Tom Clancy is dead.
The news came in via the internet, as all things now do: Within moments, it was the at top of news sites, and managed the rare quadrifecta of topping Reddit’s /news/, /books/, /movies/ and /gaming/ forums –an eloquent testimony to Clancy’s impact in three very different fields, and his once-preeminent status as America’s best-selling novelist. (Cardinal of the Kremlin was the best-selling novel of 1988 in the United States; Clear and Present Danger repeated the achievement the following year.)
As I read the eulogies, what struck me is how distant the news felt. 2013 hasn’t been a good year for author deaths (Jack Vance, Richard Matheson, Vince Flynn, Iain Banks, Elmore Leonard, Frederik Pohl… geez, and that’s just a selection from relatively-famous authors I found interesting) but what was different with Clancy is that once upon a time, I could claim with conviction that he was my favourite author.
The reviews of his work on this web site don’t accurately represent that: they were all written after 1995, past the point of Clancy’s most successful work. By lieu of apology-by-eulogy, I thought I’d take a trip back in time and revisit myself as a younger reader. There may be some autobiographical content below. (And given the vagaries of memory, there may be some unintentionally erroneous material as well, but if you know the truth, don’t tell me –I rather like my version of the story.)
It starts in Rockland, a small (mostly French-language) town in eastern Ontario, circa 1989 or thereabouts. At the time, I’m a bright 13-year old mostly-francophone nerd just beginning high-school. I love reading (well, in-between computer games) and I’m taking up more adult novels in English, but the local selection is limited: the (mostly French-language) school library is aimed at teenagers, the (mostly French-language) local public library is small and there’s no bookstore closer than the one 15 kilometers west in Ottawa-suburb Orléans. Not that it would matter, since I don’t have any money. My interest in science and technology make science-fiction my favourite thing, but the small local selection means that I have already read everything SF.
Thanks to a kindly great-aunt who loves reading as much as I do, I end up borrowing The Hunt for Red October (a battered gray paperback edition, portraying a submarine through a periscope) and I get hooked: The writing is plain and effective, the plot moves forward relentlessly, the technology feels cutting-edge and, perhaps most importantly, the book is filled with the kind of delicious expositionary material that I had until then only seen in science-fiction. Being thirteen-year old, I’m able to read my way through Clancy’s back-catalogue in a few weeks. By 1989, he not only has a small back-log of six novels (all stocked at the local library), but his success has also created the techno-thriller genre.
I’m not alone in discovering Clancy. My small coterie of proudly nerd friends and I (“The Nerd Squad”, yup, we were nerd-chic a decade before it was chic to be nerd) find Clancy to be the best thing ever. It helps that there’s a link with computer games (ah, the DOS version of Red Storm Rising: awesome!), that Clear and Present Danger is atop the bestseller charts and that the movie version of The Hunt for Red October is buzzing around. I remember talking about specific chapters of Red Storm Rising at a hockey arena with friend Sylvain (hey, what’s two nerds to do when the school forces you to watch a game at the local rink?); I remember my dearly departed friend Yves (RIP) telling us about how a boating mishap sent the Rockland Public Library’s sole copy of Clear and Present Danger in the Ottawa River, where it “rolled in the water like a donut being fried” (the water-damaged version would stay on their shelves for years; I wonder if they still have it); or both of us arguing about whether it was OK to peek ahead at the last page of a novel as you’re reading it (he had read the last page of Patriot Games to make sure it wasn’t going to end badly).
In some ways, Clancy leads us small-town nerds to the wider world. I remember all of us Nerds Squad members making a then-rare road trip to go see the film adaptation of Patriot Games in theaters (in Gloucester, 25 kilometers west) on its first weekend of release in June 1992. We start picking up other techno-thriller novels and exchanging recommendation. My first big new-book book purchase, at Place d’Orléans’ Coles bookstore, is three mass-paperback techno-thrillers in the Clancy subgenre by Dale Brown, Larry Bond and Harold Coyle.
At the time, Clear and Present Danger is the best thing I have ever read. When teenagers tackle their first big adult novels, they feel insanely big and imposing, and so the details stick in my mind even though I’ve forgotten many better books in the meantime. I still remember elements of the climax (such as Jack Ryan finding a long gash in his helmet, caused by a near-miss from a high-powered bullet) to be the measure of how thrillers should be written. Heck, even without looking it up, I still remember the closing line: “Silence is the greatest love of all.” (After checking: Aw, close: “silence was the greatest passion of all” [P.688, a page number I still remembered given the association with submarines.])
Given the scorn with which I reviewed latter Clancy novels on this site, I feel almost obligated to point out how good the first half-dozen Clancy novels actually were. Mixing up my own impressions of the novels with a wider critical appreciation of the subgenre:
- The Hunt for Red October (1984) remains the prototype for the techno-thriller genre. There had been earlier examples of the form (such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), Craig Thomas’ Firefox (1977), Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s The Fifth Horsemen (1980)) but this is the one that codified the form and made it popular: Blend in real-world references, high stakes, cutting-edge technology, detailed information lumps, plain writing and straightforward characterization. Even as a first novel, it’s amazingly self-assured: the plotting is tense, the pacing rarely flags despite the digressions and protagonist Jack Ryan’s heroic journey as an analyst forced in active operations is credible. It’s a terrific book, and I hope to be able to revisit it someday soon.
