The technological terrors of Tom Clancy

The technological terrors of Tom Clancy

Summary: The master of the modern techno-thriller has died at age 66.


On hearing of Tom Clancy's passing yesterday, I felt immediate loss. As if an old mentor had died.


There have been other prominent authors who have died in recent years that have had tremendous influence on my decision to pursue a career as a technologist and to adopt a futurist perspective on the industry.

I wrote about Arthur C. Clarke's passing in 2008, shortly after I began writing for ZDNet. 

Clarke, along with Asimov, Heinlein and other "Grand Masters" of Science Fiction were the opiates of my youth — they provided endless fodder for dreams of far-off futures with exotic technologies and worlds beyond imagination.

I spent many hours with all of them as a child, secluding myself between the stacks of the Great Neck Public Library during the school year, or in my bunk bed at summer camp when I would inevitably receive a "care package" from my parents or grandparents with a few paperbacks along with the usual candy and junk food.

While I continued to enjoy their books into adulthood, the material was never fresh — I always knew there was a limited supply of content. There would never be much more to come from these aging writers, particularly in the case of those who died many years earlier and there was a hard stop on where their stories would end.

They were written in years past, and much of the best of them were published in an age where I was yet to be born and reflected the ideologies and perspectives of those periods. So while those works were and still are timeless, most were from the 1950's and 1960's, not during the 1980's when I was completing high school and entering college.

It was then I became a huge Tom Clancy fan.

In many ways, I would put Tom Clancy on the same pedestal of the aforementioned Grand Masters in terms of the scope of his vision and the skill of his storytelling.

Tom Clancy would probably not like being called a Science Fiction writer — he wrote "techno-thrillers" — ripping yarns of political intrigue inspired by speculations of the nature of top-secret military technology, pulled straight from the headlines of the Cold War.

It was still futurism, but so near future that it could scare the living hell out of you because it was so believable. Clancy did not create the techno-thriller, that distinction goes to British novelist Craig Thomas, starting with Firefox in 1977.

But nobody could tell a story like Tom Clancy.

The Hunt For Red October, Clancy's first book, was originally published in 1984 by the U.S. Naval Institute Press, its first fiction title. I did not read it until 1987, when I graduated high school and began my freshman year of college, at The American University in Washington, D.C.  

"Nobody could tell a story like Tom Clancy."

The tale of a Soviet nuclear missile submarine gone rogue that was completely undetectable and a CIA agent's mission to make contact with the captain and determine its intentions is still one of the best examples of the techno-thriller genre, despite being dated.

Since then, I've been hooked on Clancy, as well as other writers who have emulated his style, such as Dale Brown, with his distinct brand of military aviation fiction. 

Clancy's material was always fresh. During my college years I ran to the libraries whenever I heard a new book was coming out and reserved my place in line to borrow a hardcover copy. And while his material was born of the Cold War, he wasn't stuck in that age.

For example, he eerily predicted the kind of airborne terrorist attacks we saw on September 11, 2001, with his 1994 novel Debt of Honor. That novel was never adapted into film, perhaps for its "too soon" nature.

He was a meticulous researcher and an avid reader, and continued to release stories about tech that many of us presumed to exist, or would exist in the very near future. 

But what was most shocking was just how accurate Clancy was. According to my sources who had met him and knew him, the US Navy and Department of Defense had frequent freak-out sessions whenever a new novel of his came out. The Hunt for Red October, in particular, was a huge wake-up call for the Pentagon.

How could this guy know so much about top-secret weapons programs, such as Los Angeles-class attack submarines and Aegis missile destroyers? Today, one only has to search the Internet for such things.

But in the 1980's and early 1990's Clancy, a former insurance agent, was able to bury himself in books and publicly available information in government libraries, as well as ingratiate himself to military personnel, to learn just enough and get them to disclose just enough tidbits to make his books believable and sometimes, uncannily accurate. 

As a native Baltimore resident he became a Beltway insider, which gave him a unique insight into the workings of our modern military.

Even so, he always respected our country and the necessity to protect its most important secrets and its interests. He was a staunch conservative and Reagan-era Republican and a lifetime NRA member and gun enthusiast, who even had a personal firing range installed in the basement of his home. But he was also a highly outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration as well as Donald Rumsfeld.

