Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO HAVE VISITED MONTANA: Tom Clancy, author of four terrific pot-boiling action novels, two good ones (and a slough of tedious ones) and the godfather of the techno-thriller, has died at the age of 66.  It was said by Bruce Sterling that an technothriller is merely a science fiction novel where the President of the United States is a character but, oddly, it was only when his main character became the President of the United States did his novels really go off the rails.

I think his great genius was that he knew folks still wanted to read something that was built on plot, on good guys fighting external bad guys with specific, revealed motives (are all of the new Mission Impossible movies about fighting internal plots within the organization?), a heroic view of the American military, and on the promise of success by the protagonist.  Eventually, as he went beyond Red October, Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games and Cardinal of the Kremlin, and no longer submitted himself to any sort of story editing, his work suffered from rather a great bit of bloat (the entire domestic terrorism subplot in Debt of Honor - 100 pages or something - was stopped cold on an Indiana byway without a single effect on the rest of the plot).

I don't think Jack Ryan is a particularly memorable character.  Indeed, I don't think Tom Clancy wrote a single memorable character (John Clark perhaps excepted).  He instead would just toss in bits of someone's family's CV and call it a day.  "Joe Smith was a 30 year veteran of the FBI married to a woman who broke her back in an abseiling accident nine months before her first schedule space shuttle mission.  Their daughter was a second year law student at the Yale. 'Jack, I am worried that Libya is building a hydrogen bomb,' he said."

But plot and action he did well.  I was terrified for the United States when they were about to lose Iceland in the early weeks of the Third World War.  I was rooting for Prince Charles to help get revenge on the Maoist offshoot of the IRA.  I thought that, somehow, that atomic bomb was going to turn Denver into slag.

With the exception of Red October, which holds up very well 23 years later, the movies are pretty soft stuff.  But for all of it, I never regretted giving the man my time and my money for a few hours of well-crafted fun.

He never seemed to be in the best of health.  But I always hoped he'd get back to form.


  1. Nigel from Cameroon12:13 PM

    I appreciated this write up. Clancy and Cussler were my first must-read authors. I stuck with Clancy through Bear and the Dragon...but the descent for me began in Executive Orders. (Cussler follows a similar trajectory-- at some point the series turned from entertaining to dumb).

    Still, loved him overall. And his early-ish video games were also incredible!

  2. isaac_spaceman12:46 PM

    That's a pretty good observation about Jack Ryan not being much of a character at all. That the movies gave the role to Harrison Ford, who is one of the few people who can chew scenery by ostentatiously underplaying a part (ahem, Mandy Patinkin) is fitting.

  3. Joseph Finn1:42 PM

    It's funny, from the coverage I've seen (and appropriately enough for his other job, this broke for me on the gamer blog Kotaku) that it seems like a lot of us jumped off at about the same point; whatever that slog was after The Bear and the Dragon (which I still enjoy). And as a gamer, the company he founded (Red Storm, now part of Ubisoft, has done some damn nice work in advancing their genre of "don't be an idiot and go in guns blazing" thriller games, like Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell.

  4. Governor Squid3:01 PM

    I got my dad this t-shirt a couple of years ago. He loves wearing it into town, just to see who recognizes it.

    I may need to order one for myself.

  5. Joseph Finn5:52 PM

    Oh, and another thought; I always thought Ding Chavez was a memorable character on his own and as a Clark protege.

  6. Clancy's own personal politics became more and more essential to the stories as they went along, and Ryan became ever more of a Mary Sue/author surrogate. (Executive Orders was particularly bad on both of those fronts.) The one book that to some degree transcends "good airplane read" quallity is Without Remorse, in part because it has some nuance to its character--Kelly/Clark isn't just a Mary Sue there.

  7. While reading The Sum of All Fears at one point I accidentally skipped 200 pages...and read a further 150 before realizing it. That was the last Clancy I read. The Hunt for Red October really holds up, though.