or four of your convoys, you would be offering me terms."
After drawing sharper criticism from reviewers of his third novel, Patriot Games, a tale about IRA terrorist attempts to seize the British royal family, Clancy returned to the Soviet enemy in The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988). Like Red Storm Rising, Cardinal opens with a reprise of an Allah-quoting, Koran-toting Afghani Muslim fanatic (with "dark pitiless eyes") gunning down Soviet soldiers in the mountains of Azerbaijan, where the Kremlin's operation Bright Star, an SDI-type system, is under construction. As Americans and Soviets seek to learn about and sabotage each other's SDI programs, a top CIA asset high in the Soviet defense ministry, Mikhail S. Filitov—the Cardinal of the Kremlin—is exposed and jailed and the top U.S. SDI scientist is kidnapped. The heroic Jack Ryan, aided by the mujahideen in Afghanistan (depicted as "freedom fighters" rather than Koran-toting fanatics), allows the United States to rescue its kidnapped scientist and free the Cardinal himself.
The Cardinal of the Kremlin promotes SDI as the means to salvation through technological advance. "Defense systems could not be stopped now," Filitov observes. "One might as easily try to stop the tide." The Soviet character Yazov obligingly confirms the Reagan administration line when he acknowledges that his country is not only deeply involved in research on strategic defensive systems but is also "further along in testing." Soviet negotiating offers, especially with respect to arms control, are dismissed as disingenuous ploys that mask malevolent intent. Only dupes in Congress and liberal peaceniks could think otherwise.
Like the rape and rescue scenes in Red Storm Rising, a demonization scene in Cardinal features Soviet savagery, this time directed at a beautiful Soviet woman who is an American spy. (Beautiful Soviet women are American spies; most Soviet women are depicted in Cold War popular culture as overweight matrons, like the uniformed comrade in the popular Wendy's television commercial that appeared in the late 1980s.) Following her capture, the blonde woman makes a drug-induced confession as the Nazi-like doctor caresses her naked body. Mind-altering drugs make her forget everything. The Nazi-Soviet doctor later explains: "Surely you have read 1984. It might have been a dream when Orwell wrote it, but with modern technology we can do it." Invoking the most clichéed totalitarian imagery, the narrator describes the brainwashed woman's once animated face as "blank. What had been lively was now as emotionless as any face on a Moscow street." Big Brother no longer even needed to watch her. The imagery of totalitarian robotization is reinforced in other passages, where readers learn that Russians are "so grim all the time" (in part because their smiles "stop at their lips"); they don't "know how to have a good time"; and they themselves even admit that they "should have more Americans around."
This brief summary of the three Clancy novels shows the extent to which his popular fiction embodies the predominant national security values of the Reagan administration. Clancy's evocation of American exceptionalism, demonization of the Soviet Union, and his promotion of the national security mentalité indicate how deeply the United States invested in the language and symbols of the Cold War during the Reagan years. In the wake of defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, revelations of CIA misconduct, and the crises of the Carter years, Americans yearned to replace the morally ambiguous legacies of the Cold War with the unambiguous triumph of good over evil. Both Reagan's presidency and Clancy's novels were means to that end.
While the symbiosis between Clancy's texts and Reagan-era Cold War values seems clear, it is more difficult to assess the extent to which the books actually reinforced and promoted those values. It is not unreasonable to assume that the stress upon American exceptionalism, the demonization of the USSR, and the depiction of salvation through military technology reinforced the cult of national security in the minds of millions of Clancy readers. Clancy's novels, like those of Mickey Spillane, became best sellers in the same period that East-West tensions reached a new peak. It seems likely, therefore, that Clancy's fiction, like the Spillane novels of the early 1950s, helped bolster the Cold War ethos through the medium of popular culture.
The efforts of national security elites to promote Clancy's books, movies, and the author himself offer the best evidence that his popular fiction played a meaningful role in shaping opinion in the real world. The military establishment at first expressed some concern over Clancy's sure grasp of "secret" military technology, but it quickly concluded that such concerns were trivial when measured against the "great service" that Clancy's books performed by promoting the interests of the armed services and the military-industrial complex. Accordingly, the military establishment "adopted me," as Clancy himself once put it, by providing the popular author with privileged access to restricted facilities, job offers, and promotion of his books and films. "Everybody's willing to talk to Clancy," observed a Pentagon spokesman. "He's neat. He's one of the good guys." A Ford Foundation critic complained that leaks to Clancy were "the authorized winked-at way to leak information that will help the military procurement budget." Republican national strategist Edward Rollins and representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia found Clancy such an effective spokesman for the cult of national security that they urged him to challenge Maryland representative Roy Dyson, a prominent Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, in 1992. Clancy declined.
The military establishment also gave the producers of the film version of The Hunt for Red October advice and technical assistance, as it often did when it approved of films. When producers of the film Platoon, which reflected critically on some U.S. military actions in Vietnam, requested similar assistance, however, the Pentagon refused. Additional efforts to exploit Clancy's fiction accompanied the opening of the film version of The Hunt for Red October. In theaters across the country the navy set up information tables, complete with model submarines, in the lobbies and hallways. Naval recruiters promoted the film as "the submariner's Top Gun" a reference to the top grossing movie and video of the 1980s, which romanticized military service and prompted a 300-percent increase in naval aviation officer training enlistments.
The official embrace of The Hunt for Red October extended to the White House, where Clancy dined with the Reagans. Indeed, The Hunt for Red October became a publishing phenomenon only after Reagan called it "the perfect yarn" and recommended it to the nation. Senators, including Dan Quayle, who was then a senator from Indiana, praised Clancy, not as a novelist but as an authority on national security. During a debate on funding of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) technology, Quayle held Clancy's Red Storm Rising aloft on the Senate floor and asked, "Have you read this book? ASAT technology is what wins the war!"
The reception accorded Clancy's novels in these circles makes it clear that national security elites exploited his popular fiction to promote the cult of national security. Millions of readers have absorbed Clancy's exaltation of American exceptionalism, demonization of foreign and domestic political enemies, and promotion of military technology and new weapons systems. One cannot conclusively prove that Clancy's novels reinforced or changed the way those readers thought about the Cold War or U.S. foreign policy any more than one can "prove" that the Truman Doctrine or John F. Kennedy's inaugural address shaped public perceptions about the Cold War. What can be demonstrated, in this case, is that Clancy's novels promoted ideologically constructed perceptions of foreign policy discourse—perceptions that were absorbed by millions of Americans and were actively promoted by a national security establishment whose interests they served.
SOURCE: "Tom Clancy's Damn-the-Literary-Torpedoes Style Dances at the Edge of the Daily News," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 21, 1994, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following review, Batchelor offers praise for Debt of Honor.]
Tom Clancy is America's most wish-fulfilling policy-maker, and in his eighth spectacular and scary novel, Debt of Honor, he plunges America into a foreign policy that is at once unthinkable and very thrilling—a campaign that the present State and Defense departments can only wish they had the talent to fight.
Real war with Japan. Real Japanese sneak attack against America's Pacific fleet, real paralyzing nuclear gamesmanship with rebuilt Soviet missiles, real state terrorism, real American territory taken by foreign troops, real dead Americans in the thousands, and all this in the immediate future.
The moment when the President learns of the war is the chilling instant of the book.
"You look like hell," President Durling remarks to Clancy's franchise player, super hero Jack Ryan.
They're in Air Force One, heading home from new ally Russia, alert to several spontaneous Third World crises that might be linked.
"What's the problem?" the President asks.
Ryan, now national security adviser, searches for the right emphasis on the mind-boggling news flashes: stock market crashing, two carriers out of action, two nuclear subs missing, terrorism in the Indian Ocean, chauvinist elections in Japan.
"Mr. President, based on information received over the last few hours, I believe that the United States of America is at war with Japan."
In one tight scene Tom Clancy has done the work of all the king's horses and men—he has put before you, as if you were the President, the possibility of a battle that is implicit in every economic headline this summer about the U.S. trade gap with Japan, the yen versus the dollar, and the fragility of the U.S. government bond market and the Nikkei stock market. War with Japan! Of course! So that's what's going on.
Clancy has spun this exact spider's web brilliantly before—brought together "what-if" scenarios with media agitprop with the dazzling hardware and tireless muscle of America's armed forces. In seven previous novels, Clancy has defended America from the massive air-land-sea attacks of the Soviets (Red Storm Rising), the demonic sabotage of the Mideast fundamentalists (Patriot Games, The Sum of All Fears), the twisted minds of Vietnamese tyrants (Without Remorse), the hate-filled drug lords (Clear and Present Danger) and even the chicanery of allies and traitors (Cardinal of the Kremlin, Hunt for Red October).
For more than a decade Clancy has projected American power and ideals around the globe. If our foes want to know what we would do if attacked or tricked, they only need to look at Clancy to learn that they don't want to fool with Uncle Sam. (Clancy's two nonfiction works, Submarine and Armored Cav, for cavalry, are one boot stride into the twilight zone of what the Pentagon charmingly calls "war-fighting.")
In his greatest achievement to date, Red Storm Rising, Clancy, with tech support from the skillful Larry Bond, played out the Soviet sneak attack on NATO and showed not only why the Soviet empire was evil but also that it was doomed to lose any scenario of conflict with the American military machine. The death of the Soviet Union followed Clancy's story like an afterthought, and in the history of Cold War fiction Clancy will always be remembered as the man who delivered the coup de grâce.
Debt of Honor raises the stakes for Clancy. Here he has us at war not with the infamous evil empire of the Cold War, not with the agreed-upon enemies of terrorists and druggies, but with the folk who own two Hollywood studios and Rockefeller Center: the Japanese.
In sum, war with the wrong foe. For the United States of America is not at present in a position either to defend itself from nor to counterattack a Japanese military strike.
"Jesus, the cupboard's that bare?" a stunned naval officer comments at the frail American order of battle in the Pacific at the war's opening.
Clancy responds to this question with his militant point: "The mighty United States Pacific Fleet, as recently as five years ago the most powerful naval force in the history of civilization, was now a frigate navy."
To convince the reader that war with the people who brought you the Nissan Pathfinder is credible, Clancy works diligently to build a 350-page case answering the why, who, where and how of a Japanese war.
