The Bear and the Dragon, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 2000, 1028 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14563-X

Well, America’s master techno-thriller writer is back with a new book, and the overall feeling is one of… déjà-vu.

Tom Clancy fans will remember that the last “Jack Ryan” novel, Executive Orders starred Ryan as the President of the United States, confronted with multiple crises, both internal and external. It all got solved neatly by huge military battles and other assorted action scenes. America was safe once again, and everyone went to sleep satisfied until the next Clancy novel.

This time around, we get more of the same. Except much more of the same. Ryan is still president, except he’s been legitimately elected and now has a mandate to preserve American hegemony. The evil bastards threatening said hegemony are still these cackling Chinese baddies, given that the cackling Russian baddies have retired and are now America’s partners. All of these alliances will come into play as huge resources are discovered in Siberia and China is forced to choose between bankruptcy and invasion.

A big China/Russia war has often been mentioned as a potential threat in military techno-thrillers, but rarely represented (only Slater’s WWIII series has done so, if I remember correctly) because it raises so many random factor (such as historical rivalries, alien mindsets and, oh, nuclear weapons on both sides) that any lesser writer can only feel daunted at the prospect.

Not Tom Clancy, obviously. With The Bear and the Dragon, he tests the patience of readers across the world as he clocks it at 1028 pages, his biggest novel ever and a serious contender for heftiest non-fantasy bestseller of the year. Filled with extravagantly presented plotting, multi-page technical details, chapters of back-story and a surprising grasp of political complexity, The Bear and the Dragon exasperates as it fascinates. Half the novel is figuring out when all these interlocking plotlines will intersect, and the other half is spent admiring how neatly everything fits together. Like it or not, the depth of The Bear and the Dragon makes any other political technothriller seem naive and superficial. If anything, the description of the presidency even feels more accurate here than in Executive Orders. There’s even a stronger conclusion, though it’s considerably diluted by the sheer number of pages setting it up.

A large number of Clancy’s surviving characters from previous novels come back in this one. Fine if you remember all these people; less if you don’t. At this point in time, the Clancyverse is so cumbersome that novices are advised not to apply.

It’s a bit irrelevant whether the novel is good or bad: Fans will love it, and non-fans won’t. As a Clancy devotee, I liked it, but as a base reader, I’m pining for the moment where Clancy’s current editor will explode from overwork and his replacement will force the author to write shorter, tighter novels. It’s common wisdom that Clancy’s earlier novels (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games) are his best, and that’s in no small part due to the better action/pages ratio. Heck, with Red Storm Rising, he did World War Three in fewer pages than the skirmish in The Bear and the Dragon!

But such a radical shift is unlikely to happen. If anything, I don’t even think that Clancy has an editor any more. (One particularly annoying tic in The Bear and the Dragon is a tendency to repeat every good line at least twice during the novel. They probably hired multiple copy editors to bring in the book under deadline, and they didn’t consult.)

In the meantime, you can get The Bear and the Dragon in hardcover for not even 4c a page. If nothing else, you’ll gain in volume what you don’t in page-per-page quality.

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