Tom Clancy

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

(On Cable TV, August 2019) Like many cinephiles, I was quite impressed when Melissa McCarthy suddenly became a comedy superstar thanks to a remarkable comic performance in Bridesmaids. It was an overnight success years in the making, thanks to several well-regarded supporting appearances in various projects, but it cemented her comic persona as that of an obnoxious loudmouth. That kind of comedy based on deliberate irritation, as many others can testify, is only good until you get overexposed and suddenly becomes a liability. So, it’s smart for McCarthy to try to switch her image before it’s too late. She went in that direction with her supporting role in St. Vincent, but it’s with Can You Ever Forgive Me? that she really takes the chance of a lead role in a very different register. Here she plays in a docu-fictive drama about Lee Israel, a difficult and down-on-her-luck writer who turns to celebrity letter forgery as a way to make money. It turns into a nice revenue stream, but ambition eventually gets the better of her as the forgeries are exposed and the FBI closes in. Where I found the film most fascinating, though, was in its immersion in the Manhattan literary culture of the 1980s, made of collectors, authors, editors and associated personalities. I was very, very amused to see an actor portraying Tom Clancy (as an insufferable bore, no less) show up in the middle of a party scene, and charmed at the depiction of the written-word ecosystem exposed bare. McCarthy is superbly restrained here, taking a frumpy middle-aged character with finesse and dignity. Considering the times we’re in, this won’t be the last film about fakers and con artists, but I can definitely stomach this one, and being able to like McCarthy’s work here is a good chunk of it.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) As someone who pretty much gave up on Tom Clancy after Teeth of the Tiger, I certainly took my time in watching Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an attempt to reboot Clancy’s best-known character for a younger generation.  Derived from an original script that had nothing to do with Ryan, Shadow Recruit nonetheless ends up being a serviceable piece of entertainment, and one that does share a passing similarity to Clancy’s work.  While the film remains an action thriller in which Ryan gets to run a bit and savagely beat down an opponent along the way, it does have a pretty good sequence in which Ryan proves his analytical creds as “the smartest guy in the room”, and the film does hint at the kind of geopolitical machinations so well-executed in Clancy’s thriller.  Chris Pine is very likable as Ryan, and the broad strokes of his character are indeed those that Clancy gave to Ryan back in the eighties, updated to a post-9/11 generation.  Director Kenneth Branagh gets to have some fun by playing the bad guy, while Kevin Costner is unremarkable in a mentor role.  Still, Shadow Recruit is a reasonably entertaining thriller, despite a rather long introduction and the overall silliness of the scheme at the heart of the film (hint; the US dollar is a reserve currency.  It can’t be brought down by simplistic financial manipulation, and any attempt to maintain otherwise will be met by laughter by Canadians watching their dollar sink relative the USD).  While the box-office results suggest that the Clancy franchise won’t be rebooted, Shadow Recruit isn’t too bad as a standalone thriller – there have been far worse examples of the form lately.

Tom Clancy (1947-2013)

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.

Enters Clancy.

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.

Every Man a Tiger, Tom Clancy & Chuck Horner (ret.)

Putnam, 1999, 564 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14493-5

Tom Clancy may or may not have written any part of this book (it’s getting hard to tell with the spin-offs, sequels, computer games, recurring allegations of ghostwriting and substantial dip in quality), but his name certainly figures large on the cover. This second tome in the so-called “Command” series ends up combining the mass-market appeal of the Clancy brand with a detailed military study, once again bringing a highly specialized account to wider audiences. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the first volume, Into the Storm (by Clancy and Fred Franks) but if the second volume it still not quite perfect, it’s a great deal more interesting than its predecessor.

Part of this appeal is Horner himself, a retired fighter/bomber pilot with plenty of tales to tell. From training to a difficult tour of duty in Vietnam to the dark era of the American armed forces to its rebirth through the eighties and its ultimate success during the Gulf War, Franks makes a sympathetic hero. His stories give a good idea of the life of a pilot during that time, and also serve as a key to understand the transformation of the US Air Force from Vietnam to Kuwait.

