Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tom Clancy

It appears that Tom Clancy is dead at the age of 66.

Most people know the name through all sorts of different media--he's plastered all over video games, movies, and the like--but of course his claim to fame is his books. He churned out a remarkable number of books and his works were well-known as being remarkably accurate about military history.

Of course, most of his famous books were flagships of the Reagan-era Cold War. Whether it's Russian subs vs. the US or the CIA vs. KGB, his fiction was realistic enough that you knew who was going to win, but the United States wasn't always white and the Ruskies always black. The global struggle of the Cold War was dirty and questionable and Clancy made no apologizes that the US didn't always keep their hands clean. And yet it was always clear who, in the end, was always right. I was actually assigned Clear and Present Danger in a college course since its depiction of CIA missions was incredibly realistic.

As the Cold War ended, his works lingered on into the post-Soviet world, full of Russian gangsters, rogue nukes, and Chechan rebels. Finally, as the world spun from communist standoffs to the war on terror, a new enemy became the focus of his works. The military details were not much different even if the accents were.


For me, personally, three things stick out. The Hunt For Red October was a book I owned for a long time before reading it. Having read Clear and Present Danger, I like it, but a little bit of Clancy went a long way. Still, when I actually sat down to read it, I was amazed. Near the end of the book there is a submarine chase; you would think that a sub chase would be boring, and especially if it's written and not seen, but you would be wrong. It was a very satisfying and exciting moment in the book, and is Exhibit A as to how books can be just as good, if not better, than the movies--even action films.

The second thing was his Op-Center series. Now, these were licensed by, not written by, Clancy, but I found them to be decent quality; enough that I read about 6-8 books in the series. They were light on the technical details but they did a reasonably good job of fictionalizing real global threats of its time period. I suspect they might be a little dated, but I ripped through those books quickly.

Finally, Clancy was a wargamer (as I was, back in the day) and designed a board game called Politika (which, of course, has an accompanied book). While the game itself was a little dated and unbalanced, the concept (who controls Russia after the fall of communism) combined with a decent amount of strategy made it a pretty good game. It was one of the first times I found that my love of board games and fiction could easily be combined.

Clancy wasn't perfect, of course. Many of his works--especially the early ones--were overly technical in their military details, and many chapters seemed to be nothing more than Clancy showing off that he knows the engineering specs of mid-70's Soviet tanks. His name was licensed out to all sorts of fiction of varying quality, so just having his name on something doesn't necessarily mean that it's good. And while he was known for his realism, he didn't shy away from sacrificing it for the sake of good fiction.

I can't vouch for the quality of his more recent work; while I think he did a good job of melding popular fiction with important history and accurate information, it does seem to be repetitive after a while. The introduction of the war on terror, I'm sure, mixed things up quite a bit, so it may be worth pursuing. Still, even if you're not interested in those pesky Reds or tank specifications or what would happen if Kurdistan became a thing, it's worth reading at least one of his original books. Clancy defined the 1980's action novel for a reason.

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