Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reading the Jack Ryan Novels

Tom Clancy is widely remembered as the writer Patrick Anderson hailed in the New York Times as the "king of the techno-thriller," but as a reader of that genre I tended to think of him rather as occupying a particular niche within it. He did not offer the techno-wizardry or over-the-top battles of Dale Brown (at its best in Day of the Cheetah and Sky Masters), for instance, or the sleekly dramatized wargame scenarios of the early Larry Bond (the Larry Bond of Red Phoenix, Vortex and Cauldron). What distinguished Clancy was the scale and intricacy of his plotting, the relatively "lived-in" quality of the books, the more grounded approach to the material - which, I suppose, helped make him acceptable to a wider audience that might have found Megafortresses a bit much, and so helped make him this genre's foremost author.

However, that grounded quality was also a limitation as the Cold War passed into history, as it became more difficult to present really plausible big-conflict scenarios, the use of which was what made these books different from other spy fiction or paramilitary action-adventure or political thrillers. Clancy could tell a spy story, and write interesting special forces action (even scaling that up sufficiently to offer a suitable finale in Clear and Present Danger), but in his handling these elements worked best as ingredients in a larger recipe combining them with the global-stakes geopolitical chess, the high technology, the dramatic international stand-offs and grand-scale set-pieces crucial to the more satisfying tales, like The Hunt for Red October or The Cardinal of the Kremlin (or better still, the non-Ryanverse Red Storm Rising) as compared with Patriot Games, for instance.

As the '90s progressed, however, the books became much less The Hunt for Red October, much more Patriot Games, in Without Remorse, in Rainbow Six (while also being less fresh than that early effort). At the same time the premises of books like Executive Orders reflected the greater strain of translating current events into the larger-scale stories formerly rooted in the Cold War. The result was the diminution of the aspects of the books I found most entertaining - which left me with those things I found less engaging, like Clancy's profusiveness with prose (Oliver Stone's remark that "Inside every Tom Clancy novel is a thin Ian Fleming waiting to get out" overstates the issue, but not always by much), like his characters (I'll admit it: I found his good guys rather dull Gary Stus, while even his villains failed to interest me), like his politics (which from the start verged on self-parody, as when this well-known social conservative paused in The Hunt for Red October to denigrate the quality of Soviet sailors' pornography as compared with American stuff, the Soviets not even being good at that). The result was to make me more impatient with them, while they were growing still more prominent, the books getting longer, the stories more character-oriented, and the politics taking such shapes as the long lecture on the flat tax in the middle of Executive Orders.

I still finished Executive Orders looking forward to his next book, but did not complete Rainbow Six, skimmed The Bear and the Dragon (no Red Storm Rising, that), and didn't bother to look at Red Rabbit, having had no interest in seeing him travel back in time to do the Day of the Jackal thing. Still, the difference between Clancy's trajectory at the time differed in degree rather than kind from that of the other authors I'd been reading. They turned to other kinds of stories, or told the same stories less satisfactorily, because of the changing world situation, because like the vast majority of authors working continually in the same genre they got stale and self-indulgent, and few others to take their places. I found a few efforts at the scaled-down stories that retained some plausibility reasonably entertaining - like Edward Herman's Iron Gate, or James Cobb's Amanda Garrett novels - but on the whole the field was in decline, while my interest was at any rate shifting to science fiction not claiming to anticipate the next day's headlines.

My Posts on Spy Fiction
Of Mary Sue and Gary Stu
The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Culture, by Patrick Anderson

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