This mini-biography takes nearly the first third of the book, and it’s essential in setting up what follows. The Gulf War, in some respects, was the first computerized war. In this case, however, the important things are not the computers, but the things now made possible through them. Coordinated sorties. Inter-forces communications. Precision bombing. Instantaneous battlefield monitoring. Lightning-fast supply lines. Unbelievable logistical feats. The Gulf War was also unprecedented in that air power effectively filled the role of ground forces in “plinking” the opposing land army, reducing their ability to fight well before the army got in action.

The bulk of Every Man a Tiger offers a description of the Gulf War from Horner’s point of view as one of the allied commanders, with an obvious emphasis on air power. Gulf War buffs will relish the level of detail offered here, from logistical issues to anecdotes and step-per-step progress of the air campaign. Horner isn’t shy at telling what worked and what didn’t: He particularly singles out the search-and-rescue operations as deficient during the air campaign, and lucidly explains the reasons for this problem.

Through it all, Horner comes across as a model soldier, a man who’s aware of the painful necessity of war, and the need for multilateral cooperation. His sense of humour comes through clearly, and so does his understanding of the constraints in which he operated. There are poignant passages in the book in which he professes his admiration for Arab culture and explains the sacrifices made by the American military forces to include as many allies as possible in their decision process. While it has become fashionable, in these days of the Bush administration, for non-Americans to decry the military might of the United States, it’s easy to forget that the real issue here is the political leadership and not the military forces. Men like Chuck Horner only represent a most admirable professionalism, and professionalism is exactly what we need from them.

In fact, one of the unexpected treats of Every Man a Tiger is the meticulous description of the political decision-making behind the American intervention in Saudi Arabia and, eventually Kuwait. Horner was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall during some of the crucial top-level meetings, and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which military power is approved, and then how the military itself arranges to deliver this power. (It’s also somewhat unremarkable to notice many of the names which would later star in Gulf War II: Iraq Invasion. Hello Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz…)

All in all, while this second volume can’t escape a certain trivial dreariness, it’s a somewhat better effort than the frequently-dull Into the Storm. Horner benefits from a bird’s eye perspective on the Gulf War (literally) and this perspective, coupled with a good flow of anecdotes and personal recollections, make this one of the best books yet written on that particular conflict.

The Teeth of the Tiger, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 2003, 431 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-15079-X

The most encouraging thing about Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger is how comparatively slim it looks. After years of bloated 800+ pages novels with severe pacing problems, one could hope that Clancy had finally wizened up. Unfortunately, the length of this book ends up being one of the most deceptive things about a very disappointing novel.

I wanted not to bury this novel, but to praise it; after all, I have all of the Clancy novel in hardcover on my bookshelves, and despite our increasingly diverging political views, I have always kept a soft spot for his no-nonsense style of writing and his gift for plotting.

Sadly, little of that ends up in The Teeth of the Tiger, a novel that ends up smelling as if it escaped from those infamous “Tom Clancy’s” derivative lines. The setup seems depressingly familiar; as more evil middle-eastern terrorists plan a dastardly attack on America, a top-secret group of intelligence operatives fights to keep them away. It really does end up feeling a lot like Clancy trying to second-guess 11/09/2001, with all the predictable plotting that ensues.

Had Clancy moved away from his Ryanverse, it may not have been too bad, but unfortunately enough, this novel takes place after the end of Jack Ryan Sr.’s presidency and features Jack Ryan Jr. taking his father’s initial role as an analyst in the intelligence community. The big, big problem is that Clancy has to juggle twenty years of Ryanverse events with real-world history. So September 11 is somewhere in the background, along with Afghanistan and Homeland Security, but also the Ebola attack that led to a ground war in Saudi Arabia (Executive Orders) and the whole Red October business. Curiously, little is said of the plane crash on the Capitol (Debt of Honor) or the Chinese nuclear strike (The Bear and the Dragon), presumably because those didn’t fit. But the whole setup is increasingly far-fetched and Clancy would have been better off just scrapping the whole Ryanverse altogether rather than present an increasingly problematic “next generation”. A smaller problem is that the end of the Ryan presidency is glossed over, along with the dramatic death of one major fan-favourite character; most will feel cheated by the curt paragraph that describes what happened.