This grinding detail is Clancy's gift. He atomizes the chain of events that leads from a mistaken manufacture of a Japanese automobile gas tank to the American political outrage and turmoil to the mercantilist counterblow in the Congress to the textbook subterfuge of Japanese industrialists who are most threatened by a pending American embargo of all Japanese cars. It's all as logical as Kissinger's mind, domino by domino, and we watch the world move toward cataclysm with precision. When the Japanese take out the supercarriers Enterprise and John Stennis with a trick Mark-50 torpedo fusillade at their screw-propellers, it's clear that America is on the brink of Pearl Harbor II. And this time we won't have a chance to rearm because we've given the weapons locker away.
Fortunately the Irish ruthlessness of Jack Ryan is available to save his President and country once more from disaster. Harrison Ford has twice played Ryan perfectly—in the movie versions of Patriot Games and the new Clear and Present Danger—and it's impossible not to see Ford hunched over the desk in the Oval Office and biting off data-packed information for the President.
"There are ten birds here," Ryan says of the hidden Japanese nuclear missiles. "They're dug in deep, and the site seems to have been selected for relative immunity from attack. The next question is making sure we can hit them all."
At the same time, the sensationally savage CIA field officer, John Clark (hero of Without Remorse), has a critical role in countering the Japanese. Indeed Clancy brings all of his huge continuing cast of characters into play—the CIA families, the Secret Service and FBI agents, the sailors and aviators—and reading Clancy now is like attending a reunion. Everyone has a critical job, everyone performs admirably.
At the heart of the tale are the submarines, of course, for Clancy's love remains with his first success, The Hunt for Red October. The action language is always grand, but for me the dialogue in an attack submarine is pure science fiction pleasure:
"Bearing is constant. Not a wiggle. They heading straight for us or close to it. They pounding hard."
The last 200 pages of Debt of Honor are breathtaking. Only the elect who can read real-time satellite photos can get more excited than a Clancy reader at the climax of a war story. The White House situation room, Langley's communications links, COMCINCPAC operations, the flight deck of a B-2, the conn of a 688, the Ranger unit behind enemy lines—all this specificity jumping around from paragraph to paragraph without mercy for the uneducated. Clancy's passion is overwhelming. His sense of cliffhanging is state of the art. The close of this book is a five-run homer.
The lit crowd has long smirked at Clancy, and it will trip over its metaphors bad-mouthing this yarn as racism and paranoia and (zounds!) melodrama. Worth considering, however, is that Clancy is now embarked on a patriotic journey into the post Cold War future, where nightmares such as Haiti and Bosnia and North Korea await like wounded lions. What's going to happen will look much closer to Clancy's gunsight vision than to the Stone-Morrison-Smiley-Eco set of infinite feelings or meanings. Next time someone takes a cheap shot at your dogeared Clancy set, just bark back, "Bombs away!"
SOURCE: "Jack Ryan's New Gizmos Save Another Day," in The Wall Street Journal, September 2, 1994, p. A7.
[In the following review, Lehman offers a favorable assessment of Debt of Honor.]
After The Hunt for Red October established Tom Clancy as the Pentagon's Boswell, he found himself accorded the honors and access of a field marshall. A former Marine and lifelong military buff, Mr. Clancy used this access to soak up even more of the technical detail and the cultural attitudes of the politico-military world. Thusly armed, he produced a new class of literature—techno-thriller.
So what if his prose reads like a government manual. What, I often wonder, do his critics think bureaucrats talk like? Billy Crystal? The very woodenness of the dialogue highlights the real stars, who are not the two-dimensional people but the three-dimensional weapons. Mr. Clancy's gift is in crafting a plausible story, full of thrills, that puts all the neat gadgets and elite forces through their paces. Anyone wishing to understand how nuclear reactors on a warship generate power by boiling water will please to turn to page 329. For readers new to Mr. Clancy, Debt of Honor is certainly a good starter. It has dueling submarines, terrorist hits, venal politicians, smarmy lobbyists and a familiar hero, Jack Ryan, recently embodied by Harrison Ford on the big screen. It also has way too many pages.
The scene opens with an administration confused by the post Cold War's new world order. Lest we think this is the Clinton administration, it is established right off that it is the vice president who is the womanizing lecher. The secretary of state is a feckless wimp and the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are political hacks determined to dismantle the armed forces built by Ronald Reagan. America's Navy is half of what it was 10 years before. Trade policies have severely eroded relations with Japan, whose military has been busy building secret nuclear missiles. The ensuing economic chaos in Japan brings in a new government controlled by thuggish industrial tycoons.
These thorough baddies begin at once to execute a carefully planned destruction of the U.S. and its economy. They sabotage our financial systems by deploying a computer virus that erases an entire day's trading on Wall Street, and by shoving the president of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve in front of a taxi "with newly refurbished brakes"—this detail will be unconvincing to seasoned riders. They also disable the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and occupy the Mariana Islands. Fortunately for the fate of the nation, Ryan has been persuaded to leave the world of investment banking and has joined the White House as national-security adviser. Before long Jack Ryan will be closer than ever to the Oval Office, but in the meanwhile he renews contact with some old pals in the KGB and figures out what the Japanese really want, namely Siberia.
Jack's counterattack is fiendishly clever, employing double agents, assassination, press manipulation and the use of every high-tech weapon not yet beaten into a ploughshare. Given current congressional attempts to kill several controversial weapons, it is amusing to see that Mr. Clancy has built them all and that they perform flawlessly. He activates the Air Force F-22 fighter, which currently exists only in prototype and will be capable of operating in "supercruise"—flying at supersonic speed without consuming a costly 120,000 pounds of fuel per hour, and he brings on a stealth Commanche helicopter for an attack on Japan.
Mr. Clancy's trademark obsession with detailed technical descriptions keeps the kettle boiling. He tells us how the orbits of CIA spy satellites can be redirected for real-time surveillance, for example, and how important copper mesh is to stealth. The material, placed as a lining, absorbs incoming radar (I guess this information is no longer classified).
But if all of this sounds too much like Boy Scouts run amok for your sensibilities, Mr. Clancy will soothe you with his sensitive, newly acquired political correctness. Now half of his fighter jocks are ladies, most of the good guys are black, Hispanic or acceptably ethnic; the wives and daughters are surgeons and lawyers; charges of sexual harassment bring down the vice president (thereby creating a vacancy for the upwardly mobile Jack); and just about everyone from the president to the sonarman agonizes deeply over the very caring Japanese in subs who are about to be pulverized into fish food.
The last chapter alone is worth the price of the book, at least for those of us who cannot look at the Capitol without thinking of term limits. Mr. Clancy carries out a fantasy I have dreamed about for years, one that involves a very large plane and a kamikaze pilot: "The entire east face of the building's southern half was smashed to gravel which shot westward—but the real damage took a second or two longer, barely time for the roof to start falling in on the nine hundred people in the chamber."
SOURCE: "Megabashing Japan," in New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1994, pp. 28-9.
[Below, Buckley offers an unfavorable review of Debt of Honor.]
Somewhere, if memory serves, Mark Twain said of one of Henry James's books, "Once you put it down, you can't pick it up." Debt of Honor, the eighth novel in Tom Clancy's oeuvre, is, at 766 pages, a herniating experience. Things don't really start to happen until about halfway through this book, by which time most authors, including even some turgid Russian novelists, are finished with theirs. But Tom Clancy must be understood in a broader context, not as a mere writer of gizmo-thrillers, destroyer of forests, but as an economic phenomenon. What are his editors—assuming they even exist; his books feel as if they go by modem from Mr. Clancy's computer directly to the printers—supposed to do? Tell him to cut? "You tell him it's too long." "No, you tell him."
Someone, on the other hand—friend, relative, spiritual adviser, I don't know—really ought to have taken him aside and said, "Uh, Tom, isn't this book kind of racist?" I bow to no one in my disapproval of certain Japanese trade practices, and I worked for a man who once conspicuously barfed into the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister, but this book is as subtle as a World War II anti-Japanese poster showing a mustachioed Tojo bayoneting Caucasian babies. If you thought Michael Crichton was a bit paranoid, "Rising Sun"-wise, well then, to quote Mr. Clancy's favorite President and original literary booster, Ronald Reagan, "You ain't seen nothing yet." His Japanese aren't one-dimensional, they're half-dimensional. They spend most of their time grunting in bathhouses. And yet, to echo "Dr. Strangelove"'s Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, "the strange thing is, they make such bloody good cameras."
The plot: Japan craftily sabotages the United States financial markets, occupies the Mariana Islands, sinks two American submarines, killing 250 sailors, and threatens us with nuclear weapons. Why, you ask, don't we just throw up on their laps and give them a countdown to a few toasty reruns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Because, fools that we are, we have got rid of all our nukes in a mad disarmament pact with the Russkies. (Plausible? Never mind.)
For a while it looks like sayonara for Western civ, until Jack Ryan, now White House national security adviser, masterminds such a brilliant response to the crisis that he ends up Vice President. To make way, the current V.P. must resign because of charges of—sexual harassment. I won't be ruining it for you by saying that Ryan's ascendancy does not stop there; the President and the entire Congress must be eliminated in an inadvertently comic deus ex machina piloted by a sullen Japanese airman who miraculously does not grunt "Banzai!" as he plows his Boeing 747 into the Capitol. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman has recently had the arguable taste to remark, apropos this episode in Debt of Honor, that this particular fantasy has long been his own. I don't like Congress either, but Abraham Lincoln, Lehman's fellow Republican and mine, did go to some pains to keep the Capitol's construction going during the Civil War as a symbol of the Union's continuity. Oh, well.