For those who knew him, he had a magnanimous personality but also could be an irascible and egotistic son of a bitch.

He became one of the most prolific and one of the highest-paid writers in history, whose prominence has only been eclipsed in recent years by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels.

Eighteen of Clancy's books have been published, many of which have been spawned into successful movie adaptations and video game franchises.

When his final novel, Command Authority is published in December, I will be one of millions of people who will rush to read it. But I will be overcome with sadness that like the other grand masters of my youth, there will be no more to come from him.

To have his writing career end at age 66 is too soon.

Are you a Tom Clancy fan? Which books were your favorites? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Tech Industry


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Patriot Games

    Jason -
    Thank you for the wonderful eulogy on Mr. Clancy. I really enjoyed it. Personally, 'Patriot Games' was my favorite Clancy novel. Jack Ryan's reluctant hero persona is just fabulous in this book.

    Unfortunately, we've lost one the all-time Greats with Mr. Clancy's passing. *sigh*.
    • We've not lost him, alberto

      We still have his books. ;)
    • Patriot Games...

      Looks like the author doesn't know Patriot Games was actually Clancy's first novel but wasn't published until after Red October.
  • Thanks, Jason

    Yes, I too have enjoyed the novels of Tom Clancy.

    Thank you for writing about his death.
    jmb codewriter
  • His early books were best

    I think he fired or otherwise changed his editor mid-career. The original editor was able to keep Clancy's prose a lot tighter than it was in his later books.

    That said, he was a great writer. His stories drew you inside the world he created. He'll be missed.

    I'm curious to see if his estate keeps his "brand" rolling the way Ludlum's has. Oddly, some of the Robert Ludlum books published immediately after his death were excellent (perhaps, in this case, the editors were able to do what they do best without interferance from the author). Since then, the "brand" has gone downhill - notwithstanding the endless Jason Bourne stories and movies.
  • My father introduced me to Tom Clancy's works so long ago

    My father greatly praised "The Cardinal of the Kremlin" and after reading that novel, rumor had it he was frequently scene at the local library checking out more novels by this master storyteller. His continued praise, bordering on infatuation, of Mr. Clancy's novels created an itchy curiosity within me. And, a few years later I finally gave in and borrowed my first Clancy novel from his private home library.

    He almost didn't get it back. It was "Red Storm Rising" and to this day I feel it was Clancy's best work.

    As a side note, my father always thought Alex Baldwin was "the Jack Ryan" in much the same way that people feel Sean Connery best personifies James Bond. As for myself, I appreciate Ben Affleck and Roger Craig as Hollywood's best interpretations of Ryan and Bond, respectively.
    • Roger Craig???

      Did you mean Roger Moore or Daniel Craig?
    • Larry Bond

      I am certain that when I first bought Red Storm Rising that it included a note that it was done in collaboration with Larry Bond but for some reason you never see that mentioned in more recent printings of the book or even in the Wikipedia website for the book. You'll notice that the style of the story bears little resemblance to any other Clancy novel, but pick up one of Larry Bond's books and you'll see the similarity immediately. So, if you liked Red Storm Rising then check out Larry Bond. I think you'll be really pleased.

      Just checked and Larry Bond's Wiki link does mention that he co-authored the book -
    • Re: Jack Ryan

      . . . I've always thought that Harrison Ford was the quintessential Jack Ryan. . . just saying!
  • The Hunt for Red October

    The first was the best. I was already a military technology "nut" before reading it, and found nothing that had not been discussed in "Air Force & Space Digest", the Naval Institute "Proceedings", "Aviation Week", or other such profession-oriented and technology-oriented journals. Some may have been pushed beyond the discussed capabilities, but nothing was completely concocted from scratch. The only thing "outside the box" was that not just one Russian naval officer would defect, but that he could recruit an entire officer cadre to follow him against the background of KGB, GRU, etc., state security in place at the time. Given that, everything else was in the realm of believeability. As his writing went on, the scenarios became more & more concocted, and the technological overwhelmed the storytelling, with the books being 2-3 times larger than "Red October", to their detriment. His later books just couldn't hold my interest for a cover-to-cover read, as a result. But enough of what he did write was of enough merit to warrant his high esteem, IMHO. I'd rate him for high esteem for "Red October", no matter what else he'd done, just as I'd rate Tome Cruise's entire career worthwhile if only for making "The Last Samurai". (PLEASE, don't start another discussion thread here on Tom Cruise!!!)
    • The Hunt