But wait! It gets worse! Clancy so loooves his characters that, guess what, those dastardly terrorists attack a mall where, as it happens, two of our main characters are shopping for shoes. Now, it just so happens that those two are members of the secretive “Campus” where, it just so happens, also works Jack Ryan Jr. Who, it just so happens, is not just also their cousin, but it also tracking down a guy who, it just so happens, is handling the finances for those very same terrorists! Wow! Some would call this series of links very convenient, but who knows—coming from Clancy, it just may be genius in disguise!

That’s bad enough, but what really hurts is the ideological position at the centre of the book. Basically, The Teeth of the Tiger is a book-length rationalization of why it’s quite OK for a shadowy agency, not controlled by the government, to go out in foreign countries and kill suspected associates of terrorists. No less. “The Campus” is an agency outside federal regulations —thinly protected by a stash of blank presidential pardons— which gets in the business of assassination as the novel begins. Oh, our two would-be-assassins do have a few doubts… but a convenient terrorist attack in which they witness the death of a little boy (awww) wipes out every possible moral qualms they may have kept from Sunday school. (“They’re the bad guys, bro!”) And so they go on their merry way, rubbing out people on the streets of Europe using information that may not be entirely solid.

Is this supposed to be good? Heroic? Lawful? Just? Am I the only one who still thinks vigilante-style retribution isn’t the sum of all answers? That it’s a simple-and-dumb solution to a complex problem? Is it perfectly acceptable to decree (without accountability, without recourse, without remorse) the death penalty on four targets whose tenuous support to terrorism was merely financial and logistical? Anyone who’s read Clancy for a while might justifiably ask whether this is from the same person who wrote Clear and Present Danger, a novel in which Jack Ryan Sr. went against his own government because it was involved in violent off-the-book operations which betrayed the spirit of the American Constitution.

It would be inaccurate (and libellous) to portray Clancy as a racist or an anti-Muslim. But his portrayal of the bad guys (“bad guys” and “good guys” are helpfully pointed out in the novel, so don’t worry about making the distinction for yourself) is crude enough to warrant special attention. (By far the most hilariously offensive moment comes as one of the terrorists lays, dying, on the floor of a sports-goods store. One of the Killer Catholic Twins has the decency to put a football in his limp hands and add “I want you to carry this to hell with you. It’s a pigskin, —-hole, made from the skin of a real Iowa pig.” [P.252] Touching; I could hear legions of Rush Limbaugh fans weeping.) Clancy even feels obliged to add two pages on how “terrorism had about as much to do with the Islamic religion as it did with Catholic and Protestant Irishmen” [P.383] (Ever the good lad, Jack Ryan Jr. comes across this stupendous insight by “googling his way into Islam”. And yet people keep saying that a good conservative education has no benefits…) Fair enough, but next time it may be helpful to actually have real and realistic Arab/Muslim characters rather than making all of his protagonists good-old Catholic-Irish boys mowing down terrorists through Europe. This, coupled with other typical conservative tics such as the knee-jerk euro-bashing (with a particular dislike for the French; one wonders if those slurs will be kept in translation), media bashing and a rather short-sighted view of politicians, finally makes me wonder if Clancy, for all his gifts, may just not be as smart as I thought he was. Or getting dumber by the book.

Certainly, other areas of the novel aren’t much brighter: The plotting also has its share of dumb moves; once the terrorists are identified and one lead is uncovered in the financial labyrinths of Europe, you would think that the best way to react would be to study the subject and identify his links to other terrorists. Naaah; Clancy goes gung-ho happy and immediately send his good little Catholic twin assassins to rub out the guy in a busy street. They do that in the hope of forcing other guys to react, calling it “recon-by-fire”. Uh-huh. Don’t let Clancy anywhere near the Organized Crime units, please. Other deeply dumb stunts abound, such as sending a team of fraternal twins (their mom “must have punched out two eggs that month”, as it’s delicately referred to on pages 32 and 89) as a tracking/assassination team. You’d think that a suspect might go “huh?” after seeing two eerily similar guys around (See P.74: “People often remarked on their resemblance, though
it was even more apparent when they were apart”), but apparently that doesn’t seem to bother Clancy very much. (Neither does the idea of sending an untrained ex-president’s son on an assassination mission, for that matter. Makes you wonder what Chelsea Clinton truly does in her spare time, doesn’t it?)

