My student Pascal Lemaire is working on a PhD dissertation on the genre of the technothriller and I have asked him for a list of recommended novels, since I am far more familiar with the movies. Technothrillers, as Pascal is discovering, are a conundrum as a genre because although they have millions of readers worldwide, they have not generated a specialised fandom as practically all other popular genres. Although they are technically science fiction, since their plots hinge on the impact of advanced technology, not even the fandom in SF circles acknowledges technothrillers as a relevant (sub-)genre. I assume they have a bad reputation tied to their military background and to the macho image of the heroes, but, then, the genre of the romance used to be frowned upon too and is now fully integrated into academic study. We’ll see whether Pascal’s dissertation can accomplish a similar feat. One thing I know is that if someone can do it, that’s Pascal, who has read an insane amount of technothrillers, despite not agreeing at all with the genre’s mostly right-wing leanings.
Leaving Michael Crichton aside, a writer on whom I was planning to write a volume until I came across some truly unbearable misogynistic stuff in Prey, I am not a reader of technothrillers. Being, however, a great fan of John McTiernan’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, I decided to begin with this novel. Clancy (1947-2013), a BA graduate in English Studies from Loyola College, in Maryland, tried to enlist in the US Navy but his poor eyesight caused him to follow instead a career in insurance; this was successful enough for him to use his spare time to write his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, published in 1984, the start of an amazing publishing empire. Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan, present in a variety of novels, films, and now a new Amazon series, deserves indeed a study of his own as a major male US character. A matter that has made Pascal suspect there is something politically dubious in the success of The Hunt for Red October is that it was published by the Naval Institute Press, which had never published fiction before in its 86 years of existence, and famously endorsed by President Ronald Reagan as “my kind of yarn”. This is a novel that may have been born as pure propaganda in the context of a still raging Cold War even though Clancy knew how to extend his success into the post-Cold War 21st century and beyond the grave.
As it happens, I had already started reading Red October when I came across Boris Gindin and David Hagberg’s Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired the Hunt for Red October (Forge Books, 2008). Gindin was the Chief Engineer and a Senior Lieutenant on board the Soviet anti-submarine frigate Storozhevoy when in 1975 her political commissar and Third-Rank Captain Valery Sablin, decided to mutiny in order to expose the rampant corruption of Leonid Brezhnev’s Politburo. As Gindin and Hagberg narrate, the idealistic Sablin candidly believed that the Storozhevoy could be a new Potemkin and start a true workers’ revolution in the spirit of true communism. Sablin never intended to defect but his attempts to engage his own crew and other ships in revolution failed miserably. Brezhnev ordered the Navy and the Army to sink the ship, but when, instead, the frigate was halted by the attacks, all the crew were arrested. Only Sablin and his second-in-command, Alexander Shein, were tried and convicted. Sablin was executed in 1976, Shein served eight years in prison. Appalled because the whole crew were treated as mutineers and dishonourably discharged from the Soviet Navy, Gindin eventually moved to the USA.
In 1982 Gregory D. Young, a naval historian, obtained an MS in National Security Affairs from Naval Postgraduate School with a thesis titled Mutiny on Storozhevoy: A Case Study of Dissent in the Soviet Navy, which was read by Tom Clancy in the Nimitz Library of the United States Naval Academy. Clancy took inspiration from it to write Red October, transforming the frigate into a cutting-edge nuclear submarine and Sablin into Captain Marko Aleksandrovich Ramius, a man who decides to defect and hand the submarine over to the USA disgusted by the medical corruption that caused his wife’s untimely death. Clancy also introduced Jack Ryan, a naval historian and CIA analyst, who here becomes the link between the US Government and Ramius at a crucial time. In 2005 Young, together with fellow naval historian Nate Braden, published The Last Sentry: The True Story that Inspired The Hunt For Red October (also with the Naval Institute Press), a volume which came out three years before Gindin and Hagberg’s first-hand account of the same facts. We have, thus, a set of true events (Sablin’s mutiny) examined from different angles, in scholarly work, in fiction, and in a memoir, with Young’s MA dissertation as the original transposition of the real-life crisis into a written narrative.
I have not read Young’s dissertation or book and I cannot say whether he is a good writer, but I can say that Clancy did plenty of research to write Red October, to an obsessive extent. I am used to reading science fiction in which plenty of new technology is introduced, but even so I was overwhelmed by the constant barrage of acronyms corresponding to weapons, naval technology, diverse Government agencies, positions within them and so on. Having read with great pleasure Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, set in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, I am no stranger either to the use of abstruse naval terminology. The problem with Red October is that Clancy gets lost in it, turning a wonderfully exciting yarn turn into a rather boring account about how the inevitable happens. Perhaps this is the problem beyond the paper-thin characterization of the whole cast of characters: that in comparison to McTiernan’s film, where the action needs not stop to describe a weapon because we see it, Clancy’s Red October is not that thrilling, putting the stress instead on the ‘techno’ part of technothriller. In both cases, novel and movie, the outcome is predictable, but McTiernan emphasizes a sense of true danger that gets diluted in Clancy’s overlong novel.