To be sure, the war enacted here is not the fruit of national Japanese will, but rather a manipulation of events by a zaibatsu businessman whose mother, father and siblings had jumped off a cliff in Saipan back in 1944 rather than be captured by evil American marines, and by a corrupt, America-hating politician. But that hardly lets Mr. Clancy off the hook, for the nasty characteristics ascribed to Yamata (the former) and Goto (the latter) are straightforwardly racial. To heat our blood further, Goto keeps a lovely American blonde as his geisha and does unspeakable naughties to her. When she threatens to become a political hot tomato, Yamata has the poor thing killed. It all plays into the crudest kind of cultural paranoia, namely, that what these beastly yellow inscrutables are really after is—our women. (A similar crime, recall, was at the heart of Mr. Crichton's novel "Rising Sun." Well, archetypes do do the job.) Her name, for these purposes, is perfect: Kimberly Norton. "Yamata had seen breasts before, even large Caucasian breasts." To judge from the number of mentions of them, it is fair to conclude that Caucasian breasts are at the very heart of Gotosan's Weltanschauung. Farther down that same page, he expresses his carnal delight to Yamata "coarsely" (naturally) in—shall we say—cavorting with American girls. Jack Ryan is therefore striking a blow for more than the American way of life: he is knight-defender of nothing less than American bimbohood.
It must be said that the hapless Kimberly Norton is a glaring exception among Clancy women: so much so that you wonder if he's been reading Susan Faludi under the covers at night. With this book, Mr. Clancy stakes his claim to being the most politically correct popular author in America, which is somewhat remarkable in such an outspoken, if not fire-breathing, right winger as himself. Practically everyone is either black, Hispanic, a woman or, at a minimum, ethnic. The Vice President is hauled off on charges of sexual harassment; the Japanese Prime Minister is a rapist; the deputy director of operations at the C.I.A. is a woman; there is Comdr. Roberta Peach (Peach? honestly) of the Navy; Ryan's wife receives a Lasker Award for her breakthroughs in ophthalmic surgery; one of the C.I.A. assassins is informed, practically in the middle of dispatching slanty-eyed despoilers of American women, that his own daughter has made dean's list and will probably get into medical school; secretaries, we are told again and again, are the real heroes, etc., etc.
All this would be more convincing were it not for the superseding macho that permeates each page like dried sweat. Ryan's Secret Service code name is, I kid you not, "Swordsman." And there's something a bit gamey about this description of the C.I.A.'s deputy director of operations: "Mary Pat entered the room, looking about normal for an American female on a Sunday morning." His feminism, if it can be called that, is pretty smarmy, like a big guy getting a woman in a choke hold and giving her a knuckly noogie on the top of her head by way of showing her she's "O.K." (Preferable, I admit, to the entertainments offered by the officers and gentlemen of the Tailhook Association.) And there is this hilarious description of Ryan's saintly wife saving someone's sight with laser surgery. "She lined up the crosshairs as carefully as a man taking down a Rocky Mountain sheep from half a mile, and thumbed the control." You've got to admire a man who can find the sheep-hunting metaphor in retinal surgery.
Tom Clancy is the James Fenimore Cooper of his day, which is to say, the most successful bad writer of his generation. This is no mean feat, for there are many, many more rich bad writers today than there were in Cooper's time. If Twain were alive now, he would surely be writing an essay entitled, "The Literary Crimes of Clancy." He would have loved Debt of Honor, the culmination, thus far, of Mr. Clancy's almost endearing Hardy Boys-"Jane's Fighting Ships" prose style:
"The Indians were indeed getting frisky."
"More surprisingly, people made way for him, especially women, and children positively shrank from his presence as though Godzilla had returned to crush their city."
"'I will not become Prime Minister of my country,' Hiroshi Goto announced in a manner worthy of a stage actor, 'in order to become executor of its economic ruin.'"
"The captain, Commander Tamaki Ugaki, was known as a stickler for readiness, and though he drilled his men hard, his was a happy ship because she was always a smart ship."
"'This is better than the Concorde!' Cathy gushed at the Air Force corporal who served dinner."
"Damn, how much crazier would this world get?"
"But what kind of evil synergy was this?"
"Night at sea is supposed to be a beautiful thing, but it was not so this time."
"But I'm not a symbol, Jack wanted to tell him. I'm a man, with doubts."
"The dawn came up like thunder in this part of the world, or so the poem went."
"'I knew Goto was a fool, but I didn't think him a madman.'"
"'Gentlemen: this will work. It's just so damned outrageous, but maybe that works in our favor.'"
"'Bloody clever,' the head of the Bank of England observed to his German counterpart. 'Jawohl,' was the whispered reply."
And finally, this: "The man knew how to think on his feet, and though often a guy at the bottom of the food chain, he tended to see the big picture very clearly from down there."
SOURCE: "President Jack Ryan," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 18, 1996, pp. 1, 14.
[In the following review, Beschloss offers a favorable assessment of Executive Orders.]
As Executive Orders opens, Tom Clancy's hero, Jack Ryan, has just been confirmed as vice president after his predecessor, Edward Kealty, is caught in a sex scandal. After an abortive war between the United States and Japan, terrorists fly a Japan Airlines 747 into the Capitol, killing the president, hundreds of representatives and senators, the joint chiefs of staff, most of the cabinet and all nine justices of the Supreme Court. Ryan cries, "You're telling me I'm the whole government right now?" He must not only recompose the government and fend off hostile foreign powers but resolve a domestic crisis touched off when the venomous Kealty insists that he never actually resigned: "I've known Jack Ryan for ten years … He is, unfortunately, not the man to lead our country."
Clancy's publisher has announced a first printing of 2 million copies for this latest gripping example of his highly popular thrillers. By the time the hardcover, paperback, film and other incarnations of Executive Orders are out, conceivably a fifth of all Americans could wind up absorbed in the story related in this 874-page book. For the historian, mass entertainment reveals much about the passions and curiosities of a people at a particular moment. Subjects and plots that appear plausible and fascinating in the literature of one period can look bizarre or dated in another. What will the main narrative lines of Executive Orders tell scholars working in, say, 2096 about the Americans of our time?
Published in the wake of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings and during the same summer as the White House is blown up in "Independence Day," Clancy's new book shows that the current-day American is alert as never before to the possibility that no American landmark is safe from catastrophe. For most of our history, we have comforted ourselves with the exceptionalist notion that terrorism was a phenomenon generally practiced elsewhere. Had the Capitol or White House been exploded in a novel or motion picture of 50 years ago, the plot would probably have been dismissed as far-fetched, the author denounced as demented or un-American. Clancy anticipates the headlines of the past month by enlisting Ryan and Kealty in a conflict over anti-terrorism legislation that threatens encroachment upon Americans' civil liberties.
Especially considering that its author brandishes his 1980s-style sense of patriotism (the book is dedicated to the 40th president as "The Man Who Won the War," an odd locution for an author normally so aware of the contributions ordinary soldiers made to the defeat of the Soviet Union), Clancy's novel reflects surprising cynicism about our domestic political system. The author plays to Americans' current suspicions about their leaders' motives in his tale of the power grab by the elected vice president. Earlier in our history, a reader would have had a hard time accepting that, at a moment of unprecedented trauma, one of our leaders would shake the country further by selfishly challenging the presumed president's right to rule. In 1939, many Americans boycotted Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" to protest the portrayal of Jimmy Stewart's Senate colleagues as corrupt. Nowadays we do not blink at the notion that one of our leaders might turn a national tragedy into a great career move.
Executive Orders also opens a window on the American post-Cold War psyche. Dwight Eisenhower (another Clancy hero, who, as the author says in his narrative, "exercised power so skillfully that hardly anyone had noticed his doing anything at all") believed that when the confrontation with a Soviet empire ended, Americans would resume their essential benign composure; while retaining our world leadership, we would concentrate on education, farming, medicine and otherwise improving our society. Unlike his old colleague Gen. George Patton, Ike scoffed at the idea that there was something in the American psychology that required an enemy.
Clancy is of the Patton school. He has an old Russian friend tell Ryan, "What a superb enemy you were." Had this book been written during the Cold War, Clancy almost certainly would have used his Capitol bombing to usher is some kind of conflagration with Moscow. But like the screenwriters of this decade's James Bond films, Clancy has to find his foe somewhere else. Looking to the Middle East, he invents a war-making "United Islamic Republic" of Iran and Iraq.
Germ warfare fought by Ebola virus is another large element of Clancy's book that is very much of this place and time. For most of the Cold War, the weapon of mass destruction that most Americans thought about was nuclear. Life-threatening epidemics such as tuberculosis and polio seemed under control. Now we live in an age of AIDS and flirtation by Iraqis and others with chemical and biological weapons, raising the specter of sudden new war-plagues of biblical proportions.
Perhaps the deepest wellspring of Clancy's appeal when he published The Hunt for Red October in the early 1980s was his ability to expose the details of military and intelligence technology. This was not surprising. The Cold War was threatening to grow dangerous. No issue was more timely. Thinking of the 1920s, when a shriveling American peacetime army and an inward-looking society made military thrillers poor performers in American publishing, one looks for signs that Clancy is trying to change his act. But although domestic political crisis and domestic terrorism loom large in Executive Orders, the author has wisely chosen not to abandon what he does so well (although, in its publicity materials, the publisher plays up the domestic drama and soft-pedals the foreign).
The book derives much of its action and suspense from the author's talent in exposing the inner workings of endless unseen chambers of our own and other governments—for example, the presidential briefcase containing nuclear attack plans called "the football": "The first section, Jack saw, was labeled MAJOR ATTACK OPTION. It showed a map of Japan, many of whose cities were marked with multicolored dots meant in terms of delivered megatonnage; probably another page would quantify the predicted deaths. Ryan opened the binder rings and removed the whole section. 'I want these pages burned. I want this MAO eliminated immediately.' That merely meant that it would be filed away in some drawer in Pentagon War Plans, and also in Omaha. Things like this never died."
There is little evidence that Clancy has grown more interested than in previous volumes in exploring the depths and complexities of human personality. The thinking and motivations of his characters are not remotely as interesting as the dramatic situations in which he places them. The historian of 2096 would find little in this book to demonstrate the fascination that Americans of the 1990s have with deconstructing personal character and understanding the psychohistory of our leaders.
As compelling entertainment, Executive Orders shows that, despite the end of the Cold War and the temptation to coast that conventional success may bring, Clancy has lost none of his verve. As cultural artifact, the book suggests a domestic America that is perilous and grim.
SOURCE: "Harrison Ford, Call Your Agent," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 1996, p. 5.
[In the following review, Dean offers tempered praise for Executive Orders.]
In this, his longest and lumpiest collage of fundamental values and techno-babble, Tom Clancy resolves our Clinton-Dole-Perot-Nader uncertainties by suggesting the least of five evils: Jack Ryan for president.
