The technological terrors of Tom Clancy

The master of the modern techno-thriller has died at age 66.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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