What Tom Clancy got right, and what he got wrong

…In a technical sense, I mean. Inspired by this thread.

As much as I love to rag on Clancy as a writer, he’s done a fair amount of research on many technical aspects of the world’s militaries. I want to list as much as we can about what he got right, and (just for kicks and giggles) what he didn’t.

There was a lot of marketing hoopla around The Hunt For Red October when it first came out, stating that Clancy had correctly researched and guessed enough details, that the government spooks took interest in his activities and “debriefed” him in the Pentagon’s basement. If this story is true, I suspect that the government was more worried about how much information could be obtained about US submarine activity through observation, rather than specific secrets revealed within the book. (I wish I could find a cite for this. You’d think it’d be on Wikipedia. I seem to recall the anecdote was on the back cover of the book, however.)

I think one of his more memorable blunders was his prediction of stealth fighter technology in Red Storm Rising. He apparently based his description of the stealth fighter on the “leaked” information of the fictional F-19 fighter.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, but I’ve only read a handful of his books.

I’ve read a few of his books, and enjoyed them. They’re a bit long for my taste, but when I get into them, I usually finish 'em. Rainbow Six and Clear and Present Danger I think are my last reads. . .

That being said, you gotta take some of his writing with a grain of salt. Not all technology is going to easily fit into a fictional tale–especially ones as complex as his. I’m sure he took some artistic license knowing he was writing a a fictional story, focusing more on the plot, than a technical report focusing more on the machinery.

I got RSR as a book on tape-It’s my favorite. . .

There’s one big mistake in Rainbow Six. They use some sort of electronic people-finder that can locate people through walls and things. I don’t remember if it was a radar, or a passive sensor that was supposed to pick up nerve signals or something. Apparently Clancy had seen a “demonstration” of the device in real life, but it turned out to be a complete hoax.

Sounds like a millimeter-wave sensor, which isn’t a hoax.

It was supposed to pick up the electrical signals given off by a beating heart. Those of us who worked on the game were dubious, but he insisted that it was real so we put it in. Unfortunately it was so popular with the fans of the game that we had to keep it for the sequels even after we knew it was bunk.

At the end of Rainbow Six he had the virus being dispersed at the summer Olympics in water sprayers used to keep the crowds from overheating. However, in the book the Olympics were in Australia, in the southern hemisphere, where it’s cool in the “summer”.

Over dinner one evening I heard him swear up and down that:

  1. The government had absolute proof that psychic powers were real but they kept it secret so our enemies wouldn’t use psychic warfare against us.

  2. Charlton Heston was a fag. His wife had seen him at a party in Manhattan with a pretty black boy on his arm.

In Red Storm Rising, Clancy nailed his prediction that helicopters wouldn’t be very useful in a war, because they’re too vulnerable.

He doesn’t seem to describe incidental details of life in the non-US countries featured in his novels very well. One has to wonder about his research skills - perhaps NHS surgeons really do get a patient anesthetized so that they can go to the pub and have a few pints!

We’ve got nice bread though!

He writes a fair thriller, but I think he takes himself way too seriously.

In The Teeth of the Tiger, Clancy had a special secret anti-terrorist squad as his main plot. One of the repeated ideas Clancy wrote was that they didn’t have to fear legal reprecussions for anything they did because the President who set them up had given them all pre-dated pardons before leaving office.

I thought that was preposterous from a legal standpoint and confirmed it here. A President does not have the power to issue “fill in the blank” pardons nor does he have the power to issue pardons for future crimes. And the team was operating in foreign countries where even a valid American presidential pardon would have no legal weight anyway.

Actually, as I recall, that was based on a real incident. Clancy just changed a minor detail - it happened at a private hospital in the United States not a nationalized hospital in the United Kingdom. Of course, Clancy used this single incident to discredit an entire nation’s health care system, so maybe it wasn’t such a minor detail after all.