Ryan—the indestructible, tighter-zippered superhero tied to Clancy and the CIA as closely as martini-weenie James Bond was to Ian Fleming and M15—certainly speaks what the electorate knows in its heart is right. "Please, do not send me politicians. I need people who do real things in the real world. I need people who do not want to live in Washington. I need people who will not try to work the system…."
He knows what's been klutzing up the system: "What ever happened to the truth?… It's all a game and the object of the game isn't to do the right thing, the object of the game is to stay here."
And, for God's sake, don't tread on Jack Ryan: "Those guilty of … attack will face our justice. We will not send notes of protest. We will not call a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council. We will make war with all the power and rage this country and her citizens can muster."
Yes, Mr. President. Tell 'em to kiss ours. Or we'll kick theirs. Because we're No. 1.
So, Clancy fanatics, relax in this familiar and wildly right mood of Executive Orders, the logical, even plausible—lest we forget the World Trade Center or Lockerbie—sequel to Debt of Honor.
In that masterpiece of action mayhem, you'll remember, America's trade war with Japan escalates to a Pearl Harbor II sneak attack on Pacific Fleet carriers. Ryan—seemingly risen on derring-do alone from college professor to deputy director of the CIA to national security advisor in five easy novels—saves our turkey bacon and the Detroit auto industry.
And in yet another eerie echo of real headlines, Ivory-pure Ryan gets the vice president canned for some Bob Packwood moves on the ladies. Now, most national saviors would have settled for a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a condo in Maryland. Ryan stepped into the vice president's job until the next election. Then, in the book's multi-megaton conclusion, a Japanese airline skipper dusts off his roots and proves that old kamikaze pilots never die. They simply fade into sore losers and stuff a Boeing 747 into the Capitol building.
Ergo, the final chapter of Debt of Honor becomes the first page of Executive Orders, with Ryan up to his Irish eyebrows in rubble and gore. The president died when the Japan Airlines jumbo delivered its vote of no confidence. Also the Joint Chiefs of Staff and every Supreme Court Justice, most of the Senate, dozens of congressmen, and all but two Cabinet members.
So John Patrick Ryan is elected president by act of terrorism. His first thoughts don't exactly reflect the grit that carried his previous days against the Irish Republican Army, Colombian drug dealers, the Soviet Navy and Sean Connery. Ryan's musings, in fact, are more Dan Quayle than Abe Lincoln: "I don't know what to do. Where's the manual, the training course for this job? Whom do I ask? Where do I go?" (At least his grammar is correct.)
President Ryan, of course, does get his kit together and start saying and doing stuff fit for Harrison Ford or Alec Baldwin. All the time, courtesy of CNN, world leaders are watching Ryan in a global power vacuum. Some are former enemies stropping old scores or opportunists monitoring the teetering of American influence. Others are vultures seeing profit in our resources that may be up for grabs.
The bad guys—you win no lifetime subscription to National Review for guessing it's an ayatollah and those Iranians again—activate their death squads, cripple the military dictatorship of Iraq and forge a United Islamic Republic. Conquest of Kuwait and the Saudi kingdom and control of their oil supplies will be next. Then the baby UIR wants to crawl across Afghanistan and Pakistan and create a new, rich, powerful nation stretching from the Red Sea to China. With India and China its likely allies; with the United States and Russia its sworn enemies.
Executive Orders is a colossal read, which is praise for Clancy's ability to grind out exquisite details yet criticism of his inability to write an essentially simple geopolitical thriller in less than 874 pages. Quite worthy of note here is that the Cambridge text of the complete works of William Shakespeare ran only 125 pages longer; Raymond Chandler kissed off "The Big Sleep" in 155.
But if you can stay with him, if you can forgive Clancy some stereotyping here, some visible chauvinism there, there's no doubting the wizardry of his craft. His writing is too simplistic to place him among today's literati. But he is the honest-to-God creator of an exciting genre and a consistent producer of books that thunder, absorb and entertain.
Executive Orders proves both the shine and sludge of Clancy. There is gratuitous sexual equality that equates to sexism by afterthought ("angry men—and women") and bald racism ("How d'ya say 'tough' in rag-head?").
Blessedly, he seems to have diluted and unwound much of the Jane's All the World's GI-Speak that made earlier works required reading at Annapolis, West Point and the Air Force Academy. Still, old military habits are tough to nuke and the last 100 pages still read more like Desert Storm transcripts.
The biggest problem with Clancy novels is that they are sometimes raw, even clumsy. He uses an impressive word—say, schadenfreude—twice as though to tell readers he knows what it means and we don't. Or a character will ask a question. "Will they move?" The response comes 500 words later. "Yes, Mr. President. They will move."
Clancy is not one of the world's great romantics. At one point, after an 18-hour day touring a capital in bloody ruins, Ryan goes home to his wife. Hi, he says. She asks if it is all true. He nods. He asks about the kids. She says they are in bed. "And now?" she asks.
"I have to sleep," he says.
Hey, what about a hug or some tears? Or a "poor darling"? Or getting hammered on Bombay gin martinis?
Executive Orders is 874 pages in search of an executive order to find Clancy a good editor before he overwrites again. One is left with the impression that his one-ton manuscripts are delivered by fork-lift to Putnam and published unread, as is, because the author is Tom Clancy, builder of blockbusters and maker of millions for all.
Accepting that authors rarely write what they don't believe in, this volume is a hard look at where Clancy stands on just about everything: on gun control and tax reform; on composition of the Supreme Court, religion, abortion and the death penalty. Sounds very much like a party platform.
Could it be? Nah. Not Tom Clancy for president.
SOURCE: "Something for the Boys," in New York Review of Books, November 14, 1996, pp. 34-6.
[In the following review, Hitchens provides critical analysis of Debt of Honor and Marine.]
The dedication page of this Behemoth carries a lapidary, capitalized inscription, "To Ronald Wilson Reagan, Fortieth President of the United States: The Man Who Won The War." And this is only fair. In 1984, the Naval Institute Press paid Tom Clancy an advance of $5,000 for The Hunt for Red October. It was the first fiction that the Naval Institute had knowingly or admittedly published. There matters might have rested, except that someone handed a copy to the Fortieth President, who (then at the zenith of his great parabola) gave it an unoriginal but unequivocal blurb. "The perfect yarn," he said, and the Baltimore insurance agent was on his way to blockbuster authorship. Putnam this past August issued a first printing of 2,211,101 copies of his newest novel, Executive Orders, and, on the Internet site devoted to Clancy, mayhem broke out as enthusiasts posted news of pre-publication copies available at Wal-Mart. Clancy's nine thrillers, as well as exemplifying an almost Reaganesque dream of American success, have catapulted him into that section of the cultural supermarket which is always designated by the hieroglyph #1. And this, too, is apt. Remember when America itself was #1? Are we not #l today? Must we not be #1 tomorrow?
There are other superficial resemblances between the Reagan phenomenon and the Clancy one. Tom Clancy, the true-grit chronicler of air combat, has an aversion to flying and will not get on a plane unless he absolutely has to. Ronald Reagan became phobic about flying in 1937 and did not board another aircraft for almost thirty years. (While grounded, he played heroic airmen in Secret Service of the Air, Murder in the Air, International Squadron, and Desperate Journey.) When he wrote Red October, Clancy had never been on a submarine unless it was tethered to the dockside. Ronald Reagan, who never got further than the Hal Loach Training Studio on a Los Angeles backlot, told Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal that he had been present in person at the liberation of the Nazi camps, and often referred fondly to the wartime years he had spent "in uniform." Tom Clancy talks like a leatherneck when interviewed by the press, and keeps a large green M4A1 tank parked on the main lawn of his 4,000-acre estate on Chesapeake Bay. (There is a shooting range in the basement of the main house.) So the nation's two leading fans of vicarious combat make a good pairing. We cannot therefore be sure which "war," in the dedication. Reagan is supposed to have "won." It may be one of the wars that took place only in his head. I think that the millions of Clancy-consuming vicarious-war fans arc supposed to assume, however, that it was that "cold" war, in which Tom Clancy was proposed by Vice-President Dan Quayle as a member of the National Space Council.
Clancy's fictional projection of his rather rotund and unadventurous self is Jack Ryan, who has now been animated on screen by Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin. A child of the national security apparat. Ryan has captured a Soviet nuclear submarine (The Hunt for Red October), done battle with IRA gunmen (Patriot Games), outpointed the KGB (The Cardinal of the Kremlin), taken the war to the foe in the matter of the Colombian cartels (Clear and Present Danger), foiled a world-domination plot by the Indian Navy and a Japanese business consortium (Debt of Honor). On the cusp between Debt of Honor and Executive Orders he becomes Vice-President and President of the United States, all on the same day. Since Ryan has always been represented as an uncomplicated patriot with a distaste for politics and politicians, this transition might seem to offer a difficulty. But Clancy resolves it with a tremendous plot device, whereby a Japanese airliner crashes into a joint session of Congress, killing the Chief Executive, most of the members of the House and the Senate, most of the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs, and all the Justices of the Supreme Court. Ryan has been appointed as a stopgap, can-do, pinch-hitting Veep, in the wake of the resignation of a scoundrelly incumbent. By nothing short of a miracle, he escapes the hecatomb of the Joint Session and finds not only that he is Leader of the Free World, but that he has a huge number of vacant appointments in his gift.
It rapidly becomes clear that Tom Clancy's political beau ideal is not really Ronald Reagan so much as it is Ross Perot. Ryan decides to hire a new Treasury Secretary and goes straight to a friend on Wall Street. He tells him:
Buy a mop. I want your department cleaned up, streamlined and run like you want it to make a profit someday. How you do that is your problem. For Defense, I want the same thing. The biggest problem over there is administrative. I need somebody who can run a business and make a profit to cull the bureaucracy out. That's the biggest problem of all, for all the agencies.
There's a great deal more in this style of what I call "gruff stuff": husky admonitions and semper fi shoulder-punches and injunctions not to stand on ceremony or go by the book. Is this, for one thing, a great country or is it not? As one young aide reflects, squeezing his eyes shut in a manly fashion:
Only in America could a working-class kid who'd scratched into Harvard on a scholarship get befriended by the great son of a great family.
