News & Politics

From the Archives: Clancy’s Game

How Tom Clancy has turned the novel of revenge into earnings of $16 million a year.

This is the way the world ends. 

“Mission briefing: Chinese hard-liners have staged a daring raid on one of the world’s last great untapped oil reserves, setting the stage for a rejuvenated Communist dictatorship. Representing the United States, you command an Improved Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine, the USS Cheyenne. Over 360 feet long and brimming with state-of-the-art electronic warfare systems, she is the finest fast-attack submarine in the world. In addition, you are backed by 133 of the best-trained submariners in any naval fleet.”

Novelist Tom Clancy’s nuclear-tipped CD-ROM war game, “SSN,” from which this call to arms is taken, has fallen into the hands of my nine-year-old son. As a consequence, the end of the world looms. The boy has always had an itchy trigger finger; now he has the means to employ it.

In the last minutes left to us, it may be fitting to meditate on how history could have come to this—and fitting also to retrace the steps that have led Tom Clancy, arguably the most famous resident of Maryland, to great wealth and astonishing popularity as a novelist. According to Forbes magazine, Clancy made $15 million in 1995 and $16 million in 1996.

A recent article in GQ by Peter Bart suggested that super-popular writers like Clancy and John Grisham have such powerful brand names that “no publisher can afford to pay them what they demand. Hence, some publishing veterans believe the authors will end up self-publishing and owning the copyrights.”

Let’s leave Grisham out of this and stick with Clancy. Why is he so popular?

• • •

From the beginning, Tom Clancy has been in love with bells and missiles, his plots brimming with state-of-the-art electronic-warfare systems. His first novel launched the techno-thriller genre.

This was The Hunt for Red October, published in 1984 to the applause of the American public, which made his tale of submarine cat-and-mouse games a remarkable bestseller.

Since then he has written more than a dozen other books, eight of them novels about as popular as the first one. The eight are Red Storm Rising (1986), Patriot Games (1987), The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988), Clear and Present Danger (1989), The Sum of All Fears (1991), Without Remorse (1993), Debt of Honor (1994), and Executive Orders (1996). 

Clancy gives readers plenty of pages to chew on. The thinnest of his novels, The Hunt for Red October, runs to 469 paperback pages and the largest, Debt of Honor, to 990 pages.

It’s not just middlebrow readers who chew on them. Intellectuals do, too, although sometimes with reservations. Perhaps the most interestingly unapologetic case for reading Clancy’s novels was made by a literary critic, Marie Arana-Ward, assistant editor of the Post’s Book World. In a 1993 review of Without Remorse, she wrote: 

“Let’s get one thing straight right off. No one reads Tom Clancy for his style. Not for us the prosey pirouette, the earnest Bildungsroman, the mot juste, the finely limned character, the universal slice of life …. What Clancy manages to deliver to us armchair warriors more often than not—and Without Remorse is no exception—is a different kind of virtuosity: a meticulous chronicle of military hardware, a confident stride through corridors of power, an honest-to-God global war game, and a vertiginous plot that dutifully tracks dozens of seemingly disparate strands to a pyrotechnic finish .”

When a reviewer of Arana-Ward’s sophistication finds such satisfaction in work that strikes you as uninteresting, you may wonder if you’re missing something.

What some readers could be missing in Clancy’s novels, as Arana-Ward herself implies, is style—style defined here as a voice recognizably human. When an author’s voice is human, good things usually follow: plausible, compelling plot; characters with more than one dimension; dialogue that rings true; and an airing of ideas that, however passionate, transcends partisan politics. By this definition, style is the best gauge of a novelist’s value.

None of which is meant to suggest that thrillers can’t be worthwhile—think of those by Graham Greene, John Le Carre, and Charles McCarry, whose voices are so hypnotic that a single exposure can put a spell on the reader’s memory forever.

Lacking human voice, Clancy’s kind of thriller is just another reminder that you can write about serious subjects—nuclear war, international terrorism, drug cartels—without qualifying as a serious novelist.

To his credit, Clancy has shrugged off such criticism; he calls himself an entertainer. That’s fair.

• • •

What clues to his popularity does Clancy’s language yield? No reader who brings the cargo of skepticism that I do to the examination of Clancy’s novels would be likely to read all 6,480 pages of the ones mentioned. A narrowing was called for. I didn’t think it sporting to go looking for phrases or passages that would make Clancy look bad- a wickedly out-of-context selection can make any author look bad—so I settled on a nine-novel sampling keyed to a simple progression.

The first specimen quoted is the first sentence in the first chapter of the first novel, the second specimen is the second sentence in the second chapter of the second novel, and so on. Only full sentences are cited, none of the heading lines the author frequently uses. The sentences are out of context, of course, but not by wicked design. Here they are:

The Hunt for Red October: “Captain First Rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy was dressed for the Arctic conditions normal to the Northern Fleet submarine base at Polyarnyy.”

Red Storm Rising: “The fire was detected by American ‘National Technical Means,’ a term that generally denotes reconnaissance satellites operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Patriot Games: “Six hundred miles away, a Sabena flight was landing outside of Cork.”

The Cardinal of the Kremlin: ” ‘What about specific technical information?’ “

Clear and Present Danger: “He turned his head left and right, inspecting his environment in the orange twilight that came through the uncurtained windows.”