Once again, there are clear signs that Putnam’s editors have all given up on Clancy. Beyond the pacing problems, the bone-headed plotting, the flamboyant jingoism (anyone even considering an opposing viewpoint is accused of defending the devil), this novel (like the two before it) suffers from bouts of bad writing. Once again, every half-clever line is repeated at least twice in the course of the novel. (Some men may need killin’ more than horses need stealin’, but some novels sure need editin’) Some sentences have missing words. See if you can make sense of this comma-ridden one: “What to drink? If he was having a New York lunch, then cream soda, but Utz, the local potato chips, of course, because they’d even had them in the White House—at his father’s insistence.” [P.214]

Technical accuracy? Don’t make me laugh. The time during which Clancy was considered an authority has long passed. Since Rainbow Six‘s memorable “life detectors” blunder, Clancy doesn’t even try to fact-check his stuff. Here, the NSA routinely crack all electronic traffic as a matter of routine, and our characters can check not just their email, but everyone else’s too. Convenient, especially when the all-magical “Campus” can simply slurp off the traffic being exchanged (over the airwaves!) between the NSA and the CIA. Isn’t there anything a rogue operation won’t do?

Then there are the characters. Good little Jack Jr., praising his pop at every second internal monologue. The Killer Catholic Twins, who never seem to be any less than perfect. But then again, they’re all there to kill terrorists; no further development is needed. It’s certainly not as if we get to know them through adversity, because they just never fail. (Well, except for the odd occasional spilt wine, in a hideous plot cheat no one is going to forgive.)

All of which may have been forgiven if the book actually had some suspense in it. But save for a few moments of tension whenever the action is about to begin, The Teeth of the Tiger is a thrill-free thriller. The mid-book terrorist attack has its moments or two, but everything pretty much goes like planned for the rest of the book. It’s dull and linear with no surprises: there is nothing in here that even looks like “rising stakes”. The second half of the novel is pure eye-for-an-eye neo-conservative wanking, as our two good little wisecracking Catholic Assassins joyride through Europe (driving brand-name cars), only stopping to kill the next terrorist-by-association. It brought back to mind a similar trip in Nelson deMille’s The Lion’s Game… except that in deMille’s case, it was a terrorist travelling through America to kill American servicemen. Hmm…

Suffice to say that there is no heightening tension in The Teeth of the Tiger. It ends when there are no more easy targets to kill. The first half reads like a watered-down mixture of The Sum of All Fears (terrorists plan an attack in excruciating detail) and Rainbow Six (secret terrorist-killing unit is put together) while the second all brings to mind a thin rehash of Red Rabbit with Ryan Jr.’s contrived arrival in the field and his rite of passage where he proves his all-American manhood by killing one of the terrorists. But if you truly want to compare this latest novel with something bearing the Clancy name, you’d have to go and check the awful “Tom Clancy’s” derivative work; this latest novel feels as contrived, as lazy and as dumb as anything in the “Net Force”, “Op-Center” or “Power Plays” series. (Indeed the idea of a “good guy” rich conservative having his elite force of operatives ready to kill people around the world is a direct riff on Politika, the first “Power Plays” book.) The derivatives have finally tainted the main stream of Clancy’s work: Once you start playing with easy money…

Worse of all is the realization that the end of the book is merely a customary one that solves nothing and simply sets up a sequel —or, goodness forbid, a series of sequel. (Last lines: “The enemy could not possibly know what kind of cat was in the jungle. They’d hardly met the teeth. Next, they’d meet the brain” [P.431] Oooh!) Don’t believe the length of the book; this is merely part one of a bigger (but maybe not all that greater) work. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but all that’s missing is a “to be continued”.

If I take a deep breath and temporarily disengage my liberal/pacifist/Catholic ethical module, I’d still like to point out that the book is clearly written and that Clancy’s depiction of the military/espionage world (aside from all of that “Campus” garbage) still feels much more credible than most of his colleagues. You can easily read The Teeth of the Tiger in a single quiet afternoon, though the question arise whether you really want to do so. I certainly would have been pleased to savage the book even more if I hadn’t read The Teeth of the Tiger right after Joe Weber’s truly wretched Primary Target, another Middle-Eastern-terrorist book that -in comparison- clearly shows the difference between a hack like Weber and a flawed-but-competent novelist like Clancy.