      I was working in military intelligence when the Russian frigate Storozhevoy was taken over by mutineers and the Soviet Navy was given orders to find and destroy the boat and crew. It was a pretty fascinating event and really tickled the imagination. This was also the same time period when Victor Belenko defected to Japan with a Russian Foxbat fighter plane. When I read The Hunt I immediately thought back to those events and understand that while this was a work of fiction it was entirely within the realm of possibility. The Foxbat defection (we eventually returned it to Russia but only after taking it apart piece by piece to make sure it was all safe...) was under a similar pretense to Red October, but the Storozhevoy mutiny was more an attempt to start a new revolution than a defection. Read the book Mutiny if you're interested in the event that inspired Clancy.
  • First Ryan book sort of

    The first book that could be put in the Ryan series is Without Remorse. Jack Ryan's father had a role as a homicide detective in it. This is chronologically the first book. It introduces Grier, Clark and a few others. Without Remorse is my favorite Clancy book and it is the best revenge book I have read.
  • Tom Clancy's Passing.....2013

    I've always enjoyed Tom Clancy's novels, usually read cover to cover in a single sitting.

    Earlier this year we also lost Vince Flynn and with his passing the next novel in the Mitch Rapp series.

    Both Mitch Rapp and Jack Ryan fictional character's were very believable, and will be surely be missed by all avid techno-thriller fans.

    RIP - Gentlemen.....

    Vancouver, BC Canada
  • Red Storm Rising

    RSR perhaps was less popular than his other books. However the story starts with a terrorist attack on an energy facility which in this post Stuxnet age has relevance. Only one of his books I was willing to read more than once.
  • Red Storm Rising

    RSR perhaps was less popular than his other books. However the story starts with a terrorist attack on an energy facility which in this post Stuxnet age has relevance. Only one of his books I was willing to read more than once.
  • Great article and tribute

    Nicely done Jason. We're the same age (also graduated HS in 87) and I can remember sitting in the New York suburbs during a snowy winter's day reading The Hunt For Red October. It seemed life was simpler and more full of wonder back then, with fantastic writers like Clancy who could help us lose ourselves in the worlds he created. It's not the same now with the internet so ubiquitous and information so instantaneous. Any glimmer of mystery about the world is seemingly revealed the moment it occurs. It's as if the magic has evaporated and authors like Tom who used to 'pull back the curtains' are now but a remnant of history.
  • And the non-fiction too!

    I was a National Guardsman and a M1A1 tank platoon leader. Clancy's nonfiction books were where you went for information about what tanks and track vehicles could do. The Army manuals were good but Clancy's books were better.
  • His writing died long ago

    I started reading Clancy novels when my ship went to Annapolis(or at least the part of the Chesapeake Bay close by) and we knew Mr. Clancy was coming on board. I went to the Annapolis book store and purchased a copy of the Hunt for October and had him sign it. I was giving it to my father, but I read it before I sent it to him and really enjoyed it. I read many of his novels after that and found some of the stories simply stunning. But later on, they became boring. Every character was the best of the best of the best, or just the best of the best with the worst attitude. He spent too much time on tech stuff and not enough time plotting a good story. So, while it was a shock that he died this week, I already missed reading his good stories.
    Clay Horste
    • Some of the latest were the best

      Try "Teeth of the Tiger".
      Network dude
    • Early books

      Definitely agree that his writing suffered in later years. The books became excessively long at over 1000 pages and also got too preachy for me. Hunt, Cardinal, Patriot, etc. were great books (aside from about the first 100 pages of Patriot where Jack spent too much time giving Prince Charles' character advice) and I really enjoyed them. Really enjoyed the Clark character as well.