- As a novel trying to describe an entire World War III in less than 700 pages, Red Storm Rising (1986) may read today like hopelessly outdated alternate history. But in 1989/1990, even as the Soviet Union was breaking up, it still read like a chillingly plausible scenario. What still works, as long as you allow for the WW3 scenario, is the complexity of the plotting and the success with which Clancy and acknowledged-but-uncredited collaborator Larry Bond manage to depict a multi-fronted WW3 through a few viewpoint characters. It compares very positively with other WW3 fantasies that appeared on bookshelves during the end of the Cold War, most notably Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War. I have great memories of the book, and it’s another one I hope to re-read some day.
- Patriot Games (1987) proves that Clancy can be just as good with smaller-stakes. This time (with a story predating The Hunt for Red October, something that had blown my unformed mind at a time where “prequel” hadn’t become a cash-in staple), Clancy focuses on a man protecting his family from terrorists and keeps up the tension even without world-threatening stakes. Even if I’d probably find the ending overdone nowadays (what with a terrorist assault, a storm and a birth all converging) it seemed at the time like a perfect little ending to a perfect little thriller.
- The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) goes big once again, focusing on spying games between the US and the Soviet Union. A direct sequel to The Hunt for Red October, The Cardinal of the Kremlin stands tall as a refined example of sophisticated late-cold-war spy fiction. It blends together a number of political, military and technological elements that make it seem quite a bit more complex than the usual spycraft thriller. Even today, there may not be a better late-cold-war spying novel.
- Clear and Present Danger (1989) is discussed above, but I want to highlight how prescient it was at anticipating the post-Cold War era. It may have featured drug-lord antagonists, but the real point of the novel was the tension within the US forces in authorizing operations running against public policy and ethics. It’s probably Clancy’s most thoughtful novel, and the portrait of squad-level combat operations is still memorable.
By the time The Sum of All Fears was published in 1991, all of us Rockland nerds were ready to jump on the book. My parents were kind enough to get me a brand-new shiny hardcover from the local Price Club as a gift: I devoured it in days. If you chart Clancy’s career and critical success, you can make a case that his first five novels are all unchallenged successes, and that the slide down begins with The Sum of All Fears. That’s certainly my thesis, and even at the time I noted that the novel took almost forever to begin and went nowhere while the plot strands were assembled. The spectacular last 150 pages, taking the world all the way up to the brink of nuclear war even as Washington is paralyzed by a snowstorm, more than made up for the lacklustre rest of the book. Still, even today, I think of the “timber” subplot as an example case in savvy plotting. (ie; something like thirty pages, throughout the novel, are spent setting up a freakishly coincidental collision between a nuclear submarine and a piece of timber. The whole thing starts with the lumberjack that fells the tree. It works spectacularly well.)
The next book, Without Remorse (1993), would be a return to an earlier time and simpler stakes, but not quite as effective. As a Vietnam-era blend of combat and urban revenge story featuring another character from latter books, Without Remorse seemed a bit too simple even while it was, at a significant 639 pages, quite a bit overlong. My friends and I still liked the book, but I was wondering about a few questions: Did we need the story to take place in the same universe as the one launched by The Hunt for Red October? Did the novel need to be so long? Was anyone editing Clancy anymore?
Knowledgeable readers here recognize the early trends that would send Clancy into a critical tailspin in latter books. By the mid-nineties, Clancy had nothing left to prove. He’d made his money, beaten down reviewers and conquered a loyal audience (such as myself) that would buy his books on sight.
Debt of Honor (1994) was, I thought, a return to partial form: it moved the story back to modern times, and speculated a limited war between the US and Japan, with a big spectacular climax that not only predated eerie similarities with 9/11, but thrust once-analyst Jack Ryan to the presidency. Bold, big, maybe highly implausible, but a heck of a conclusion nonetheless.
Meanwhile, I had (more or less) escaped from the confines of Rockland, attending university in central Ottawa and suddenly having access to quite a bit more reading material. While this would have disastrous consequences (some college freshmen can’t tolerate suddenly-easy access to alcohol, parties and partners; my own first-year grades were terrible because of too many books and early access to the Internet.) an upshot was a reading regimen that allowed for a bit more discernment. I started reading SF by the bucket-haul and even publishing reviews online. Along the way, I acquired all of Clancy’s mainline novels in hardcover editions, even a prized copy of The Hunt for Red October in its original Naval Institute Press edition.
I soured on Clancy in 1995. My parents were excited to report that Clancy had a new book out! I was surprised to learn of it, and even more to learn that it was an average-sized original mass-market paperback. Wasn’t Clancy supposed to write big hardcovers? Well, it turned out that Tom Clancy’s Op Center was the first in a long, awful and unexplainably long-lived series of ghost-written “apostrophe” novels that carried Clancy’s name and none of his strengths. The accompanying TV series wasn’t much better.