The irony is that, despite Clancy’s efforts to be as informative as he can about the Soviet Navy, Gindin’s testimonial is far more interesting, even though his memoir needs a detailed final section that explains what happened to Sablin and his crew. A famous quote attributed to Clancy claims that the difference between fiction and reality is that “Fiction has to make sense”. However, plausibility is not the only crucial factor since in this case Sablin’s mutiny, foolish as it was, makes perfect sense. Leaving aside the fact that Gindin’s and Hagberg’s narrative is based on true facts and Clancy’s story about Ramius is false, what interests me is how his efforts to incorporate into his novel a non-fictional veneer fail. Of course, this is a relative failure since Red October has interested millions of readers and Gindin’s memoirs only a handful. What I mean is that, as Gindin’s text indirectly highlights, Red October lacks depth both in its human and its narrative element, leaving the technology and the nomenclature to take up too much room. These are accurate (there was a point when I was reading Red October and thought I was still reading Gindin) but whereas Gindin’s memoirs offer an insight into what it was like to a be a victim of the dictatorial Soviet regime, Ramius is never as convincing in this role.
At the same time, as I read Red October, I understood that there is no room for a more nuanced characterization in a technothriller. I don’t recall the details of any of the Jack Ryan films I have seen, but I was nicely surprised by his being presented by Clancy as a caring family man who very much admires his wife’s job as an eye surgeon (also the occupation of Clancy’s own wife). The problem is that in the middle of a crisis that demands plenty of action, there is no room for Clancy to have his all-male cast of characters find time for personal interaction or psychological introspection. In fact, I even hesitate to call Ryan the hero of the novel, as I lost count of how many male characters intervene. I ended up accepting as absolutely realistic, then, that in a situation of crisis this is how men behave: they may meet and converse but this is only in order to make decisions on which to base their actions. I don’t think that a mixed cast of characters or an all-women cast should act differently, though, of course, there has been so far no political or military crisis with women leading at least one side (Amazons excluded and, most likely, some SF). The problem, I insist, which makes Clancy’s fiction less rewarding than the non-fiction about similar events is how he overdoes the technological jargon. At the same time, I had to smile several times at the sense of wonder inspired by new 1980s digital technology which is now totally obsolete. SF has the advantage that speed of light spaceships and laser sabres are so absurd nobody needs to question their appeal. Possibly, a proficient reader of technothrillers like my student Pascal might tell me that Red October was just Clancy’s first novel and he did manage to publish better work, or that there are better authors in the genre.
The function of the technothriller, let me emphasize this, is not just to entertain but to warn about how a given military-political situation could quickly degenerate into, citing one of Clancy’s titles, clear and present danger. In the novels that danger tends to be thwarted (though not always), but the whole point of the technothriller is to get readers prepared for an eventuality of a large geopolitical scope. This is the kind of genre that dwarves the personal crises of which mainstream fiction consists into trivia – who cares about the fate of a romance between two young persons or the musings of a middle-aged person facing their mortality in comparison to all-out nuclear war or a planet-changing event, like the return of the dinosaurs thanks to genetic engineering? In fact, I challenge the living Nobel prize winners to tell a story of that kind and give it human depth.
I do not intend this post, in any case, to be yet another piece decrying the lack of talent of Mr. Clancy as a writer. By no means. His immense sales show that he did have a great talent for the kind of novel he chose to write and that so many readers appreciate. My complaint is different: I find Red October less fulfilling as a thriller than I expected, and I have been very much surprised to find Gindin’s memoirs more thrilling. This is a matter of narrative technique, and not just an impression due to the awareness that Gindin’s tale is true (it does sound true but he might be lying). As a reader who loves learning from books, I have learned plenty from Gindin and from Clancy, but the problem is that in Clancy’s case the truly relevant information was almost buried by a mass of irrelevant detail that can certainly please naval historians and military afficionados but not so much readers interested in the dangers involved in challenging the Soviet regime. Non-fiction trumps fiction in this particular case and for this particular reader.
Now I would like to know how Clancy managed to convince the Naval Institute Press to publish Red October and whether, as Pascal suspects, this was, after all, a blatant piece of anti-Soviet, pro-USA propaganda beyond what any reader can see, designed by the top US institutions with Clancy’s help.