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Tom Clancy’s novels of adventure and espionage in the international military industrial complex earned him enormous popularity in the 1980s as a creator of the ”techno-thriller” genre. Clancy uses highly detailed descriptions of military technology and modern weaponry to create dramatic tension. His novels top many best seller lists, and several titles have been franchised into movies and computer games, making Clancy and his thrillers popular worldwide.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Interest in Military Leads to Research and First Novel
Tom Clancy was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 4, 1947, the son of a mail carrier and a credit employee. After graduating from Loyola College in Baltimore in 1969, Clancy married Wanda Thomas, an insurance agency manager, and became an insurance agent in Baltimore and later in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1973, he joined the O. F. Bowen Agency in Owings, Maryland, becoming an owner there in 1980. Though Clancy had hoped for a military career, his poor eyesight made him ineligible. However, Clancy maintained an interest in the military and researched various aspects of the armed forces and military technology.
While conducting his research in the late 1970s, Clancy developed the ideas for several novels and the main characters he wrote about in the 1980s. During this time, Clancy wrote in his spare time while working and raising a family, and in 1984 his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, was published by The Naval Institute Press, a noncommercial publisher in Annapolis. The story is about a Soviet submarine commander who defects with his state-of-the art submarine to the United States. Naturally, the novel captured the spirit of the Cold War politics typical of the administration of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan laid enormous stress on the military capability of the Soviet Union and dramatically increased U.S. military spending to meet and surpass the perceived Soviet challenge.
Praise by a President
Reagan publicly praised The Hunt for Red October, boosting the novel to bestseller lists. Casper Weinberger, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, reviewed the book for The Times Literary Supplement, calling it ”a splendid and riveting story” and praising the technical descriptions as ”vast and accurate.” The Hunt for Red October was Clancy’s first book to be made into a movie.
Clancy’s most famous character is Jack Ryan, who takes the lead in eight of Clancy’s books. Each novel in the Ryan series provides more background on this ”every man” hero. From his humble beginnings as a history professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Ryan eventually joins the CIA as a consultant. He permanently joins the CIA as an analyst to track down terrorists and through his daring and intelligence, becomes the Deputy Director at the CIA. From there, Ryan advances as the National Security Advisor to the President, the Vice President, and eventually becomes President of the United States.
Success after the Fall of the Soviet Union
Clancy’s subsequent novels continued to feature plots based upon critical world political issues from the perspective of military or CIA personnel. The primary theme focused on the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, disintegrating into fifteen separate countries. Clancy had to find a new theme for his novels. He turned his focus to stories about the international drug trade and terrorism.
The Cold War, Drug Wars, and the War on Terror
When the arms race was escalating in the 1980s, Clancy’s novels The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising (1986) , and The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) used different aspects of the Soviet-American conflict for story lines. In the post-Cold War era, Clancy turned to the South American drug trade in Clear and Present Danger (1989). The United States declared a War on Drugs, intending to reduce the supply and demand for illegal drugs. During the 1980s, the United States focused on the Columbian drug cartels who were trafficking cocaine into the United States. Instead of Soviets, Clancy focused on a new enemy in Patriot Games (1987): IRA terrorists. Terrorists also threaten Middle East peace by threatening to use a nuclear bomb in The Sum of All Fears (1991).
Novels, Movies, and Computer Games
Today, Clancy continues to write successful novels as well as nonfiction works. Several of his books have been adapted as popular films, including The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games (1987) , and Clear and Present Danger (1989).
In addition to writing a string of best sellers, Clancy has also created and marketed multimedia computer games, many of which are based on his novels. His newest game release, End War, deals with Russia starting World War III. A new movie, Without Remorse, is set to release in 2008, though it is based on a novel Clancy wrote in 1993. Clancy introduced John Ryan, Jack Ryan’s son, in The Clancy’s novels feature international foes, such as the Soviets and terrorists, who try to overcome superior American military technology and intelligence operations. He is often called the king of techno-thrillers. His use of highly involved technical detail incorporated into complex, suspenseful plots has made him the most successful practitioner of the genre. Clancy adds a new level of military realism and sophistication to the traditional adventure novel. His books take their plots from the most pressing international concerns of our times.
Realistic Fiction and Heroes
In order to create a realistic feel to his novels, Clancy reviews declassified documents and tours vessels and military bases. For someone who is outside the establishment, his accuracy of military-industrial technology is remarkable. Some military officials find his work too close to top-secret reality, revealing too much about classified warfare.