In Science Fiction fan circles, the gradual slide in mediocrity of a once-great author is often explained away by saying that “the brain-eater got him”. One can reliably track the careers of such luminaries as Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to that point where every successive book gets worse, and worse, and worse. I think that with The Teeth of the Tiger, Clancy has confirmed the trend of his last few books, and may even have entered the final, terminal part of his career; the brain-eater has got him, and the results are spectacular.

(While doing research for this review, I came along this rather telling quote from Clancy himself, posting on alt.books.tom-clancy (June 30th, 2003): “For those of you who think you can do it better than I do, please give it a try. If my pride can go before the fall, you own it to your intellectual integrity (chuckle) to expose yourselves as I do. You know, as I approach -gasp- 60 I find myself becoming less tolerant of critics. Perhaps this is because they are like reporters, or-worse-politicians.” Well, what can I possibly add to that?)

Red Rabbit, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 2002, 618 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14870-1

It’s no accident if Tom Clancy has decided to incorporate under the name “Jack Ryan Ltd.” His fictional protagonist has starred in no less than eight best-selling novels since 1984 (with cameo roles in two others) as well as four blockbuster films. This is nothing compared to some mystery writers who are still churning out series novels decades after inventing their lead protagonist (Robert B. Parker and his “Spencer”, for instance), but unlike them, Clancy has been willing to make his characters evolve. From a humble intelligence analyst in The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan has become, post-Debt of Honor, nothing less than the President of the United States. After dealing with what was almost a nuclear war in The Bear and the Dragon, there isn’t much left for Ryan to do: Step down —or die heroically.

While that particular story might be told in Clancy’s next opus, [September 2003: Alas, no] that hasn’t prevented him from squeezing out one more Ryan adventure out of his imagined universe. With Red Rabbit, he takes us back sometime between Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October to tell us of his involvement in countering an assassination attempt on the Pope.

Now this attempt is part of the historical record; in May 1981, Pope John Paul II was severely wounded by a Turkish terrorist named Mehmet Ali Agca, who was using a weapon obtained in Bulgaria. Since then, various rumours have credited the KGB with this attempt. Red Rabbit is a peek behind the Iron Curtain, a fictionalization of the events surrounding this event.

It’s an unusual novel for Clancy; an attempt at meshing historical fact and fiction (he has written “historical” novel before –Without Remorse-, but it didn’t attempt to integrate itself with any known historical fact), a simpler plot than the previous novels (notice how the book is “merely” six hundred-odd pages long) and a curiously non-violent book too: The only shots fired are part of the historical record, and the body count equals exactly one —and that takes place off-screen at the very very end of the book.

It’s also unusual in that it’s Clancy’s purest “spy” story so far. Whereas The Cardinal of the Kremlin contained a substantial touch of spycraft, this novel is packed with what feels like authentic descriptions of real-life spy stuff. Even the low thrill-factor of Red Rabbit works at evoking real-world danger here; By toning down the spectacular, Clancy makes even a simple playground conversation seem tense. Surely real spies do not behave like James Bond!

Instead, we’re treated to a historical drama made more prescient with the benefit of twenty year’s hindsight and declassified material. The role of the papacy in the fall of communism is now fairly well-documented, and Clancy can draw upon these new revelations to solidify his story.

On the other hand, he can’t resist the temptation to give his protagonists almost perfect foresight. Jack Ryan is almost cocky when he confidently asserts that the Soviet Empire will soon crumble upon itself. Other more serious anachronisms abound, mixing dates between 1980 and 1982. As a teenage Transformers fan, I was rather shocked to catch Clancy referencing the cartoon series at least three years before it was aired. Gotcha, Tom!

This laziness doesn’t stop there: on a sentence-per-sentence level, Red Rabbit is as sloppily edited as Clancy’s latest few novels. Anachronistic expressions abound, and so does a certain repetition of terms (most egregiously the infamous “pshrink”), though nowhere as bad as in The Bear and the Dragon. I have noted previously that Clancy needs an editor who will not be swayed by his best-selling status, and this is still true; you could lop at least one hundred pages off this novel without undue harm.

