Tom Clancy and paradigm shifts

Tom Clancy is one of the few authors I discovered as they were getting started. My older brother and I were both into military history at the time, and he had even sketched out an idea for a military thriller that turned out to have been written already (“Firefox”, if you’re curious). If I remember correctly, my brother had a scout leader who shared/encouraged his interest, and I believe we found out about “The Hunt For Red October” from him.

I was fourteen, and I was blown away. If ever a book had “teenage military geek” written all over it, this was it. But that was not the reason I still respect Tom Clancy today. That would come in the fourth book he published, “The Cardinal of the Kremlin.” This was a book with incredibly depth, and while it was rife with conflict and tension, there were practically no “bad guys”. As easy as it would have been for Clancy to cast the Russians as evil, he took the time to explain Russian history and the Russian psyche. Yes, these characters were opposed to the American characters, but not from any evil intentions, but for the exact same reason as the Americans: love of country. It caused a significant, tectonic shift in my worldview. I was cheering for Americans and Russians alike.

I’ve tried to remember that lesson ever since, with varying degrees of success. There are always reasons beyond the surface for why people do what they do or believe what they believe. More often than not people are who they are for a reason, and even if you dislike that result, you can understand how they got there.

I also gained from Clancy my love of the every-man hero. Jack Ryan, in the beginning at least, was just a decent guy doing a job he loved and was good at, but was typically not considered a heroic job. Analysts only get screen-time if they’re helping out the hero. But Jack Ryan did his job well, and as a result found himself thrust into events beyond his control, and in which his only choice was to see it through as best he could or let things fall apart. Jack Ryan always chose to see things through. Unfortunately, to me at least, this resulted in Ryan being promoted up the chain far too quickly. Yes, it was cool watching a good man become President of the United States. But once he got there he became significantly less interesting–and became a vehicle for Clancy’s wish fulfillment.

To his credit, Clancy chose not to infect Ryan with “Captain Kirk Syndrome” and have him out front protecting the grunts, and instead gave us a secondary cast of interesting people whose job it was to do those interesting jobs. But we no longer got to watch Jack Ryan being the fun version of himself. I stopped reading Clancy not long after Ryan became president. Something was missing after that. Perhaps he got it back and I just didn’t take time to find out. But regardless of my interest, he never lost sight of what he was doing:

”Literature means a hundred years after you’re dead they make kids read you in high school,” he told The New York Times in 1988. ”I’m in the entertainment business, like John D. MacDonald, Jack Higgins and Freddie Forsyth. Our mission is to take people away from driving trucks or fixing toilets or whatever they do, away from their drudgery. That’s a good enough purpose for any man.”

I have to give credit where credit is due. Though I love to write fantasy and sci-fi, my love of writing likely comes as much from Clancy as from Card, Tolkien, or Bradbury. He knew how to tell a story, and I absorbed a lot from him.

His death yesterday at 66 (Dang! That made him younger than me when he was first published!) is an unfortunate loss. I believe the world is a better place for his having written, and hence, lived in it.

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5 Responses to Tom Clancy and paradigm shifts

  1. I stopped after Cardinal. I think that more than him losing his edge, your tastes just grew a bit in a different direction.

  2. Dan Stratton says:

    Your memory is a little off. I picked up “Red October” on my way home from Japan.

  3. You know I kind of see him as the father of modern FPS games. He started the company that has made the Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Splinter Cell games. You can see their influences in many modern FPS titles.

  4. It was a natural pairing that I’ surprised more military/action/suspense writers don’t consider.

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