The Sum of All Fears: “It was slightly more complicated than that, of course.”

Without Remorse: “She still had her demons.”

Debt of Honor: “The truck in the background was largely intact, though its bumper was clearly distorted.”

Executive Orders: “That made Ryan both easy and impossible for the Russian to analyze.”

What can be said about the foregoing? Chiefly this: The language is undeniably English, uninspired but clear, and it sometimes veers toward technical-manual usage. For many American readers, this approach is a point in Clancy’s favor. Such readers tend to like facts, figures, and decisiveness. They are unhappy when presented with stones unturned. They are very unhappy when presented with ambiguity, except when it is confronted by Clancy characters, who can be counted on to deal with it unambiguously.

• • •

What clues to Clancy’s popularity can be found in his plots?

The Hunt for Red October: A Soviet nuclear submarine trying to defect to the United States must outmaneuver friend and foe in the depths of the Atlantic. The possibility of a world war is rarely out of mind. With the help of CIA analyst and former Marine officer Jack Ryan, the Soviet sub cruises to freedom.

Red Storm Rising: A world war has been triggered by Moslem extremists who cripple USSR oil supplies. Soviet troops invade Western Europe, and the battle is joined on land, at sea, and in the air. We win.

Patriot Games: Private citizen Jack Ryan, vacationing in London, foils an IRA assassination plot against the royals, is wounded in the process and knighted for bravery, and then returns to the States, where he is recruited back into the CIA and has to battle the long arm of the IRA on his turf. He wins.

The Cardinal of the Kremlin: The United States and USSR race to develop Star Wars technology against a global background. Jack Ryan is in there pitching for America, and so is the “cardinal” of the title, an American mole. A world war is averted. Everybody wins.

Clear and Present Danger: The White House, sick and tired of drug use here, launches an illegal shooting war on drug lords in Colombia, but our troops start catching hell down there. CIA ace Jack Ryan puts things right at home and abroad.

The Sum of All Fears: Now deputy director of the CIA, Jack Ryan organizes a Middle East peace conference, which Arab heavies want to unorganize with a nuclear surprise. There’s a lot of capital-hopping in this one. Ryan hops last and hops best.

Without Remorse: A grateful nation lets Ryan sit this one out. John Kelly, a former Navy SEAL, is waging a private war on drug traffickers at home when his government recruits him for a secret mission in Vietnam. Kelly kicks butt here and abroad.

Debt of Honor: Mushroom clouds threaten again, so Ryan is back—as White House national security adviser—and ready to rumble. So are the Japanese, who sabotage America financially and threaten to toast us with nuclear weapons. Ryan’s reaction is so brilliant that he is catapulted into the vice presidency. Even higher office is forthcoming after a Japanese hardliner, piloting a Boeing 747, uses his plane as a dart and the Capitol as a dartboard, killing the president, among many other government officials. Ryan thus completes the most remarkable 12-year grade ascent in history.

Executive Orders: As rookie President Jack Ryan tries to put the country back together, sinister forces abroad lick their chops. Among them are expansion-minded Iranians who want to force the Ebola virus down our throats. Fat chance.

• • •

Sure, some of the plots seem a little far-fetched, particularly when summarized with comic intent. Far-fetched plotting or no, even the most unsympathetic reader has to concede that Clancy grapples with subjects full of dark dread for Americans.

Probably the central reason Clancy succeeds so well with so many readers is that he offers resolutions to problems apparently intractable outside the pages of his books. His heroes have become nothing Jess than national instruments of retribution for Americans so frustrated by what bad people get away with in real life that they’re in a mood for rough justice in their reading matter. Clancy, the king of revenge, provides that and the bonus of an insider’s view of high-tech weaponry. 

As Mickey Spillane, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood did before him, he puts a firm, reassuring hand on your shoulder, looks you in the eye, and says, “Got a problem? Let me take care of it.”

The next sound you hear is the lingering scream of some thug or drug lord or villainous foreigner hurled into the abyss. How’s the weather down there, you swine?

At least to this point Clancy has left the really spooky stuff—lawyers and supernatural terrors—to John Grisham and Stephen King, but he has gone right to the gut of most other national anxieties. Okay, he hasn’t done the space number yet, hasn’t given us 900 pages of asteroids being launched at Washington by a democracy-hating race on Pluto. But all he needs is the time to do the research and devise appropriately high-tech defensive measures.

Meanwhile, he’s dreaming up war games.

Maybe CD-ROM electronic war games have been Tom Clancy’s destiny all along, as this passage from a 1986 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt review in the New York Times suggests:

” . . . Red Storm Rising at its best is the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game. If only it could be projected on a cathode-ray tube and read by scrolling its pages with a button or a joystick. Or maybe it could even be animated somehow.” 

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, meet Tom Clancy’s “SSN.”

• • •

We’re about out of time now, folks. 

The end the world is at hand.

“This is not a drill! The missions you encounter during the game lead you through realistic scenarios which could be taken from tomorrow’s headlines. Many of the threats you face are real; some threats are hypothetical. All of them are dangerous. To succeed at SSN, you must Jearn to think like a submarine commander.”

The periscope is up, son. It’s your show now.
This article appears in the January 1997 issue of The Washingtonian.