On the other hand, the novel as it stands right now is still fun for Clancy fans or spy novel buffs. The meticulous description of spycraft establishes an engrossing atmosphere of authenticity. While this is in no way an essential Clancy novel nor even a particularly well-integrated one (unlike Patriot Games, no mentions of the events in Red Rabbit are ever uttered anywhere in the series, which is unusual for Clancy.), it’s a pleasant read, certainly a better one than any of Clancy’s sharecropped ghost-written novels. It’ll do until Ryan’s next (and probably last) adventure.

Into the Storm, Tom Clancy & General Fred Franks Jr.

Putnam, 1997, 531 pages, C$37.50 hc, ISBN 0-399-14236-3

I’ve said it before, but it’s an axiom worth reprinting again: Publishing is a funny business. You can sell a lot of unlikely books if you have the right hook, and the quality of the product rarely has anything to do with the end result. Neither does reader enjoyment; you can slide and dice the numbers any way you want, but there aren’t very many rational answers for the wild best-selling success of Stephen Hawkins’ math-heavy A Brief History. Many have uncharitably suggested that it was a book that was more interesting to display than to read, and that’s not far from the truth. Not many people have read A Brief History of Time all the way through, but many poseurs proudly include it in their personal library.

In much the same vein, General Fred Franks’ Into the Storm could have easily been yet another of those dry military history textbooks: Published by a specialized printing press, advertised in a few small magazines, bought by a few hundred universities and overwhelmingly invisible to the general public. Regardless of the quality of the work, this would have been a hard-core military book for a small audience of military buffs. Or, even worse, an unpublished manuscript.

But in our universe, Tom Clancy stepped in.

Or, should I say, best-selling techno-thriller author Tom Clancy stepped in. He (or someone else) thought it might be a good idea to co-author a series of non-fiction books with professional military personnel. Into the Storm is, reportedly, the first book in this series.

In a sense, everyone should come away happy from this experience. Clancy gets to work with interesting people and acquires a considerable amount of credibility as an expert in the field. The co-authors get an experienced wordsmith and vulgarizator. Oh, and a best-seller is certain.

And that’s the really surprising thing about Into the Storm. It’s a jargon-heavy pure military text. It describes the history of mechanized infantry from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. It describes, in overwhelming detail, how ground troops prepared and fought in the Gulf War. It’s a biography of General Fred Franks. It’s a summary of fifteen years’ worth of changes in the US Army. It’s a primer on how to fight a modern war with modern weapons. In short, it’s not beach reading. And yet it was published, massively marketed and probably bought by thousands of readers who were probably expecting another Clancy pot-boiler. Gotcha!

It’s not even a bad book, though it definitely has its limitations. For even the moderately knowledgeable military buff, it’s often dry reading. While the details are exhaustive, they’re usually not presented in a compelling way; there’s a limit to how excitingly you can describe transit operations and force preparation. Some of it is even dull beyond belief. You almost have to be a professional military analyst to enjoy the full book. There’s also an additional annoyance in that Franks seems to be using passages of Into the Storm to answer Norman Schwarzkopf’s criticism in his autobiography It Doesn’t Take a Hero. Naturally, readers who aren’t familiar with the previous book might not care at all.

But don’t let that blind you to the interesting sections of Into the Storm. At its best, it’s a clear description of the overhaul of the US Army after the scars left by Vietnam. It’s a rather good autobiography of a professional military man. It’s occasionally a good description of the Gulf War. From time to time, you’ll even uncover a nugget or two of fascinating military trivia. Its grasp of the real-world military chain of command and logistics is also unparalleled in widely-available literature.

But if you’re not a dedicated military buff, goodness, don’t pick up Into the Storm expecting another easy read by Mr. Clancy. It all too often happens that the publishing industry fools relatively smart people in buying total crap, but in this case it’s fascinating to see the complete opposite—the marketing industry managing to convince a large audience to buy over their heads. Now that Into the Storm has hit the remainder stacks, you can find out for yourself if you’ve got the mettle for 500+ pages of hard-core military jargon.

