Note: This is the article I wrote for the Encyclopedia of American Popular Fiction. Clancy was one of the most influential writers on my bookshelf and, on his passing, I wanted to share my thoughts.
Insurance-broker-turned-novelist Tom Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October, became a best-seller in 1984 after President Reagan praised it publicly. Similar to the stir created when President Kennedy announced his fondness for Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, the Clancy “franchise” was launched with a Presidential impetus. Although often referred to as the father of the techno-thriller, Clancy himself awards that title to Michael Crichton of The Andromeda Strain, while also suggesting that the genre is faux and ought to be considered part of fiction as a whole.
The core of the Clancy phenomenon is the series of books featuring Red October’s lead character, Dr. Jack Ryan, following his rise from CIA analyst to President of the United States. The “Ryanverse” is a window into the political and military milieu of the Cold War 1980s to the post-9/11 present and near future. The order of release (and writing) of the Ryan books does not track in a perfect line through the Clancy bibliography but it is the trunk from which the branches grew.
Viewing the Ryan books as a series, The Hunt for Red October (1984), introduced readers the character through his involvement in the defection of a Soviet nuclear submarine. Next came Patriot Games (1987), in which Ryan was embroiled in conflict with the Irish Republican Army. In 1988’s The Cardinal of Kremlin, Ryan is instrumental in defections from the highest level of the Soviet KGB. In something of a pastiche of the Iran-Contra scandal, Clear and Present Danger (1989) saw Ryan rise to Deputy Director in the CIA and interact with the White House, presaging a wider role for Ryan in the books to come. The Sum of All Fears (1991) placed Ryan in the aftermath of nuclear terrorism at the Super Bowl and an attempt to avert a misdirected U.S. nuclear strike against Iran. In Debt of Honor (1994), Ryan became National Security Adviser as an economic war with Japan turns into a shooting war and, in an explosive climax that foreshadowed 9/11, Ryan went from Vice-President to President in a moment’s time. Assuming the Presidency in 1996’s Executive Orders, Ryan dealt with a united Iran and Iraq who together launched biological terrorism against the United States Domestically, Ryan also had to deal with a Constitutional controversy over the legitimacy of his Presidency, somewhat foreshadowing the 2000 UD election. President Ryan was next the central character in The Bear and the Dragon (2000) in which the U.S. acted as an ally to the Russian Federation to avert a war with China over newly-discovered oil and gold in Russia. Ryan “next” appeared in a flashback adventure, Red Rabbit (2001), a tale of Ryan in 1981 woven into the real-life assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. The Ryan universe continued in The Teeth of the Tiger (2003) in which the now-grown Jack Ryan, Jr., began his career in post 9/11 counter-terrorism.
Throughout this series, and its spinoffs, Clancy maintains a coherent worldview that there is right and wrong in the world and the United States should always act in the right. Ryan serves as the moral compass for the series, providing the “everyman” view into the messy world of geopolitics, much as earlier generations looked through Jimmy Stewart’s eyes in the movies. Jack Ryan has been portrayed in four film adaptations, The Hunt for Red October in 1990 with Alec Baldwin, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), both with Harrison Ford, and The Sum of All Fears (2002) with Ben Affleck. “Adaptation” might be too free a use of the word with respect to the last film which removed the Middle Eastern angle completely from the story. However, as Clancy stated in a C-SPAN interview, he merely sells the licenses.
A second tier of novels featured John Clark, a supporting character in several of the Ryan books. With smaller roles in Patriot Games and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Clark became a featured character in Clear and Present Danger. In that book, it was Clark who ran the counter-drug special operations force in Colombia and became closely allied with Ryan. By Sum of All Fears, Clark was in charge of Ryan’s close protection detail which included Ding Chavez, a member of the Columbian special ops team from Clear and Present Danger. In Debt of Honor, Clark and Chavez were conducting an operation in Somalia. Clark’s character was featured in Without Remorse (1993), which tells the story of his life as John Kelly, before his CIA recruitment. A former Navy SEAL, he took vigilante action against the drug gang that killed his fiancée’, which put him in conflict with Baltimore Detective Lt. William Ryan, Jack’s father. Faking his own death, Kelly was reborn as Clark in the CIA. In Rainbow Six (1998), Clark and Chavez were sent to England to start a multinational counterterrorism unit that Clark lead to foil a biological attack on the Sydney Olympics.