(What were a bit better were the non-fiction trade paperbacks that, in seven installments from 1993 to 2001, gave an insightful look within elements of the US armed forces. I’m still not sure that Clancy wrote most of those, or that they didn’t take away time and energy best spent on novels, but they were interesting to read.)
When Executive Orders appeared in 1996, I’d started a reviewing web site –you can read my reaction to the book as I wrote it. The review is a bit embarrassing to re-read more than fifteen years later –it’s one of my earliest entries and I wasn’t even 21 at the time. This being said, I still stand by the overall critical assessment (“it isn’t Clancy’s best effort”) and note, while re-reading the review, that I’d started picking up on the right-wing politics, tepid pacing, loose editing and dubiousness of trying to keep up the Ryanverse. Still; it wasn’t an embarrassing novel for Clancy, even if it was far from the best.
What would be embarrassing is SSN, a 1996 minor videogame tie-in that has none of the flavour or interest of Clancy’s mainline novels. My review (also embarrassing to re-read) started badly with “Tom Clancy wants your money. It’s as simple as that.” and then uttered the fatal “The sad thing is, he used to be my favourite author.” It’s so different (and worse) than his usual novels that I still doubt whether Clancy did more than contribute an outline. Considering that Clancy was, at the time, moving toward video game conceptualization and had already started franchising his name, it’s a possibility that I’m not discarding.
Rainbow Six (1998) would, at least, be a bit better. It may even be Clancy’s last decent novel, although that assessment comes with a number of caveats: More than any one of Clancy’s mainline novels at that point, it would showcase increasingly right-wing politics, seal itself more firmly into the increasingly fantasy-based Ryanverse and display an author scarcely reined in by editors. The writing got worse, the story got duller and Clancy got caught embarrassingly believing manufactures’ press releases with the DKL LifeGuard fiasco. If there are a few good moments in the novel, they don’t amount to much in the aggregate.
By the time the world saw the massive The Bear and the Dragon (2000), the decline was unmistakable, and Clancy was teetering on the edge of “bad”. I wasn’t impressed: The novel has good moments, but they came at the expense of considerable time wasted, bad writing and a cumbersome attempt to reconcile the real world with the Ryanverse. Unlike many of Clancy’s previous novels, it felt like a chore to read.
Red Rabbit (2002) tried to deal with 9/11 by going back in time for another increasingly far-fetched prequel that contradicted much of Jack Ryan’s early history, messed up a number of key historical facts and simply didn’t add up to much. It had the virtue of a slightly lower page count, but not much more action. The writing got even worse.
The last straw, as far as I was concerned, was 2003’s The Teeth of the Tiger: I spent nearly all of my review pointing with laughter at the book’s problems, from the writing to plotting to ludicrous attempts to reconcile the Ryanverse with real-world history to the crazy political stance that ran counter to Clancy’s previous better novels. It hadn’t helped that 9/11 sent me politically leftward while Clancy grew more and more stridently right-wing. (Or, more generally, that 9/11 sent nearly all military fiction authors into right-wing lalaland, leading me to lose touch with the genre.)
Following The Teeth of the Tiger, I basically swore off Clancy, which was auspicious given that Clancy himself seemed to swear off writing. For reasons that, I hope, will be elucidated by competent biographers, Clancy handed over his series to collaborators, retreated in non-writing pursuits and paradoxically saw his fame increase due to a well-received string of videogames sporting his name.
By the time he died in October 2013, I hadn’t seriously thought about Clancy in years. I haven’t bought or read a single Clancy book since The Teeth of the Tiger. I don’t live in Rockland any more, I’m married, I’m raising a daughter and consequently don’t have as much time to read. The Nerd Squad has long disbanded (one member dead far too soon, the other ones having moved on in their separate orbits despite occasional contacts throughout the years. Half of the Squad have become video-game professionals.) I’m reviewing movies professionally. I stopped playing videogames due to lack of time. Despite my voluntary sabbatical from reading, I still have a long list of favorite authors… but very few of them write techno-thrillers.
But I would still like nothing better than to find an author who writes like Clancy at his finest. I still do like the concept of techno-thrillers a lot, and I bemoan that much of the genre now seems so stupidly right-wing and insular. I still own three linear feet of Clancy books, the earliest and best of them (from The Hunt for Red October to The Sum of All Fears) even adorning the “prestige” bookshelf meant to impress visitors. In my own thankfully-unpublished fiction writing, I can recognize the mark left by Clancy’s clean prose and straightforward exposition.
Like it or not, I’ve been shaped in some way by Tom Clancy, and the memories of his best books (alongside what they meant at the time) will remain with me. His critical trajectory was an exemplar of the so-called “brain-eaten” bestselling author, but he’s hardly unique in this regard. While I may have soured on his latter output, I’m still just as eager to suggest his first six novels as essential reading for thriller fans. If you haven’t done so already, have a look at The Hunt for Red October and keep going until The Sum of All Fears. Those are still books for the ages, and no amount of latter-day critical souring should change that.