Read with any care, this assertion is only true to the extent that Harvard is in America. But care is just what Clancy doesn't exercise. As he once told an interviewer about an earlier volume in his oeuvre:
I was never thinking about whether this was a good book or a bad book. I was thinking of the mission. You have to focus on the mission, and the mission is finishing the book, and everything else is a sideshow to the mission.
Here is the authentic voice of a man who must sometimes wish that he had not been excused from the draft on the grounds of his myopia. How he loves the argot, of "doing what you have to do to get the job done." Regrettably, in Executive Orders he sets himself too many missions and succumbs very early to what might be called imperial overstretch.
The outside world is, as is now notorious, a dangerous place. President Ryan is not to be allowed his honeymoon. In far-off Iran, a scheming ayatollah sees his chance. In distant, throbbing Zaire, a young Iranian physician starts to culture the Ebola virus. The glacial Stalinist mandarins of Beijing decide to test "this Ryan"—a very Fleming-like locution, incidentally, often employed to characterize the speech of a devious and fanatical foreigner. Even the nasty female who heads the government of India is in on the convoluted Sino-Iranian conspiracy, though it turns out to be a conspiracy with no objective beyond itself. The humiliation of the naive unsuspecting Americans is the general idea. They are so—heh, heh, heh—enfeebled by their attachment to democracy …
Nor are things at home all that propitious. Some bucolic fascists in Montana decide that their hour has struck. There may be a mole in the President's security detail. And of course, political and journalistic enemies never sleep. This salad of subplots, plucked alternately from the marquees of the Cineplex and the filler copy at US News and World Report, is narrated by means of intercutting, but will present serious problems of continuity for the studio which options it.
For a while, it seems Jack Ryan doesn't have a friend in the world. But he does, he does. There is Prince Charles, who of course we remember from Ryan's heroic rescue of the royals in Patriot Games. And there is the Israeli Mossad, without which no writer in this genre since the days of Frederick Forsyth has dared move a step. At the memorial for those massacred on Capitol Hill:
"Mr. President." said the man in the Royal Navy mess jacket. His ambassador had positioned things nicely. On the whole, London rather liked the new arrangement. The "special relationship" would become more special, as President Ryan was an (honorary) Knight Commander of the Victorian Order.
"Your highness." Jack paused, and allowed himself a smile as he shook the offered hand. "Long time since that day in London, pal."
I'm citing this not as a sample of Clancy's abysmal dialogue, because in point of fact it's much better crafted and more economical than most of the exchanges that he types, but because it illustrates two recurring Clancy tropes, which are his matey populism and his deference and snobbery. The two are as indissolubly linked, in this as in all Clancy narratives, as his taste for sadistic ruthlessness and his sentimentality.
These qualities are summarized, for me, in the way in which Clancy names his characters. "Jack Ryan" is a nothing name to start with, and the character is just an attitudinal cipher, with a tendency to long and sanctimonious monologues, who is naturally devoted to the children he never sees and who gets in bed with his wife only in order to go to sleep. We are informed at one point that he is "a student of human behavior," as who indeed is not? His associates and subordinates are called Pat Martin and Dave James and Bob Fowler. There's a John Clark and a Robert Jackson. And think of the ingenuity tax that must have been levied when Clancy had to come up with some tough but tender FBI veterans to be Ryan's only friends in the world (apart of course from the Windsors and the Israelis) and named them Patrick O'Day and Tony Caruso. It's like watching one of those macho "unit" movies from the Second World War, where there is a Kowalski and an O'Rourke and a Gambino in every platoon.
The geopolitics are evoked with the same skill. The Middle East, that renowned cauldron, is described as "a part of the world known for its interlocking non-sequiturs." I will say that I enjoyed that effortful oxymoron more than the immediately following revelation: "Like most Russians. Golovko had a deep respect for history." There is, then, inevitably, some talk about wolves and steppes and the uncomfortable conclusion that "Lying on the ground, the horizon could be surprisingly close." I dare say it could, if one were dangling.
We meet a handsome pro-American Saudi prince called Prince Ali Bin Sheik—a name as absurd in Arabic as it is in English. At one point, the saturnine Iranian doctor in the outback of Zaire makes a decision, lifts the phone, and calls the Iranian embassy in Kinshasa. Mr. Clancy's travels obviously haven't taken him to Zaire. The telephones there are down. You can't call the Iranian embassy—even if there is one—if you are already in Kinshasa.
Having commissioned the assassination of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian leadership is able to unite Iraq and Iran, on the basis of Shi'a solidarity, in a matter of days. The newly fused army is ready to reinvade Kuwait at once. Switzerland, on the other hand, hasn't changed since it was visited by Paul Erdman and Robert Ludlum. It is still, you will be reassured to hear, "a cold country in terms of both climate and culture, but a safe one, and for those with money to invest, an anonymous one." Books like Executive Orders depend on a species of paradox: vast changes in the natural order which leave the landscape of conventional wisdom unchanged. This is why Clancy, in a yarn of 874 pages, invents a few shocks but cannot bring off a nanosecond of real tension.
There comes a point when, chopping one's way through the hopeless tangle of Clancy's thoughts and Clancy's prose, one is compelled to ask who, if anybody, edits this stuff? Is it assumed that the customers will simply buy anything that bears the TC #1 franchise label? Even if so, both they and he are ill-served. That sinister Iranian physician "walked out of the room … removing his protective garb as he went, and dumping the articles in the proper container." A few pages later, "He left the room, stripping off his protective garb as he did so, depositing it in the proper containers." Sometimes the inattention creates miniature hilarities. "For the first time in a very long time, Clark went pale as a ghost." "Barry, I've never committed public suicide before." Sometimes, though, it results in a syntactical pileup from which there is no extrication:
At every stop, the information was handed over raw, sometimes with the local assessment, but more often without, or if it were, placed at the bottom so that the national intelligence officers in charge of the various watches could make their own assessments, and duplicate the work of others. Mostly this made sense, but in fast-breaking situations it very often did not. The problem was that one couldn't tell the difference in a crisis.
I believe that I can guess exactly the point at which Mr. Clancy gave up on his "mission" but kept going blindly on. Having been at some pains to show us the Ebola virus being bottled with diabolical care in vials of blood, he allows this blood to spill and permits (he ultra-vigilant physician to notice that something sticky and liquid has escaped, only to dismiss the thought. The next person to encounter the spillage finds that "his seat was wet, with what he didn't know, but it was sticky and … red? Tomato juice or something, probably." The man making this suggestive blunder is an Iraqi Ba'athist secret policeman, who might be expected to know the difference between blood and Bloody Mary.
Clancy is forgiven much by his fans because he can deliver the high-octane military-industrial prose that is his hallmark. Writing of this caliber is essentially non-fictional, as is shown by Clancy's latest boy's-own guidebook, Marine, a breathless history and description of the real-life past and present of America's #1 military corps d'elite. But even Marine has a closing section in which fantasy is given its head and we are asked to accompany our boys on a future mission against those described as "rag-heads" in Executive Orders:
Two minutes behind the B-2s came eight B-1B Lancers from the 7th Wing at Dyess AFB, Texas, also launched from Anderson AFB and refuelled from KC-10As at Diego Garcia. Their targets were two battalions of troops in barracks adjacent to Bushehr airport. Each unloaded twelve AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOWs) from their weapons bays, well outside Iranian airspace. Following a two-minute gliding flight, the ninety-six JSOWs, guided by onboard GPS receivers, unloaded their payloads of BLU-97/B Combined Effects Munitions (CEMs). They blanketed over a hundred acres of troop billeting and vehicle-parking areas with thousands of CEMs, and the effects were horrific. The two minutes since the bombs from the B-2 strike had given the troops time to thrown on their boots, grab weapons, and rush outside to be shredded into hamburger by exploding cluster munitions.
Here is another pileup, this time acronymic, culminating in a moment of sub-Mickey Spillane. It is the on-page equivalent of the "smart" videos from the Gulf War. (With this difference. After the Gulf War, staff officers who had viewed the non-virtual effects of cluster and fragmentation weapons decided not to put these triumphs on the air. The videos are still classified by the Department of Defense, whether out of squeamishness or not. But Clancy the gloating civilian is subject to no such inhibition.)
Descriptions like this bear the broken-backed weight of Executive Orders, too, and carry the badly injured plot toward its final foxhole. It's interesting to notice the amount of product endorsement that Clancy throws in to enhance the industrial side of his uncomplex military-industrial writing. Tributes to the excellence of Merck chemicals, Gulfstream aircraft, and Merrill Lynch brokers are plentiful, as are fulminations by Jack Ryan against the capital gains tax. The acknowledgments to Marine include the good people at Bell Textron, Boeing, Sikorsky, Texas Instruments, General Dynamics, and Hughes Aircraft. Are we entering the age of sponsorship in airport fiction?
Jack Ryan manages to battle successfully against the multiple and simultaneous subplots that conspire against him, but he succeeds chiefly because most of them just peter out. The Montana militiamen's scheme is discarded (by Clancy, not by the conspirators) and the Indians and Chinese seem just to change their minds. The ever-menacing Japanese are left out altogether on this occasion, while entire Ebola outbreaks, including one in Chicago and a nasty one in the Sudan, just vanish from the story. Having found a couple of tycoons to serve at Treasury and Defense, Ryan never does get around to any Supreme Court appointments. He even forgets to have a vice-president, which is a requirement of the very Constitution that he repeatedly tells us he is sworn to defend. Actually, Clancy only comes to life at all on those occasions when he can describe either a president trashing the Constitution or a field officer exceeding orders and kicking ass.
Ryan's problem was that he really didn't have a political philosophy per se. He believed in things that worked, that produced the promised results and fixed whatever was broken. Whether these things adhered to one political slant or another was less important than the effects they had.
Will you adhere to my slant? But when it's a question of proclaiming martial law to combat Ebola, or of violating the prohibition on the assassination of foreign leaders, Ryan's pragmatism reveals itself for what it is—an authoritarian populism set out with more energy than grammar by its fictional author. The same goes for cutting out red tape on military expeditions:
"How many can we kill before they make us stop, sir?"