Tom Clancy’s Net Force, Tom Clancy [ghostwritten]

Berkley, 1998, 372 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16172-2

Reviewing “Tom Clancy’s” novels is the critical equivalent of shooting fish with big barrels. These ghost-written cookie-cutter novels sustain a basic level of readability, sure, but you’d be hard-pressed to remember anything about them only a few days after an initial read. Heck, you’d be lucky to remember the difference between the various series, whether they’re “Op-Center”, “Politika” or “Net Force”. As far as any serious reader is concerned, they’re three names for the same thing: Clancy’s willingness to whore out his diminishing reputation through dozens of mediocre novels he should be ashamed to be associated with.

This venom now being out of my system, allow be to concede that as far as the “Tom Clancy’s” novels go, Net Force is better than the other ones. The premise is slightly more SFish than the other series, being concerned about a federal agency dedicated to fighting computer crime. The series is set in a ten-year-away future, which is depressingly similar to our own except when it suits the purposes of the plot.

In other words, don’t go in Net Force expecting a fully-developed social anticipation in the tradition of the best Science Fiction. While Steve Perry has previously proven himself to be an adequate SF writer, he’s obviously writing Net Force to pay the bills, and this strictly alimentary approach to the novel shows through a distinct laziness.

Take, for instance, Net Force‘s representation of cyberspace, which makes all the mistakes you might see in a slush-pile SF novel magically teleported from the mid-eighties. Metaphorized into a representation of the highway system, it forces characters to drive cars and search highways for bad guys. Not only does this represent a singularly useless and inefficient mapping of cumbersome real-world equivalent over something that doesn’t require it, but it also drags down the level of the rest of the book to this quasi-adolescent car fetishism where driving a Dodge Viper is good enough to catch the enemies.

And, yes, there is a “good” level of the book to drag down. One character and one subplot is enough to keep our interest, the “Selkie” assassin and her contract against new Net Force director Alex Michaels. It’s the least ridiculous part of the book, the most focused and the most interesting. There’s also an interesting love triangle / martial arts exposé between Michaels, an agent named Toni Fiorella and some other agent whose name isn’t ultimately important. Oh, and a few funny scenes featuring a nerdy teenager.

But that’s it. Zero other set-pieces, zero compelling characters, awful technology and scarcely any good writing besides a very few fascinating technical/procedural details. The rest of Net Force is of such forgettable averageness that it blurs up almost instantly, sinking is the cesspool of “Tom Clancy’s” novels. The only question left for me to ask remains “If I’m buying those awful novels used, who the heck keeps buying them new?”

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.

Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 1998, 740 pages, C$38.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14390-4

Tom Clancy has long been one of my first favourite authors, as far back as I can remember being able to form the concept of “a favourite author”. I recall plunking down a fair amount of change for a (then) complete paperback collection of his novels. (Since then, of course, I’ve discovered other authors even “better” than Clancy, but that’s neither here or now.)

As might be expected, however, It always seems like the best books are from before you discover the author. Having read Clancy’s first five books in rapid succession, they still form kind of a superior unified work in my mind. As such, each new Clancy book is an anxiously anticipated half-disappointment compared to the classics.

To that problem, we can add the very worrying trend of seeing the “Tom Clancy” trademark on a variety of inferior products. Since early 1996, Clancy’s name has been associated with inferior ghostwritten adventure novels, a very bad submarine game “novelisation”, many worthy nonfiction books and an array of computer games. We might ask; where are the novels?

Clancy’s latest “true” book, Rainbow Six, almost straddles the line between novel and marketing product. It certainly didn’t sound good when I heard that a computer game called Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six was being coded at the same time by Clancy’s gaming company, aimed for simultaneous release.

But Clancy fans can now buy in peace: Rainbow Six is Clancy’s first “real” novel since 1996. The difference is apparent: It’s a fat hardcover book, with the wealth of details, action and overwritten subplots that we’ve come to expect from the techno-thriller master.

It’s almost a shame that Rainbow Six‘s biggest weakness is its premise: An international team of highly trained covert operatives is formed to battle terrorists. (Sounds like a G.I.Joe cartoon, yet?) At the same time, a band of fanatic environmentalist scientists is developing a virus designed to kill off the entire human race! Egawd! Will the Rainbow team defuse the threat? Duuuuh!

