I was obliquely introduced to Tom Clancy when I was in high school. At home, the Gulf War, which had only recently begun in earnest, couldn’t be escaped. It seemed to be the only thing anyone talked about, either in person or on the TV. At school, things weren’t much different. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the bulk of my history teacher’s teachings that year somehow related to the war. Whether we were discussing the Cold War or World War II, everything seemed to cycle round to the present state of things. I couldn’t help but focus on how close the Gulf War seemed – like it was happening in our backyard with the all-too constant coverage and conversations. “War” was in vogue.
Clancy’s name came up in that history class one day through a somewhat sarcastic remark uttered by my teacher. “You wanna read about ‘history” and ‘war’?” he derided. “Well steer clear of the news and Tom Clancy! Go and read something by [Studs] Terkel or [Barbara] Tuchman.” I remember writing down all three names, but I was particularly curious about Clancy. I had only heard his name in connection with a new-ish movie called The Hunt for Red October. It was about Russians and submarines, and, apparently, war.
At some point, with notes in hand, I found myself in my local library looking for Clancy in the card catalog. He appeared there with several titles to his name, and thankfully, they had several copies in stock of The Hunt for Red October. I read through the book in almost one sitting. This tale of CIA agent Jack Ryan and a Soviet submarine named “Red October” wasn’t like anything I’d ever read before. Having previously relegated myself to mostly sci-fi and fantasy novels, Red October played out like a game — a game that was steeped in Cold War lore, the Soviets versus the Americans, the hunter versus the hunted. It incorporated elements of history, though it wasn’t about history; nor was it really about “war,” as my teacher had spouted. It was about relationships, both those between countries and individuals. It was about trust and knowledge, and carrying the fine line between them.
It was easy to become immersed in Clancy’s punchy, human, and straightforward style. Neither Jack Ryan nor Red October’s Captain Ramius were infallible; and Clancy never made them seem like anything other than real people dealing with extraordinary (though not supernatural) situations. And though the story was set during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, he never exploited it or made it into a caricature of the times. It simply was. The politics, the intrigue, the history, the sense of international urgency and compliance — he captured it all so well.
After blazing through my borrowed copy of Red October, I decided I needed to form my own library of his works. Starting with the list of his books from the inside cover of The Hunt for Red October, I picked up at least one of his novels every time I hit the bookstore, which occurred as frequently as my allowance allowed. The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Red Storm Rising. And then I waited for his new novels, with which I kept up until Executive Orders. Much to my discredit probably, I wasn’t very interested in his non-Jack Ryan novels, and I eventually stopped following his books. But I didn’t stop following him. Watching his rise to a different kind of game through his immensely popular Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell video games has been something to witness.