"If it's a tank, kill it. If it's BMP, kill it. If it's a truck, kill it. If it's south of the berm and it's holding a weapon, kill it. But the rules are serious about killing unresisting people. We don't break those rules. That's important."
"Fair 'nuff. Colonel."
"Don't take any unnecessary chances with prisoners, either."
"No, sir," the track commander promised. "I won't."
The implication of the passage is quite subtle by Clancy standards, but it shares in the same down-and-dirty, tough-guy pornography of which this is the soft version.
The usual throaty justification for such nastiness is, of course, the existence of women and children. As far as I can see. Clancy has fitted out Ryan with a spouse and some offspring simply so that he can experience paroxysms of justified male wrath when physical attacks are made on them. ("Why my kids, Jeff? I'm the one—here. If people get mad, it's supposed to be at me. Why do people like this go after children, tell me that …?") Strong, drivelling men like this are also traditionally very fond of committing minor infractions and then asking their subordinates not to tell the lady of the house or she'll have his guts for garters. Clancy does not spare us this convention. I lost count of the number of times that Ryan bummed a cigarette and then, likeably and democratically, cautioned the underling not to let "Cathy" know. This makes the mighty appear so much more … human, really.
Even though Clancy often seems bored by his own devices, there is one other subject—apart from political and military bullying—that gets him excited. Like many people who know absolutely nothing about Washington, and who reveal the fact by talking portentously of "this town," he believes that the press is out to "get" the man in charge. If a Jack Ryan had actually become President in the manner described here, and had then had to face a challenge from a newly united Iran-Iraq federation, he would have had the mass media at his disposal from early morn to dewy eve. "Bipartisanship" would not have been the half of it.
Instead, Clancy shows us a president who meekly submits to atrocious rudeness at press conferences, who is harried by reporters wherever he goes, who does five unrehearsed network interviews one after the other (on the same topic, in his private quarters), and who is subjected to a last-minute "set-up" grilling by a crafty presenter. Moreover, the Pentagon flies hostile correspondents directly to the scene of combat, while reporters call and get the National Security Advisor on the telephone at all times. A clue to Clancy's resentful caricature of the Fourth Estate is probably to be found in one such scene, where "a very liberated lady" reporter asks an impertinent question about Roe v. Wade. But I never want to read again that, say what you will about Clancy's losing armwrestle with the English language, he is at least good on the details.
Details can be suggestive, however, and some absorbing ones are to be found in Marine. We find that Clancy praises his favorite corps for capturing John Brown at Harper's Ferry (under the command of Virginia Army officers Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart); for subverting Mexico at Vera Cruz in 1847; for putting down Filipino rebels in 1899 and invading Nicaragua in 1913; for intervening in Haiti between 1915 and 1934; and for "pacifying the Panama Canal Zone" between 1901 and 1914, to say nothing of enforcing the Platt Amendment in Cuba. For Clancy, these are not disfigurements of a record that after all includes Iwo Jima, but glorious pages in and of themselves. As the novel began to recede in my memory, it was deposed and replaced by the image of Oliver North, a disgraced Marine officer for whom Clancy used to "do" fundraisers. There are obviously many "guys" out there, some of them perhaps living near bases threatened with closure, dwelling in the lost world of "choke points" and "arcs of crisis" and "daggers pointed at the heart of." For them, Clancy is a novelist and North is a hero. With no official enemy on the radar screen (and even the foul Iranians better-armed thanks to North and Reagan), Clancy has become the junk supplier of surrogate testosterone. His books bear the same relationship to reality as Oliver North's lachrymose and bragging speeches do to patriotism, and his writing is to prose what military music is to music.
SOURCE: "In the Popular Tradition," in Tom Clancy: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 25-39.
[In the following essay, Garson examines the combined elements of the conventional thriller, science fiction, detective fiction, and the techno-thriller in Clancy's novels.]
For a long time Tom Clancy insisted he writes political thrillers, totally rejecting the term "technothriller" that numerous critics have bestowed on his work. But perhaps in recognition of the inevitable, he has finally given in. When Larry King on his 22 August 1994 television show introduced him as a writer of technothrillers, Clancy made no protest. As for labeling his work, a case could be made for both the large designation—thriller—and its subheading—technothriller, and also for spy/espionage fiction. Properties of all these types are easily found in Clancy's writing. Additionally, some book sellers, such as the Book-of-the-Month Club, list his novels under a more expansive and general category: Mystery/Suspense Fiction. This broad, all-encompassing term may be useful for libraries. However, it does little to help the reader distinguish the real differences between Clancy's work and the detective stories of Agatha Christie or the uncanny fiction of Stephen King, which are often placed alongside Clancy's in such indeterminate classifications.
When his first published book, The Hunt for Red October, appeared, reviewers found the technical aspects of the novel so impressive and unusual that it seemed that a word had to be coined to describe the type. Although nobody seems to be able to pinpoint the origin of the term "technothriller," Patrick Anderson of the New York Times gave that label to Clancy's work in 1988. In Anderson's review, Clancy became the "king" of such fiction. In that same year, Evan Thomas of Newsweek described Clancy as the "inventor" of the technothriller, although Clancy himself has said that Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain is the first technothriller. Nonetheless, Clancy is considered both inventor and king of the genre by many of the reviewers and critics who have interviewed him or written about his novels. The "king" has gained much more territory since the title was first bestowed on him by Anderson. Numerous technothriller books have been written by other novelists, often imitating him, but Clancy does not feel at all threatened by disciples. Within the decade following publication of The Hunt for Red October, similar novels became part of literary history. Publishers are eager to print technothrillers for a readership which has a large appetite for the type of fiction that Clancy has made popular. Still, among the crowds of technical writers, Clancy, from 1984 to 1995 the author of eight novels, continues to hold clear title to the crown.
A few critics have suggested that Clancy is a science fiction (SF) writer, comparing his work to that of the legendary French novelist Jules Verne. Verne is the parent of technological fiction, although today his fiction is classified as SF. However, it is the technological aspect that has led to the comparison of his novels with Clancy's. Clancy, however, flatly rejects the idea that anything he has done is in the SF mode.
H. G. Wells, perhaps the most significant figure in SF writing, scornfully labeled Verne "a short-term technological popularizer." Because of Wells's description, there is some ambiguity about the use of the terms "technological" and "SF." Verne and those who followed his example used advanced technology but also worked with elements we associate with SF, for example, projection into the future. Even though Wells seems disdainful of Verne, he and other innovative and seminal science fiction writers did very much what Verne had with advanced technology, enhancing plots which would be unsuccessful without such technology.
The beginnings of SF go as far back as Plato and continue throughout the centuries with the work of Thomas More, Swift, William Blake, Verne, Wells, Asimov, and many other writers. Science fiction appeared as "fortunate island" stories, Utopian and anti-utopian fiction, marvelous voyages, planetary novels, and political works. Although SF has changed throughout the centuries, certain key aspects hold. Science fiction is different from mimetic—imitative and observed forms—of literature in time, place, and character. It has any possible time—present, past, or future. There may be forms of religion and mythic situations, political philosophy and social structures, but they are outside the norm or the known. Although SF is a form of fantasy, within the limits set by the author the story is not ultimately impossible of fulfillment. It is "a realistic irreality, with humanized non-humans" and "this-worldly Other Worlds." However, supernatural elements of horror, that is, the gothic, are not part of SF.
Science fiction writers reject the ordinary world of reality, creating instead new and strange worlds. Such writers (and many scientists) assume that there are other worlds inhabited by other forms of life. Within the conventions of SF there is no requirement that the writer be positive or negative toward the characters or their worlds, no preconceived notion of success, failure, or achievement. The search is for the unknown and for knowledge that goes beyond learning about character, about who we are or the world we live in. Science fiction characters and their surroundings are imaginary; yet the writer treats them factually and writes of them scientifically, perhaps bringing everything about science into play. Thus, SF is concerned with scientific philosophy, its politics, its psychology, and its anthropology. There is scientific logic in SF, so that it cannot go beyond nature. Although the material may be unrecognizable and unfamiliar to the reader, it is never so estranged as to be impossible to comprehend.
Clancy and Science Fiction
Because other worlds do not enter into Clancy's novels, he sees no fantasy in his work. What he creates is "real" to him, and he insists on his obligation to readers to write about reality, possibility, and probability. No matter that much science fiction has elements of possibility and sometimes probability; Clancy repudiates any resemblance to his work. Yet, examples abound. Clancy writes of some submarine equipment and experimental aircraft as if they were real; yet they do not exist. Further, he suggests that the Russians have developed a system to eliminate U.S. reconnaissance satellites (SDI in Cardinal). He treats these as operational actualities, though most experts would quarrel with his interpretation.
In Red Storm Rising, the reader accepts as possible, perhaps "real" in an SF sense, the projection of time into a future when a third world war is under way. The novel is both futuristic and scientific. Without the use of every type of technological information superior to that of the enemy, the forces of democracy could not defeat those of totalitarianism, the Soviets. The fact that the enemy is the USSR makes the plot plausible and also acceptably realistic (in a non-SF sense), given the state of the cold war in 1987, when the novel was published. The combination of elements lends itself to at least a partial classification of SF.
From early on, reviewers have spoken of Clancy as prophetic, as one might of a SF writer. Clancy's novels, like SF and some technothrillers, appear prophetic about current and future possibilities of scientific technology. In addition, SF books often involve politics, as do Clancy's, which have a political agenda along with scientific technology and prophetic characteristics. What seems unlikely today in a Clancy book, a science fiction novel, a work of political intrigue, or a technothriller is the reality of tomorrow. What if, as in Verne, a vessel could survive underwater? What if, as in Clancy, satellites and an SDI system could affect future wars and even determine outcomes? There is, however, one major difference between Clancy and SF writers. In science fiction "destiny" is not on anyone's side, although it looms large in technological fiction such as Clancy's, and that is an important distinction between his work and true science fiction.
Critics, reviewers, writers, and teachers have difficulty pinning down the word "thriller." Often we use it interchangeably with the terms spy/espionage story because of the many overlapping characteristics. Just as the technothriller may be subsumed by that more general term "thriller," so too may the spy story. However, not all thrillers are either spy or technological novels. They may be both or neither. They are also murder, suspense, or psychological stories. Terminology sometimes can be slippery, and labels often indistinct.
