The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

November 25, 2012 at 19:41 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , , )


“The technical aspects are covered in a way which is rare in the modern novel,” reads one enthusiastic review on the dust jacket of Red October. There is a good reason for that. Clancy has made a career for himself out of knowing stuff about tanks, but it is here in his earlier work that the reputation was made–indeed, where the tail wagged the dog just a little too much. It is unsurprising that Clancy had trouble finding a publisher for this book; equally unsurprising that his eventual publisher was an arm of the US Navy. There is simply far too much jargon, far too many detailed descriptions of trivial machines and dated technology, too many parenthetical and bracketed explanations of rambling groups of acronyms–to make this a good story.

“‘We cannot shoot. Your men cannot shoot. We cannot run from him–he is faster. We cannot hide–his sonar is better. He will move east, use his speed to contain us and his sonar to locate us. By moving west, we have the best chance to escape. This he will not expect.'”

-The Hunt for Red October

Later, Clancy would realise that good books need things like characters and plots, and while he has never abandoned his roots in technical manuals and tactical theses, his writing today is worlds away from Red October. One of the book’s key problems is the misnomer contained in the title. A more apt name might be The Finding of Red October, for the secretive boat has one fatal flaw: it is a Soviet creation, and therefore is located by the plucky American heroes within a chapter of disembarking. This sets the scene for what is really alternate parts propaganda for the West in general and the USA in particular, and a crude and mostly dull litany of bungling and tomfoolery by the inept Reds.

It is difficult to feel much in the way of suspense when presented with Clancy’s ubermenschen in shining armour. Certainly it is impossible to consider for a moment that the utterly incompetent and pantomime Soviets will salvage even a pyrrhic victory. In one jarring chapter, the virtues and blessings of the magnificent world of capitalism are extolled for pages on end, with one character noting offhand that nobody who wants a job and financial security in the West can fail to find both.

This is a fantasy, but with too much technical realism to be a good fantasy. It is a technical manual, but written sarcastically and bitterly. Tom Clancy has never been lionised as a particularly brilliant author, but this is one of his harder books to engage with.

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