Well, the good news are that once you’re in the novel, it doesn’t really matter any more. We’re back in the world-famous Clancy prose, which is part clunky, part limpid. As ever, the lack of stylistic touches possesses an undeniable rough elegance. Rainbow Six is also a return to Clancy’s earlier novels in that there are several well-executed action scenes throughout the novel, in opposition to several other recent works (The Sum of All Fears, Executive Orders) where most of the bang was held back until the end. Indeed, Rainbow Six does have something like an anticlimax, or at least a lacklustre finale.

Be warned, however, that since readers demand big fat Clancy novels, Clancy has obliged and the result, as usual, could have been edited down by as much as twenty-five percent.

This is not, by the way, a good novel to enter the Clancyverse. Numerous explicit references are made to the events of earlier novels, and newer readers will be frustrated. It can still be read by itself, but shouldn’t. (Clancy’s flagship character, Jack Ryan, is present, but in the background and then only referenced by title rather than name.)

Rainbow Six does for Special-Forces teams (SWAT, SAS, Delta, SEAL, etc…) what The Hunt for Red October did for submarine crew: It offers a privileged (and, we presume, reasonably exact) glimpse in the lives of some very very special soldiers. After reading Rainbow Six, it’s hard not to trust their real-world expertise at intervening in tense situations.

Given this, it’s a bit of a shame that Clancy had to resort to such dubious video-game premise to fuel his novel. (Not to mention that the virus thing has been done before… in Clancy’s previous novel!) It seems to me like smaller stakes (like the good action set-pieces in the first half of the novel) would have been amply sufficient… especially given the rather disappointing way the whole plot is defused.

Clancy fans will love it. Not many non-fans will be converted. The computer game is said to be adequately good. Clancy delivered the goods: Even with every fault it has, Rainbow Six is a good read.

SSN, Tom Clancy

Berkley, 1996, 336 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-425-15911-6

Tom Clancy wants your money. It’s as simple as that.

The sad thing is, he used to be my favourite author. But that was in the good old days where the only Tom Clancy books were his novels, not tons of derivative franchise items.

The problem started when Clancy became a publishing category. Now, we’re getting companions, nonfiction books, “Op-Center” franchise novels not written by Clancy and this, surely the lowest of the low, a companion to a video game.

SSN (The game) is a simulation of submarine warfare currently available in stores for PC compatibles (CD-ROM) I have not played it. Clancy was allegedly heavily involved in this game, (There’s a logo for “Clancy Interactive Entertainment” on the game box) so it was more or less predictable that anytime soon, something written “by Clancy” would appear in stores. This is it.

SSN wants to be the exciting description of a submarine’s actions in (says the jacket copy) World War III. Instead, it ends up being a shoot’em up.

This reviewer will freely admit at having somewhat of a fondness for highly-detailed military fiction. Even if the most elementary literary characteristics are sadly deficient, one can get some enjoyment out of even the most inept shoot’em up. But there are limits, and those have been breached with SSN.

Almost everyone who has played a few RPGs has said, at one moment or another, “Wow, this game would make a good story!” Most of the time, they’re wrong. Personal involvement in a story makes it appear much better that it actually is. (Witness movies versus books, for one thing)

Folks, SSN is worse than the Doom books, and that’s no mean feat. Almost everything stinks, from the top to the bottom. At the top, there’s an implausible war between the US and China (why China? Because no one else has a decent navy to fight against!). It tries to be sophisticated, but ends up being myopic: Seems to the reader that only the USS Cheyenne fights the war. (Another weakness of gaming novelizations: “The world’s last, best hope!”)

Then, while the book is filled with potentially exciting situations, the reader’s pulse never goes up. It’s succession after succession of boring one-sided fights (the Cheyenne being no match for inferior Chinese technology) and briefings. (There are occasional POV switches in the middle of a chapter, but always to show a hapless Chinese commander about to commit a fatal mistake.

The prose is dull, dull, dull… There is absolutely no character development. In fact, there might be no characters at all! Great literature bores me, but I was nearly grinding my teeth at some of the horrendous passages in there. (Don’t tell anyone, but this review is almost better written that the book, and that’s saying something!)

SSN, in my judgment, is a manuscript that would belong on the slush pile. It’s not even worth your time, so it far from being worth any of your money. Clancy, come back when you’ve go something better to offer.

And please stop the merchandising. You’re just embarrassing yourself.

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.