Wednesday, October 2, 2013

An obituary on Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy 1989 (Gary W. Gilbert, CCBYSA 2.0)
Today, Tom Clancy died in a Baltimore hospital, age 66. I can't say that I have been a huge fan of his work in the last decade. But Clancy was formative for my youth, I can't deny it. I fell in love with his style and his universe, but at some point, the love died, and we departed. I haven't touched one of his products again, save for a failed attempt of a friend to bring me in on the Ghost-Recon-games. 

I think I first read a book of his age 14, perhaps 15. It was "Red Storm Rising". A curious choice perhaps, not being a Jack Ryan novel, but a friend picked it up, liked it and lent it to me. At that age, the idea of NATO and the Warsaw pact trying each other on the battlefield without nuclear weapons has a clear appeal to someone who builds models of various military equipment and has a collection of little plastic soldiers that would make a coup in Woody's little toy realm a perfectly possible option. 

The book is, of course, not exactly "realistic" in that any of the events playing out are likely. The sense for military detail and the very interesting narrative, compared with a clear grip on suspense, make up for the lackluster coherence of events in any case. From that on, I read one Clancy novel after the other. The classics, like "Hunt for Red October" or "Clear and Present Danger", as well as the (then) newer ones like "The Sum of all Fears" and "Debt of Honor". I was totally captivated by the strong military shows, and I cried out in joy when the American military stuck it to the bad guys again. 

I think my first time I wasn't satisfied with his work was "Rainbox Six". Being a video game nerd in the 90s, the close connection between the (serious) world of literature and the (then not serious) world of video games was intriguing, and Clancy's sense for the possibilities of the young medium has to be applauded. He excelled in combining his franchises with the market. But the novel "Rainbow Six" was simply boring, ending in an uninspired fire-fight because there had to be one. And the characters - well, calling them cardboard would insult real cardboard. I also didn't like his other series, like Op-Center and Netforce. They lacked Jack Ryan. 

So, I was perfectly content with the Jack Ryan series and read them until the early 2000s. Then, somehow, they lost their savor. Up until we moved two months past, I had an untouched copy of "The Bear and the Dragon" on my shelf. I bought it in 2002, but never read it. At that time, other stuff had begun to interest me - fantasy (not that I haven't read any stupid fantasy novels, loads of them). And so, Jack Ryan and the American military took a backseat. I promised myself to return to them soon, but never quite got around to it, and as I grew older, I stopped making that promise to me. Clancy's books stood in my shelf as memento, not to be read anymore. 

A reason for this is that I came to dislike Clancy's simplistic black-and-white-worldview, but the main reason is that I became political. Like many Germans, I developed an anti-American attitude (which I grew out eventually, but I kept it around quite a while). Tom Clancy, however, doesn't really fit if you hope for a victory of the socialist and the dismanteling of NATO. As that reason faded in the background, the first one became more prevelant. Against complex worlds like Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire", clouded in grey, Clancy's black-and-white stood no chance. 

But in the time I read it, it had meant the world for me. I recreated scenarios like the ones Clancy presented, debated them with friends and made assumptations about who would win in a war on Clancy's terms. It was escapism, but I find it a bit unsettling today. Clancy's military fetishism is not something I connect to anymore. In his field, however, he was the best. The Epigoni he inspired cannot live up to the standard he set. He will be missed.


  1. Great post - I had exactly the same relationship to Tom Clancy's books. I devoured them as a twelve to fourteen year old, but had a very hard time finishing Rainbow Six and never touched a book of his since. I think I didn't realized the deep seated Republicanism until later (it was more of an idealistic Will McAvoy republicanism and no tea party republicanism anyway), and having gotten politicised I really couldn't get back into his universe. Exactly when I got fed up with Clancy, the Wheel of Time got me, and I've been coming back to Fantasy ever since.

    I'd be interested in your Top 10 fantasy books by the way, if you ever feel like writing about that. Gotta do something with my reading time until winter has finally come!

  2. hey Stefan, I hate to contact this way but I want to read your southron ambitions article but none of the links to it actually work. they just take you to the comments section of it. What can I do to read it. Thanks

    1. You find it here:

    2. got it. had to put in last book I read

  3. hey Stefan, that's the link I go to but all I see is comments about it. Where is the article

  4. Like many others, I devoured his books as an adolescent. While I've only read them once, both The Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin were excellent (and Red October was adopted into a fantastic movie, despite the obviously-Scottish Red Navy captain). But Clancy, more than almost any other author I've read, suffered from success. We talk a lot here and elsewhere about whether Martin's books have grown unwieldy as he's become too successful for editors to critique. But with Clancy the bloat was enormous. I can't tell you how many plot lines Executive Orders had that literally led nowhere.

    Worse was his politics. Clancy was always best when writing about Soviet antagonists, who he clearly respected. In The Bear and the Dragon his sympathy for Russia goes so far that it ruins the story's credibility (Russia joining NATO, with no objections!) and characters' descriptions of the Chinese go far beyond what's acceptable within the narrative context - the book is very uncomfortable to read. The post-9/11 Teeth of the Tiger is even worse, with an unaccountable anti-terror unit so secret even the president doesn't know about it depicted as a good thing, rather than an American Los Zetas.

    But I'll always remember Clancy most for, in the revenge fantasy Without Remorse, explicitly criticizing women being on top during sex. To me that will always be the gold standard of an author's conservative worldview ruining the narrative!

    1. I absolutely agree. I found the revenge fantasy the most unsettling novel, though. Complete and utter bullshit, and the morales of it really unsettling. Don't remember the on-top critique.