Mister Clancy

Another one gone. This one passed me by—I’ve been so submerged with other things that when Tom Clancy died on October 1st I didn’t even notice.

Funnily enough, it was October that started it all: Krazny Oktyabr, to be precise. The Red October was a ficticious Russian nuclear submarine, and Clancy’s first novel was a highly technical account of the defection of the sub to the United States.

It was so detailed that Clancy’s publisher had to cut its size substantially in order to make it a marketable proposition. As is often the case, the first iteration of the book didn’t do that well in sales—the publisher was the highly unlikely U.S. Naval Institute, which had never previously accepted a novel.

When the manuscript was first considered for publication, one of the naval officers conducting the review wrote that it couldn’t be published for reasons of national security, and requested Clancy be questioned about the sources of his information—in other words, the would-be author was essentially accused of espionage.

The book came out in 1984, deep in the cold war. Five years previously, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, a disaster that would have some of the most far-reaching consequences in contemporary history.

The financial and social upheavals in the USSR in the years following the Afghan war eventually led to the collapse of the Soyuz, or union, itself. The CIA support program for the Mujahedin, the Afghan freedom fighters, radicalized a wealthy young Saudi named Bin Laden, indirectly led to the twin towers attack in 2001, and to the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan by the Americans.

Reagan read Krazny Oktyabr, called it the ‘perfect yarn’, and catapulted Tom Clancy into the New York Times bestseller list.

A number of his best stories were written before the internet (I think we should call it BI, it’s such a paradigm shift for humanity), and that wins my admiration—I know how long it took to research both The India Road and Atmos Fear, despite excellent web searching tools, mapping software, and many other resources.

Books like Cardinal of the Kremlin revealed an intimate knowledge of the Soviet Union, based mainly on desk research and interviews—unlike some writers, Clancy was not a traveller. Le Carré, for instance, draws heavily on his years in British Intelligence, and Frederick Forsyth honed his skills at Reuters.

Clancy wrote guy books, right for an America that emerged traumatized from the Vietnam War, the Iran hostage crisis, and a number of other events that saw the U.S. lose a good deal of influence in the 1970s. Among other things, the war in Angola comes to mind.

Perhaps that’s what Reagan liked, a simple world of right and wrong, where the values that define the U.S. are immutable, non-negotiable, sanctioned by heaven itself. When he ran for governor in California during the flower power era, he was extremely unpopular among the hippie community. He fought back Hollywood style: ‘they talk like Tarzan, walk like Jane, and smell like Cheetah.’ Yes, that was before PC.

Of course this intransigence has a mirror image, the Islamic vision of a world that can’t be questioned, a caliphate endorsed by God.

I have a book on pre-order from Clancy, due out in early December, no doubt winking at the  ‘Dad’ market. The more recent productions are variable in quality, but most of all, his books changed to the ‘with’ variety—that means someone else does the majority of the writing, presumably mimicking the main author, a kind of literary tribute band.

I doubt the ‘tribute’ author will now emerge in literary splendor—like James Bond, Jack Ryan is dead.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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