Today, Tom Clancy died in a Baltimore hospital, age 66. I can’t say that I have been a huge fan of his work in the last decade. But Clancy was formative for my youth, I can’t deny it. I fell in love with his style and his universe, but at some point, the love died, and we departed. I haven’t touched one of his products again, save for a failed attempt of a friend to bring me in on the Ghost-Recon-games.
I think I first read a book of his age 14, perhaps 15. It was „Red Storm Rising“. A curious choice perhaps, not being a Jack Ryan novel, but a friend picked it up, liked it and lent it to me. At that age, the idea of NATO and the Warsaw pact trying each other on the battlefield without nuclear weapons has a clear appeal to someone who builds models of various military equipment and has a collection of little plastic soldiers that would make a coup in Woody’s little toy realm a perfectly possible option.
The book is, of course, not exactly „realistic“ in that any of the events playing out are likely. The sense for military detail and the very interesting narrative, compared with a clear grip on suspense, make up for the lackluster coherence of events in any case. From that on, I read one Clancy novel after the other. The classics, like „Hunt for Red October“ or „Clear and Present Danger“, as well as the (then) newer ones like „The Sum of all Fears“ and „Debt of Honor“. I was totally captivated by the strong military shows, and I cried out in joy when the American military stuck it to the bad guys again.
I think my first time I wasn’t satisfied with his work was „Rainbox Six“. Being a video game nerd in the 90s, the close connection between the (serious) world of literature and the (then not serious) world of video games was intriguing, and Clancy’s sense for the possibilities of the young medium has to be applauded. He excelled in combining his franchises with the market. But the novel „Rainbow Six“ was simply boring, ending in an uninspired fire-fight because there had to be one. And the characters – well, calling them cardboard would insult real cardboard. I also didn’t like his other series, like Op-Center and Netforce. They lacked Jack Ryan.
So, I was perfectly content with the Jack Ryan series and read them until the early 2000s. Then, somehow, they lost their savor. Up until we moved two months past, I had an untouched copy of „The Bear and the Dragon“ on my shelf. I bought it in 2002, but never read it. At that time, other stuff had begun to interest me – fantasy (not that I haven’t read any stupid fantasy novels, loads of them). And so, Jack Ryan and the American military took a backseat. I promised myself to return to them soon, but never quite got around to it, and as I grew older, I stopped making that promise to me. Clancy’s books stood in my shelf as memento, not to be read anymore.
A reason for this is that I came to dislike Clancy’s simplistic black-and-white-worldview, but the main reason is that I became political. Like many Germans, I developed an anti-American attitude (which I grew out eventually, but I kept it around quite a while). Tom Clancy, however, doesn’t really fit if you hope for a victory of the socialist and the dismanteling of NATO. As that reason faded in the background, the first one became more prevelant. Against complex worlds like Martin’s „A Song of Ice and Fire“, clouded in grey, Clancy’s black-and-white stood no chance.
But in the time I read it, it had meant the world for me. I recreated scenarios like the ones Clancy presented, debated them with friends and made assumptations about who would win in a war on Clancy’s terms. It was escapism, but I find it a bit unsettling today. Clancy’s military fetishism is not something I connect to anymore. In his field, however, he was the best. The Epigoni he inspired cannot live up to the standard he set. He will be missed.