From the Archive: Will Tom Clancy be taken seriously in death?

In this article originally written on 2nd September 1994, Sean French wonders why Tom Clancy was hardly ever discussed at all during his lifetime.

When the Berlin Wall came down, various large questions were immediately asked: how will the economic change be managed without bloodshed? What effect will the realignment have on the alliances in western Europe, such as the EC and Nato? And, what are spy thrillers going to be about from now on?

The cultural change has been remarkable. Who remembers ITV's version of Len Deighton's Game, Set and Match trilogy, starring Ian Holm? It was never repeated. Almost the entire excitement of the series concerned Holm's elaborate attempts to cross over into the dark lands beyond the Iron Curtain. It was first broadcast a year or two before the disappearance of the Wall and it seems that the schedulers have decided that audiences would find it difficult to get excited by a journey that is now about as challenging as a walk to the end of Brighton pier.

Writers, and readers, of thrillers have been left with a racial vacuum. Which group is it OK to hate nowadays? In order to discover the answer, I've just been reading the new Tom Clancy novel, Debt of Honour, just published in Britain (by HarperCollins). Clancy's work occupies a curious position in the British literary scene. He is probably the best-selling author of fiction in the world and the new novel is top of the British hardback list. Clancy writes assertively, almost evangelically, ideological novels in which the principal heroes are the CIA and American armed forces, though he has a particularly soft spot for the marine corps. His heroes and heroines are intensely moral men and women who may drink too much occasionally, but do not fornicate. They respect family values, religion and America.

Intensely moral, but not pedantically law abiding. In Clancy's last book, Without Remorse, set during the Vietnam war, a liberal ex-Ivy League political assistant betrays the existence of a covert mission aimed at releasing American POWs held by the Vietcong. The mission is aborted and when its leader discovers the source of the leak, he murders the traitor in cold blood with the evident approval of the author. In the new novel, Jack Ryan (the hero of most of Clancy's books) is the national security advisor to the US President and he authorises a mission to assassinate the Japanese leaders of a plan to illegally destabilise the American economy.

This may sound rather tame, since there are plenty of thrillers in which "our" side uses violent, lawless methods to defeat the enemy. But Clancy writes as an insider. In the mid-1980s the Times Literary Supplement asked famous public figures to choose an unfairly neglected book. Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's hawkish Secretary of State, chose Tom Clancy's first novel, The Hunt for Red October. This novel is about the defection of a Soviet sub at the height of the cold war of the Reagan years. The story was entertainingly filmed, but the movie was unable to retain what made the book so remarkable, which was the extraordinary detail of its portrayal of the American naval procedure. Indeed, having been turned down elsewhere, the book was originally published by a publisher that specialised in technical works of naval strategy. The detail was so authoritative that there was even some talk of prosecution.

Clancy never bothers to describe the appearance of his characters, but he is a master of technical process. How would the government actually go about the process of conceiving and executing an illegal incursion into a South American country in order to attack a drugs baron? In Clear and Present Danger he takes us step by step through the procedure, walking us round the White House and the offices of CIA. (For some unfathomable reason, people who like the Central Intelligence Agency call it CIA, while those who dislike it call it the CIA. Answers on a postcard please.) He tells us who has the authority and how it is delegated, where the troops would come from, how they would be inserted. God knows what his sources are, but it is hardly surprising at all that Cap Weinberger KBE (for his services to Britain during the Falklands Campaign), is currently under indictment for offences during the Iran-Contra affair that are strikingly similar to incidents that occur in more than one of Clancy's novels.

Yet it is fair to say that Tom Clancy remains an uncontroversial figure in the British press for the very simple reason that he is never discussed at all. I have not noticed a single review of the new book, even though it was published during the notoriously slack publication period during August when literary editors desperately cast around for something to review. On the rare occasions when Clancy books have been mentioned, they have been briefly dismissed with contempt.

A couple of years ago Catherine Bennett wrote the article that appears in the highbrow papers every so often in which somebody goes through the bestseller list sneering one by one at the books that are on it. She mocked Clancy's The Sum of All Fears because it had hundreds of pages showing the construction of an atom bomb by a terrorist group. Yet this shows popular, ideological fiction at its most interesting. With his customary authority, Clancy demonstrates how an atom bomb can now be constructed with relatively few resources and for the point to be properly made we have to be shown, not just told. There is also an aesthetic cleverness about the exercise. Chekhov commented on the general artistic point that a revolver that is seen to be loaded in the first act must be fired in the third. As Clancy shows the bomb being loaded, the reader wonders if it will be exploded and rather wickedly hopes that it will in order to see what will happen. Chekhov's dictum is indeed obeyed. The bomb is detonated in Seattle, and, again with his customary thoroughness, Clancy shows us what a partial nuclear explosion (it slightly misfires) would do to a modern city.

A couple of months ago I suggested the idea of a profile of Clancy to the arts editor of a national newspaper and the reaction was rather as if I had proposed an indecent act on live television. We don't really do that sort of thing, he said fastidiously.

Serious analysis is rarely applied to popular fiction, especially when it is applied to work that is ideologically repugnant to the sensibilities of most literary critics. I remember seeing Terry Eagleton on television arguing that Rudyard Kipling was not—could not be—a great writer because of his endorsement of the British Empire. According to this criterion, literary criticism becomes a process of reading works in order to find what you already believe.

Another argument might be that the point of literature is to acquaint yourself with views of the world that are different from your own. Clancy's novels give a direct insight into what Robert Heilbroner has called the "paranoid style of American politics". Apart from other qualities they may have, these books are for anybody who has ever wondered what Nixon thought he was up to when he permitted illegal bombings of a country with whom he wasn't at war, or whether anybody believed the Star Wars programme could work.

What is curious is that while Clancy is a fundamentalist on many political issues and on matters of religion, he can be unpredictable.

 I doubt whether Glorid Steinem is a fan, but by traditional standards, Tom Clancy is a radical feminist. There are no docile women in his fiction. Jack Ryan's wife is a distinguished surgeon. A woman is in charge 01 CIA operations. Women fly planes, shoot missiles, kill on behalf of America, alongside the men. Uncomfortable but true, and revealing perhaps of a huge social change. If Toni Clancy is saying it, then ordinary people must believe it.

By the way, the answer to my earlier question is: the Japanese. According to Michael Crichton's Rising Sun and Clancy's Debt of Honour, it is all right to be as nasty as we like about them. Hmm. Somehow I don't than' our heart will ever be quite in it.

Tom Clancy listens to questions during a discussion June 1, 2004 in Washington, DC. Image: Getty
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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.