Executive Orders, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 1996, 800 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14219-3

[This review contains serious spoilers for Tom Clancy’s previous book, Debt of Honor However, since Executive Orders is a direct sequel to DoH, nothing here isn’t revealed in the jacket blurb to EO]

Reviewing books is difficult. For one thing, the honest critic has to assimilate the object of his review completely. The reviewer must watch the entire movie, listen to the record or read the book without falling asleep or having his attention distracted. Then there is the problem of forming coherent critical opinions about the said work of “art”. Finally, the last step may very well be the most difficult: Fuse all these strands of opinions into a sustained thesis, i.e.: a Review. (If the vocabulary’s confusing to you, don’t worry; it’s meaningless to me too.)

The difficulty arises when the object of the critic’s attention is bland, featureless or just ordinary. Bad things are easy to review: Just get that trusty thesaurus out and let the insults fly. For good measure, style points can be awarded for questioning the intellectual stability of the publisher(s) and gratuitous ad-hominem references to the creator(s) sex life. Boring things are a boon to the reviewer, since s/he can condense his/her review to “Zzzz” and get the paycheck anyway. Good things are embarrassing, since the readers will eventually think you’re paid by someone to talk that way about the review’s subject.

All this has no practical relevance to mega-bestseller Tom Clancy’s latest book except to say that this book is a reviewer’s dream. The story in itself is complex (always a plus when you’re trying to fill up wordage by resuming the plot) and wildly uneven, which lets this particular reviewer use one of his favorite expression. (it being “wildly uneven”, of course!) But beyond the story itself, the book-as-a-physical object is interesting, and beyond that, the theme of the book can open the doors wide open for a gratuitous analysis of the American psyche.

Stay with me, you’ll understand what I mean.

Clancy fans remember that at the end of his last book, Debt of Honor, a 747 crashed in the Capitol, reducing it to rubble, and incidentally killing off most of the US government (This meaning President, Staff, Congress, Senate, Supreme Court, Joint Chief of Staff, FBI and CIA directors, etc…) The occasion being celebrated in this meeting-of-the-honchos was the accession by Clancy’s all-American hero Jack Ryan to the Vice Presidency. Ryan miraculously escapes, and as DoH wraps to a close, he is now president-without-a-government.

This is where bells begin to ring in most reader’s minds.

After all, this isn’t only about Ryan rebuilding the government. This is also about Clancy himself rebuilding the government. Suffice to say that the line between fiction and propaganda in this case is very easy to cross. Many great authors have fallen into this trap, with unpredictable results. (SF fans will shudder, remembering latter-year Asimov and Heinlein efforts)

At the same time, there is the chance for the author to make a few statements about America, and how it should work.

Clancy mostly avoids the propaganda, but succumb to the irresistible lure of Making a Statement.

Executive Orders is a novel about many things, the most central of these being the difficult apprenticeship of John Patrick Ryan, President of the United States. Coming from a humble background, stockbroker-cum-historian-cum-CIA Analyst-cum-occasional Field operative-cum-CIA DDI-cum-National Security Adviser-cum-Vice-President Ryan (Told you he was an all-American hero!) is politically inept. He doesn’t have a clue about how to deal with the media, and his radical policy changes (simplify the tax code, downsize governmental bureaucracy, things like that) aren’t popular inside the beltway. As if the hostile media wasn’t enough, enemies both stateside and external are planning violent acts against the seemingly weak president… Ryan has many friends, but will they be enough?

Enough about the plot: How is the book?

“Overlong” seems a good place to start. This has to be one of the most fluffy novels I’ve seen. Even at 860-odd pages and 9-point typography, there is an enormous amount of detail. The bad guys do not simply built their evil weapon: They assemble it, research its efficiency, put it in place… Clancy and his readers alike relish details but enough is enough! Not all plots threads are equally interesting. Surprisingly, this time the military subplots are the most boring.

In fact, “Overlong” was also the biggest flaw of Clancy’s previous book The Sum of All Fears. (TSoAF) This time around, however, the payoff isn’t even near what TSoAF had to offer. While TSoAF was a slow fuse with a LOUD bang, Executive Orders doesn’t exactly fizzles, but the explosion at the end will let many readers wonder “Was that all?”

Make no mistake, it’s a good book anyway. But it could have been one corker of a thriller if a competent editor would have slashed two hundred pages or so. Oh well… Maybe in a few years, we’ll get a “cut” version.

[Mark my words: This will be the first 10$Can. mass-market paperback.]

[January 1998:  Close; 10.99 $Can.]

This is not a good book for Clancy neophytes: There are too many plot threads that essentially depends on previous books. At the very least, one should read DoH beforehand.

The rest is classic Clancy: Okay characters, okay prose, superb plotting, the old friends are back, lots of details, good action sequences. Fans know what to expect, but they should be warned that it isn’t Clancy’s best effort.

At least, Clancy manages to avoid turning his book into straight propaganda for his favorite political party. This is not to say that Clancy’s right-wing sympathies do not show up (they do, most notably on the subject of abortion and drugs) but they’re held down at an acceptable level. He does succumb to the lure of making a few comments about how the government should work. Nothing too revolutionary, of course: Simplify taxes, give a chance to the average worker, cut the bureaucracy… No flag-burning ideas here.

A sequel is probable but not immediate. And finally, this might be the first time Clancy is accused of subtlety. (See last page)

Okay. The book has been reviewed. My job is completed. You can either go to the next review, or stay a while to hear me blather about the subtext of the book. Fair enough?


If you’re still hesitating, let it be known that I do not like make statement about subtexts, author’s intentions or “thematic concerns and symbolism.” Those kind of essays are best left to English Lit. Major, who probably don’t have much more of a clue about what it’s all about, but who can conceal this ignorance with better vocabulary.

The reason I dislike doing it is that, frankly, I’m wrong most of the time. The author might not be trying to pass the message I’m perceiving, or is trying to say something I completely missed. Anyway…

[End whistling]

For those who stayed, here are a few more thoughts:

The theme of Executive Orders is fa
scinating. It shows good old America staggering under a heavy blow, but recovering in time to kick some numerically superior enemy butt. Essentially, it’s saying “America may be decadent, but we’re still able to make you do what we want.” I don’t dwell much further into that, except to remark, fascinated, that the basic plot of Executive Orders is uncannily reminiscent of Larry Bond’s The Enemy Within, in which Iran sends terrorists in America to distract the USA from their activities in the Gulf. Hmmm… Also, -but I might be picking at details,- the ultimate resolution of Executive Orders also echoes another Bond story. (“Expert Advice”, in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible.)

Both Executive Orders and TEW, published at a few month’s interval, show that Fortress America is feeling threatened. (Cynics will say that they’re dang straight to be concerned!) It will be interesting to see how this thread evolves, especially when you think that in the next few months, we’ll see the first wave of novels written after Oklahoma City. [December 1996: And now, unfortunately, after the Atlanta bombing.]

It also shows where thriller writers are going for inspiration, now that the Evil Empire is down (even if no particular attention has been given to the off-site backups). the drugs cartels of Columbia are less visible and Saddam himself gets an annual Tomahawk whuppin’: Home is where the action is.