As I recall, Red Rabbit had The Transformers on television a year before it was supposed to be on… RR played fast and loose with a bunch more continuity but I can’t think of any more offhand.

The Clancyverse has has way too many presidents for a span of 20 years. We’ve seen at least Reagan, GHW Bush, Fowler, Durling, Ryan and Kealty.

In The Sum of All Fears, a plan to solve Israeli-Palestinian violence comes to fruition and is lauded by the president as being a “final solution.” Oops! (For those who don’t get it, Hitler’s euphemism for wiping out the Jews was “final solution”)

Clancy admits in the SOAF endnote that he deliberately flubbed the science because he didn’t want to provide a how to make your own nuclear bomb guide.

Also in SOAF, the terrorist who discovers the plutonium covers it with a metal toolbox. In DoH, he explains that if plutonium touches metal, it catches fire.

So what did Clancy get right? Turning his name into a trademark for video games and crappy tie-in books, which has made him a rich mofo without his needing to lift a finger…

No man, he just got the country wrong, and just made up some bullshit. I like some Clancy novels, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he just comes across like the total cock he really is. Still, he wears a jaunty un-earned hat!

In “Cardinal of the Kremlin”, he makes a bit of a to-do of describing USS Dallas navigating through the Danish straits into the Baltic. He then immediately has a character identify a freight ship as “Polish - Maersk Line” - Maersk being, of course, one of the few Danish companies known worldwide.

I can’t remember which book it was (I stopped reading him after the Bear and the Dragon) but early on in the book a satellite expert working in Sunnyvale, California has to fly to Washington, DC after he finds out some critical piece of information (using a secure telephone or secure video conference apparently didn’t fit in the plot). Sunnyvale is the home of the Blue Cube, one of the Air Force’s critical satellite control centers up until pretty recently (the Cube’s still there, but apparently the satellite control ops are in Colorado now). So this fellow hops a flight from LAX to get to Washington. Clancy obviously didn’t bother to look up Sunnyvale on a map of California because his character needless drove at least 5 hours out of his way. Sunnyvale is in the Bay Area, not Southern California and is naturally much more convienentally served by airports in San Jose, San Francisco, or Oakland.

Sum of Al Fears starts with a description of the first few days of the Yom Kippur War, with a scene in an IAF airfield. I caught two rather annoying mistakes:

  1. The eager young Skyhawk pilot is described as being 18 yeas old. No way that’s possible - even if he took pre-army training, there’s no way he could have finished flight school in under 2 years, making him at least 20.

  2. Even though the words “mazal tov” mean “good luck”, the phrase means “congratulations”. It’s a rookie error.

…and we won’t even discuss the latest book which is overdue, having vanished off Amazon’s pre-order list like a ghost in the wind…

The quality of Clancy’s work nose-dived after Executive Orders. Coincidentally, this is when he got divorced, so I wonder how much input his wife actually had. Rainbow 6 was just plain bad, and The Bear & the Dragon wasn’t much better. I stopped reading him after that.

I think he ran into a problem that most military thriller authors had, how to deal with a post cold war world. He did OK with that until he had to deal with a post 911 world.

One glaring mistake that I am surprised has not been mentioned. The person Jack saves in Patriot Games is not some generic royal like in the movie, it is the Prince of Wales. In the book he is having difficulty with his marriage to the Princess but they grow closer together by the end of the book. I don’t remember that happening with Charles and Diana.

To my mind the biggest mistake is the general assumption that the technology will work! As with everything else this gets much worse in the later books – the prolonged battles that climax Executive Orders and The Bear and the Dragon are just wonderful. All the American equipment – and plans – work without a hitch. For someone who has apparently spent much time with the military you would have though he would of heard of “friction” in warfare.

The point is he spend time with the military not in the military. Clancy has been a spectator at numerous VIP events where the military brass invites outsiders and trys to present itself in its best light. Actual members of the armed forces would surely have a much more accurate idea of military reality.