One novel, Clancy’s second, Red Storm Rising (1986), was a tale of a conventional, non-nuclear war between the US and USSR. Co-plotted with Larry Bond (who would become a successful military thriller writer in his own right), the book gave a preview of stealth aircraft in a warfighting role. It also lent its name to the video game and electronic entertainment company, Red Storm Entertainment, which produces the Clancy computer and console games.
The practice of working with a collaborator has led to additional successful series for Clancy. With Steve Pieczenik, he co-created Tom Clancy’s Op Center (1995), first in a series of novels set in its own universe. Op Center is the US crisis operations center, headed by Paul Hood and it was made into a television mini-series (re-released in a shorter movie version) starring Harry Hamlin in 1995. In addition to the Op Center series, Clancy and Pieczenik co-created Tom Clancy’s Net Force (1999), set in 2010. Net Force is a special unit within the FBI tasked with cybercrime and part of the Net Force adventures take place in virtual reality. Net Force also jumped to the small screen that same year in a mini-series starring Scott Bakula as director Alex Michaels. Both series had successful paperback runs and Net Force also spun off a version for younger readers featuring the teen “Net Force Explorers.”
Another co-created series was Tom Clancy’s Power Plays, partnered with Martin Greenberg. In this case, the plots were based more in global economics and politics. An interesting case of media convergence was presented by the first book in the series, Politika (1997) as this was a novel based on the precursor computer strategy game. Politika also spawned, and was packaged with, a board game, as well. The Power Plays series also had a successful paperback run with several episodes.
The gaming connection is strong with Clancy’s materials, as would be expected with combat and strategy games become a popular genre. Rainbow Six inspired a whole series of PC and console games featuring squad level counter-terrorist operations. Termed “first-person shooters,” this style of game allows the player to operate as one of the characters and some of the Rainbow Six characters, like Ding Chavez, made the transition to the games. The base game spawned numerous sequels and add-ons. A new game franchise, Splinter Cell, features near future counterterrorist Sam Fisher and it has spawned several sequel games and a novel, as well. However, the first Splinter Cell (2004) novel is only “created by Tom Clancy” but written by David Michaels. This marks a transition for Clancy into being even more of a “brand name” than ever before. Previous ghostwriters for the other paperback series, such as Net Force, were acknowledged but not officially credited.
Clancy’s success in military fiction has given him remarkable entrée into the real-life military-industrial complex. He has written a series of non-fiction “guided tour” books, such as Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing (1995), that have the look of his novels but are instead highly detailed profiles of military units and equipment. In addition to those efforts, he has also co-authored several military non-fiction books with notable commanders, such as Every Man a Tiger (1999) with General Chuck Horner, USAF (ret.), who was the US and coalition air commander for Operation Desert Storm.
Other than his failed attempt to purchase the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in 1998, Clancy’s ability to turn geopolitics and military matters into thrilling fiction has given him remarkable business success. A native of Baltimore, he continues to reside in the Maryland area featured so prominently in his books.
Clancy, Tom. Debt of Honor. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1994.
— Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing. New York: Berkeley. 1995.
— The Hunt for Red October. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 1984.
— Rainbow Six. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1998.
Clancy, Tom, and Greenberg, Martin. Tom Clancy’s Power Plays: Politika. New York: Berkeley. 1997.
Clancy, Tom, and Horner, Chuck. Every Man a Tiger. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1999.
Clancy, Tom, and Pieczenik, Steve. Tom Clancy’s Net Force. New York: Berkeley. 1999.
— Tom Clancy’s Net Force: The Deadliest Game. New York: Berkeley. 1999.
— Tom Clancy’s Op-Center. New York: Berkeley. 1995.
Greenberg, Martin, ed. The Tom Clancy Companion, revised edition. New York: Berkeley. 2002.
“In depth with Tom Clancy.” C-SPAN, Feb. 23, 2002.
Michaels, David. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. New York: Berkeley. 2004.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. Morrisville, NC: Red Storm Entertainment. 1996.
Citation for the article:
Thomas, R. C. (2009). Tom Clancy. In Encyclopedia of American popular fiction. (pp. 62-64). New York: Facts on File.