Since the early nineteenth century, spy fiction has been popular, from James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel, The Spy, to the outrageous James Bond novels by Ian Fleming to Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (1980).
Spy novels typically include a hero or government agent who takes extreme action against a rival government. Techno-thrillers use the same structure, however technology is essential to the plot, either creating or ending the conflict. Heroes and villains are easily identifiable.
Clancy uses the techno-thriller structure, using characters from various levels of the military establishment: elite soldiers, crewmen, commanders, generals, espionage operatives, and government officials. Their goals and motives are clearly good or evil, and while later novels feature some ambivalence or introspection in lead characters, most of the moral choices that his characters face are straightforward questions of right and wrong.
In order to draw his characters accurately, Clancy conducts interviews with armed forces personnel. His most notable character is hero Jack Ryan, a sometime CIA agent who epitomizes integrity, bravery, and ingenuity in a changing, high stakes world. Whether he is assigned to resolve a crisis, or stumbles accidently into an international incident and becomes a target for revenge, Ryan is adept at using available technology to achieve his mission.
Works in Critical Context
Appreciation of Clancy’s technological details varies among critics; some find the insider’s glimpse of weaponry and tactics presented with clarity, accuracy, and interest, while others, perhaps more knowledgeable about the technology described, find Clancy’s renderings inaccurate and implausible. Critics are almost unanimous in their negative reaction to Clancy’s skills at characterization, finding them underdeveloped, and the hero Jack Ryan too flawless and unbelievably virtuous. Clancy responded to criticism about Ryan by giving him some vices in later novels, a change some critics found unbelievable.
The Hunt for Red October
Ronald Reagan called The Hunt for Red October ”the perfect yarn.” According to Washington Post Book World critic Reid Beddow, it is ”a tremendously enjoyable and gripping novel of naval derring-do.” The details in the book about military hard ware are hauntingly accurate, and they were based on books and naval documents Clancy studied. He also inter viewed submariners and then made his own educated guesses when writing the book. Because the descriptions of high-tech military hardware are so advanced that former Navy Secretary John Lehman, jokingly stated in Time, that he ”would have had [Clancy] court-martialed: the book revealed much that had been classified about antisubmarine warfare. Of course, nobody for a moment suspected him of getting access to classified information.” Richard Setlowe in the Los Angeles Times Book Review expressed his opinion: At his best, Clancy has a terrific talent for taking the arcana of U.S. and Soviet submarine warfare, the subtleties of sonar and the techno-babble of nuclear power plants and transforming them into taut drama.”
Clear and Present Danger
Clear and Present Danger, written after the fall of the Soviet empire, highlights the South American drug cartels and America’s war on drugs. Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams reviewed the novel in the Wall Street Journal, claiming, ”What helps to make Clear and Present Danger such compelling reading is a fairly sophisticated view of Latin politics combined with Mr. Clancy’s patented, tautly shaped scenes, fleshed out with colorful technical data and tough talk.” Abrams praised Clancy’s treatment of the ethical dilemmas that complicate such covert military operations. Still, some reviewers criticized Clancy’s characterizations and prose, noting his focus on technology. Yet, Evan Thomas noted in Newsweek, It doesn’t really matter if his characters are two dimensional and his machines are too perfect. He whirls them through a half dozen converging subplots until they collide in a satisfyingly slam-bang finale.” Thomas called the book ”Clancy’s best thriller since his first,” and ”a surprisingly successful cautionary tale.”
- Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Garson, Helen S., Tom Clancy: A Critical Companion.
- Clancy, Tom, Martin Harry Greenberg, and Roland J.Green, editors. The Tom Clancy Companion. New York: Berkeley Books, 1992.
- Abrams, Eliot. ”Review of Clear and Present Danger.” Wall Street Journal. (October 22,1984; August 16,1989).
- Balz, Douglas. ”Review of Red Storm Rising.” Chicago Tribune Book World. (September 7, 1986).
- Grigg, William Norman. ”Sum Doesn’t Add Up. New American. (July 1, 2002): pp 28-30.
- ”Eerie Parallels: Clancy Novel Anticipated Kamikaze Attack with a Commercial Airliner.” Barron’s. (September 17, 2001): p. 28.
- Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (December, 1991): p. 73.
- ”Becoming Tom Clancy: Letters from Tom.” Retrieved September 2, 2008, from http://www.geocities. com/everwild7/clancy.html. Last updated on November 12, 2005.
- ”Tom Clancy.” Penguin Putnam Web site Retrieved September 2, 2008, from http://us.penguin group.com/static/html/author/tomclancy.html.
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