Ralph Harper calls the thriller "crisis literature," claiming that the crises always are about war. Other scholars, though, see additional subjects, often personal and with a variety of landscapes. The landscape may even be limited to the mind of a character. Thriller subjects may range from global situations (suspense thrillers, political thrillers) to individual disturbances (psychological thrillers), from an attack on a vast region to the murder of a person. Nevertheless, according to Harper, the basic issue in the thriller is "death and responsibility." Hostile acts are planned and executed, bringing violence and death as the story is played out. Resolution follows, though not invariably in the form of retribution or punishment.
Scholars disagree about the function of language and the importance of characters in thrillers. Some criticize the simplicity of language and form and the lack of character development typical of most thrillers. As a result, they believe too much attention is given to plot and not enough to character. Yet, another scholarly view holds "that in a thriller 'too much character clutters up the plot.'" Because of the differences it is useful to separate thrillers into categories of "entertainments" (popular fiction) and "high art." For thrillers by such writers as Graham Greene and John Le Carré, the classification "high art" applies because their interest is more in character than in plot, and in style more than suspense. Technothrillers by their very nature are popular fiction. Although at times the two types—popular fiction and high art—merge, generally they are separable.
Few thrillers are high art. Rather, most are popular entertainment and should be evaluated as such, with different measurements applied. Style is as changeable in the two types of thrillers as in unlike genres. Usually the most successful popular thriller style is simple and unsubtle. For the reader to be drawn into the story immediately there must be sufficient familiarity with language and form. Then too, thrillers have particular language patterns. The violent emotion, which is a vital characteristic, requires a flatness of tone with a dual function. It "underlines the violence" as well as serving to contain it. In the most exciting thrillers, the sentences are short, the structures imitative of news reports, frequently with a brevity suggestive of news bites.
Characters in popular art are familiar to readers, and because of their lack of individuality they border on stereotypes. To make them interesting and provocative, yet still generic, the author must create memorable and attention-getting figures, with qualities that attract readers and hold their attention. For that reason thrillers usually have heroes (heroines less often) who are exceptional, even fantastic people with whom most readers want to identify. Brave, dedicated heroes (heroines) represent the reader against deceitful and vicious enemies. Like us, heroes are vulnerable, but, unlike us, they overcome all odds. Heroes have developed over a long period of time and have changed little in basic ways from classical mythical figures to medieval knights to nineteenth-century adventurers. In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular fiction the heroes of adventure/suspense/mystery fiction were not professional detectives, policemen, or spies. They were amateurs, perhaps dilettantes, caught up in a situation they previously knew nothing about. Few of them had training to engage in the activities that became their lot. However, the hero was always someone with multiple skills learned perhaps in wartime or in some branch of service. Until shortly before and after the time of World War II, professional agents or investigative figures were rarely depicted in fiction, but the growth of police departments and defense and undercover agencies throughout the century helped create a somewhat different type of hero. Modern warfare also played a part in making the hero an informed and knowledgeable professional. Nevertheless, the contemporary thriller hero still carries the marks of the traditional figure.
Thriller heroes rarely take on their tasks for money, even though they are paid for their activities. Some become involved for excitement, some to protect people, some to fulfill their sense of duty or social responsibility. But the major function of the thriller hero usually is the righting or prevention of wrongs, whether his country, a group, or an individual has been attacked or injured. The hero's role may change from novel to novel and even within the same novel. He may be either the hunter or the hunted. (Clancy's heroes fill both roles.) Whatever task he has, he is expected to perform honorably and loyally, even if he has to commit acts he may not approve of, be forced to play a deceptive game, or get involved in the deaths of innocent people. In one way or another, the hero is a vulnerable man. Guilt, as well as danger, is something he may always have to live with. No matter how he attempts to avoid danger, he is never free. Not only can he not escape his own fate, he may bring danger, pain, and suffering to those he loves.
Clancy and the Thriller
In a number of ways, Clancy's novels make a perfect fit as thriller, even though "technothriller" is a more exact term. Most of his novels have the large landscape of war that Harper considers a requirement for thrillers. His wars may not invariably be shooting wars, but wars they are. There is the cold war of The Hunt for Red October. The wars of terrorists are central to Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears. Drug wars propel the action of Clear and Present Danger, and both drug wars and a shooting war are at the heart of Without Remorse. Economic war is related to actual warfare in Debt of Honor. Furthermore, Clancy's pages are brimming over with death and responsibility, elements that Harper considers essential. In all Clancy's work, violence in some form brings on death to large or small groups of people. Responsibility for hostile acts is always clear, so that the reader knows from the start where the blame lies, and it is never with "us"—the "good guys."
Clancy's novels, like most popular thrillers, have certainty in them. A single-minded philosophy puts the United States, its military, and preselected individuals in the good category and the opposition in the bad. No shades of gray are sketched in. Although Clancy's world is technologically complex, his "friendly forces" characters, as well as the private and public world they live in, are not. They are "our" people, knowable and dependable. We can count on them to bring about justice as we understand it.
The heroes of Clancy's fiction risk their lives in the manner of medieval knights, even though at first nothing signals their special qualities. They may prefer to stay at home in a safe environment, doing familiar, enjoyable work, but when duty requires something else, they do it bravely. Toland in Red Storm Rising is an example. Ryan, the major Clancy hero, may be terrified of flying, but he does it anyway, just as he automatically risks his life again and again in dangerous situations. Ryan behaves that way from the moment he is introduced in Red October and on through each successive novel. There are also examples of ordinary, decent men who do not seem at first to have any of the makings of a hero. Yet, when events test them, they become leaders of men and saviors of women. Edwards, the meteorologist in Red Storm Rising, is that type of man. He would rather die than be a James Bond who secretly thrills to the idea of "the tang of rape" (Casino Royale). Clancy's heroes do not have such thoughts. They are men set apart from others, superior to those around them. Nevertheless, almost always they work within the establishment.
Jack Ryan, though individualized in memorable ways, comes through the traditional line of thriller novels and is an amalgam of traits of prior figures. Like sleuths and agents of early suspense fiction, Ryan has not chosen as his vocation any form of secret or investigative work, but it finds him. Although he differs from the low-key hero of some of the 1920s–30s Golden Age English detective, he does have a number of resemblances. (It is not surprising that we think of English figures, for both author and his hero show great affection for all things English.) The famed English writer Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, is rich, intelligent, well educated, a university graduate. He served and was injured in World War I, is an amateur sleuth but plays a role in government intelligence. Jack Ryan is also rich, well educated, successful even when he least expects it, a failure at nothing, a former marine, and involved in intelligence. In yet another bow to the English heroes, Clancy has the queen reward an exploit of Ryan's by dubbing him Sir Ryan.
When introduced in Clancy's first thriller, Ryan thinks of himself as an average citizen, a teacher/scholar. Of course the experienced thriller reader knows and expects him to be anything but average. With each book Ryan becomes more like the superstars of other thriller novels. He soon gives up his enjoyable teaching position to work for the CIA, and his exploits begin to rival those of any thriller hero. Not only does he place himself in harm's way but unwittingly does the same with his family. Family attachments also put him in greater danger. In Patriot Games when wife Caroline (Cathy) and daughter Sally are seriously injured by terrorists seeking vengeance on Ryan himself, he takes actions that he would not have followed had they not been attacked. Like other thriller heroes he refuses to let the law do all the work, and he throws himself into the center of action. He wins out, but there is a price, and over time, that is, over a ten-year series of novels, he changes. The quiet, cool-headed man of the first book becomes secretive, extremely active, and even explosive as he ages. With each novel we also see a more cynical Ryan, the result of his exposure to evil men and philosophy.
The Spy Novel
Another applicable description of Clancy's work is "spy novel." Lest someone protest that Clancy is not a spy writer, we have only to consider LeRoy Panek's judgment that a work is a spy novel if there is a single spy in it. Furthermore, that view is bolstered by Marc Cerasini's essay in The Tom Clancy Companion. In writing about "the birth of a genre," Cerasini describes Clancy's fusion of "military fiction with near-future apocalyptic science fiction, touches of espionage fiction, and a large dose of social realism." Those "touches of espionage fiction" in Clancy's work require consideration of the features of spy stories if we are to place it completely.
Critics assign different dates to the "first" or most important British spy novel, which is the true ancestor of American espionage fiction, even though occasionally someone will name the American James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821) as the earliest example of the genre. Historians have said spying came about as early as the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, actual spies did not have the romantic aura that fiction conferred on them with the development of the spy novel in the nineteenth century. Scholars agree that spy stories are linked to the Industrial Revolution, which occurred in Great Britain and parts of Europe before the United States. As Britain became highly industrialized, its weaponry, naval power, and eventually its airplanes were seen as a threat, as well as a source of envy to foreign powers. Spying took on an important role in reality and in fiction.
Modern thriller/espionage writers (as well as detective story writers) are indebted to a number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors who created the form. According to some scholars, the prolific novelist William LeQueux is said to have provided the major guidelines of the spy novel, in spite of the unreadability of most of his work. LeQueux's importance to the development of espionage fiction also comes through what Panek calls his "pseudo-histories." These resemble war prophecy novels and argue "for military preparedness." Although LeQueux was writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, his indirect effect may be seen in later writers who in turn influenced Clancy. LeQueux's work also suffers from what Panek calls "the worst brand of Victorian sentiment." Sentiment, however, is not unique to LeQueux. Inasmuch as he is hardly the only author whose novels become mired in embarrassing mawkishness, we can't trace that tendency in Clancy back to LeQueux alone.
Also among the forerunners of the modern spy novel is the work of E. Phillips Oppenheimer, which provided one particular type of motif we find in Clancy. That is Oppenheimer's variation on the war prophecy novel, "prediction of an averted war instead of an actual one." Oppenheimer's spy fiction takes on issues common to both the war prophecy novel and the averted war novel, issues that Clancy makes use of also. Both novelists show concern about the sufficiency of defense, the strength and weaknesses of military preparedness, and secret weapons.
Most scholars agree that the first "good" spy fiction is a war prophecy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, written by Erskine Childers in 1903. Critic/novelist Julian Symons states it is that novel which established a double standard for spying. Enemy spies have evil motives, whereas "we" have only worthy intentions. (Depending on who the novelist is, the "we" may differ. In Riddle of the Sands it is the British, and in most spy fiction by English or American writers, their compatriots are the worthy "we.") Symons claims that the duality of the moral problem—we are good, they are bad—existed only through the first few decades of the twentieth century, coming to an end with the work of Eric Ambler. His position is belied not only by a reading of Clancy's novels but also by an examination of the varieties of fiction of the years following World War II.
The most important writer for our consideration of the "development of the spy novel or the detective novel" (and for examination of Clancy's relationship to them) is John Buchan. "The modern novel of espionage simply would not have developed along the same lines without him." Even today his novels continue to exert their influence on mystery—spy/thriller/adventure novels, and "in its best manifestations the spy novel returns to him." Even novelist John Le Carré tips his hat to the great earlier writer by using a Buchan title in one of his own books.
Like thrillers, all spy fiction is not the same. Several literary historians have called attention to two clear divisions in the spy fiction genre. One is in the heroic, conservative, traditional camp. The other is realistic and ironic, in the mode of modern fiction. The first, as defined by Symons, supports "authority," asserting "that agents are fighting to protect something valuable." He describes the other type as "radical, critical of authority," with claims "that agents perpetuate, and even create, false barriers between 'us' and 'them.'" Other critics note that the traditional archetypal form has more violence, as well as more vitality and hope than the later one. The earlier type generally has a happy and conclusive ending, much like the novels of the Victorian Age. All loose ends are tied, all issues settled, if only temporarily. The realistic spy novel with its antiheroes, its darkness, and sense of despair is much closer in tone to modern and postmodern thought. Not surprisingly, the spy novel that utilizes traditional motifs (even with updated variations) is the one that is most successful commercially even though it is the other type that literary pundits find more meaningful.
Clancy and the Spy Novel
By the 1980s the time was right for Clancy's unique blending of modes, the uniquely modern and the traditional. In traditional ways his work bears multiple resemblances to Buchan's. Both Buchan's novels and Clancy's are realistic in their use of actual historical events, but both mix them with fabricated incidents. Buchan's chief character Richard Hannay is, like the later Jack Ryan, a series figure. The two, who look and sound like the typical English or American reader, are a meld of romantic and ordinary figure. Buchan's fiction is a form of "Victorian" schoolboy literature, that is, it focuses on adventure, morality, heroism, and friendship. These same characteristics, though updated, are central to Clancy's work. Also notable in Buchan's novels is "the absence of believable, complete women characters." Though hardly a remarkable characteristic in any spy novels, it is another resemblance between Buchan and Clancy's fiction. Finally, one small link that seems appropriate to Buchan but somewhat entertaining in Clancy: Buchan's characters have memories of grouse shooting. Sir Jack Ryan also has such memories.
Critics combined the words technology and thriller into "technothriller" to give a more precise definition to another variation in genre. The term "thriller" by itself does not suggest the differences in technological fiction. Although there is much overlapping of characteristics, the technological novel has some distinctive traits of its own.
Technothrillers are not completely the product of the modern age but have become significant additions to popular literature with the phenomenal advance of technology in the second half of the twentieth century. Contemporary writers have made use of technology unknown before the Second World War. These technothriller novelists build their work around technology that is both current and projected or futuristic. Every manner of complex machines, usually real but sometimes imagined, is fodder for the work. The technothriller may focus on any area from ocean to outer space. It may concern all forms of nuclear weaponry, missiles, submarines, aircraft. Perhaps it foregrounds computers that reach beyond human ability to solve problems. Laboratories with scientists—biologists, chemists, physicists, archaeologists—study unknown and as yet unsolved questions of existence, DNA, germs, viruses, extinct species.
In addition to the resemblances of technothriller to thriller fiction, there is sometimes the reminder of SF, and not only in the futuristic element. Still, some important distinctions exist. Unlike SF, the technothriller world is earthbound although its machines go out into space. It is the world the reader knows, even if its complexities are baffling. It is not the estranged world of SF. Scholars point out that characters in technothrillers are usually less interesting than the technology. However, people in technothrillers are recognizable humans, different from the fantasized, imaginary, or robotics figures of SF.
Although people are necessary to put things into motion (the thriller aspect), the plot in a technothriller depends more on advanced technology than on human character. Technothrillers are often a form of military fiction, with players who are soldiers, sailors, pilots. The novel serves as a subordinate backdrop to display advancements and projections of weaponry and war. Actual war, possible war, or averted war is fought on the pages of the technothriller. However, war is not limited to mass destruction of a martial nature. There may be other kinds of war, perhaps a financial war, dependent on modern technology, which could destroy the world economy. The crises and solutions in most technothrillers are mechanical. People may make mistakes, but the focus of the plot is on the machinery not on human limitations. The "good" characters in technothrillers are clearly delineated, are on the "right" side and, in the military fiction, are superpatriots. Invariably, the cast of characters is large. Although there may be a single traditional hero, the wide scope of the playing field requires a great many people, so many in fact that often they seem as faceless as their machines.
Clancy and the Technothriller
No matter how much technology dominates his books, Clancy's basic formula comes from the thriller. The fact that he sees himself as a writer of political thrillers further emphasizes the point that the thriller model is the primary one he has followed. Yet, his fiction has some SF connections and is especially close to espionage novels in its inclusion of spies, and, as critic William Ryan calls them, "other mavens of espionage." However, Clancy's enjoyment of gadgets, his early reading of SF stories, including those filled with gadgetry, his monitoring of scientific developments, his fascination with computers, his admiration for all things military, and his very strong sense of patriotism connect him to the technothriller.
Marc Cerasini provides some background for Clancy's work, by describing the fiction and films that preceded his novels. He tells of the changing attitudes of the second half of this century: "Traditional war novels, tales of personal heroism and self-sacrifice that reinforced higher values of social responsibility, the type of fiction characteristic of the years following the Second World War, were replaced with a fiction of cynicism and defeat." Antiwar novels and movies became popular for a time, one result of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. But, even during the war, SF writers were creating promilitary novels and cleverly disguised war films. Cerasini writes that "Star Wars" is really a "reincarnation" of "unabashedly patriotic films of the 1940s." Filmmaker George Lucas, claims Cerasini, made "the villains clear-cut fascists, the good guys honest and noble." Similar films proved popular, and novels moved in the direction of technology and politics.
By the 1980s the time was ripe for the fiction of Clancy. All his novels employ technology, even Patriot Games, which the novelist considers a love story. Like the work of other technothriller writers, almost everything in Clancy's plots and their central episodes depends on advanced technology. For Clancy, like many other contemporary technothriller writers, that technology involves military matters. Because of that identification he has been described as "the novelist laureate of the military industrial complex."
His multiple characters are often flat and subordinate to the technology. Aside from his alter-ego character, Jack Ryan, and his other favorite, John Kelly (Clark), Clancy's people are types rather than individuals. Some reviewers also classify Ryan and Kelly that way, comments that anger the author greatly. He is exasperated by critics who describe his machines as more interesting, complex, and lifelike than his characterizations. He angrily defends his portrayal of characters. Even if he scoffs at the word "literature," and at critics, he wants to be known as a writer who understands everything about his creations. In his determination to make his people real, he provides family background, wives, children, a few friends. However, the same flatness of characterization pervasive in most technothriller writing holds for these. Rarely do the families come alive. The wives and children are too perfect, friends too understanding, invariably good-humored and supportive. But the humanizing element in his characters (and a quality that adds to suspense) is that they can occasionally make mistakes. They misread, or overlook, or make a poor judgment that leads to serious consequences. Still, the effect of such action is seen to propel plot, not to alter or develop character. The military and government agents in the author's drama do not change with success or failure.
All the many facets of Clancy's work may explain the esteem in which it is held by readers, and also the less praiseful attitudes of most literary critics. While Clancy is an innovative and exciting writer in modern technological ways, paradoxically he is at the same time a traditional one. It is not pejorative to call his work formula writing. The entertainment technothriller, thriller, spy story always adheres to formula in language, plot, images and symbols. We readers like the assurance of that familiarity, while at the same time we want something new added in character or situation or "filler." (The filler is sometimes called "unbound motifs," that is, absorbing and interesting information but unnecessary to the progression of the story.) The pleasure readers gain from formula writing is the repetition of something we have experienced and enjoyed before, but with the excitement of newness. It might be the new plot or setting, or more about the serial hero, of whom we know much, yet never enough. We want to be told what he eats, drinks, drives, wears, what he feels about the world in which he functions. And, with all that, in such entertainments there is the promise of a complex world made comprehensible.
In Clancy's novels political views arc central and powerful. He stirs old and new fears of the Russian bear, the Red menace, creeping communism, Asians and Latins, all these personified through evil characters. The enemy is known wherever or whenever he or she appears. The reader's apprehensions and the writer's become one. They are voiced by Fleming Meeks, who tells us Clancy plays on our "deep-seated geopolitical fears" as he "spins scary scenarios of world chaos." Works become popular when the reader shares or sympathizes with the point of view and feels a kinship to all or most of the values. Clancy brings about most of these responses in readers, who cannot wait for each new book to appear.
Then why the attacks of some reviewers on such popular material? To answer that, we might consider a comment made by Kingsley Amis about hostility to the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. They, the critics, are angered, says Amis, by the "attraction of something one disapproves of." But few readers disapprove. For most, the use of formula brings the reassurance of safety even as the real or fictional world explodes. Our various repressed needs and longings are served. Many of us have an unconscious desire for danger and excitement, perhaps even violence, though in reality most of us do everything to avoid involvement. Through thrillers/spy novels we can cross the boundaries of actual life into the world of the forbidden or unattainable. In our escape into the fantasized world we find wish fulfillment. We can confront our foes, knowing someone else will act for us and win. Our hero—ourself—will live to fight another day. Then, as the poet A. E. Housman tells us, we'll "see the world as the world's not" and ourselves as "sterling lad[s]" ("Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff").
The experience is cathartic. Whether we can finally decide that there is a single label for Clancy's work doesn't matter. Rather it is our understanding of the ways the pieces of the puzzle fit together to make up the world of Clancy's fiction.