Friday, July 10, 2015

Book Review: Red Storm Rising

© 1986 by Tom Clancy

My first Clancy review!

If you know me or have come to know me through my writings here, you know that I go through phases. Particularly in the books I read. In any given year, I’ll go through three, four, five or more phases. A phase could pertain to a solitary writer’s work or a specific topic or field, broad or narrow. For example, I’ve gone through phases reading only Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Philip Jose Farmer. These are usually multi-year phases. Subjects I’ve devoured somewhat recently are the broad topics of the Civil War and World War II, and narrow ones such as the Voynich Manuscript or the Shroud of Turin.

All this is a slightly long-winded way of saying that I went through a lengthy Clancy phase, eight or nine many-hundred-page books, mostly from ’94 to ’96, with two or three books afterwards ending around Rainbow Six when I got married a few years later.

The first Tom Clancy book I read was The Sum of All Fears. At this time I was more into music than writing (and even reading!), though I was aware of Clancy’s work via the big screen adaptations (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games). I was aware of the notorious, surprising and sometimes suspiciously intricate detail the man packed into every page of every hefty tome. This fact alone intrigued me very much way back then, and, bored on a bright fall day in 1994, I stopped at the local library and picked up Sum to experience and evaluate this facet of his work first hand.

A strange and wonderful thing happened very quickly: I was floored! Amazed and astounded! An entirely new world opened up before, and not only that, but an entirely different way of looking at the world! A textbook epiphany, I suppose it could be called. Up to this time in my life I had never had such an explicit turn in outlook solely from a book (with the obvious and undeniably earth-shattering first complete read through of the Bible leading to my conversion in 1992, but the Bible supposed to do that to you, right?).

And what was that revelation Tom Clancy gave me?

The United States military is not evil. It is not behind every nefarious, traitorous, mustache-twisting deed in Fact and Fiction. Or, contra Hollywood, the military is not developing dinosaurs or monsters as the perfect kill weapon, only to loose them upon the population via incompetence. The military is not shooting amoebas up into space, only to have them come down as ravenous man-eating blobs. The military is not salivating to drop nukes on any American city that has an outbreak of some strange, potentially lethal disease.

No, according to Clancy, the United States military is good. A force for good in an evil world. Confident, competent, righteous and assured. They may suffer setbacks, and usually do, tennis match style back-and-forth more than a single major defeat they must rebound from, and you can rest assured they will rescue the damsels in distress, redeem any members in need of redemption, outwit the opponent, cleverly apply brain and brawn to the crisis at hand. And a great Tom Clancy-ism is that the bad guys always get their comeuppance, often at the hands of their supposed allies as the evil scoundrels devour themselves like packs of wolves trying to escape justice.

I’m being a bit playful here. A Clancy novel isn’t entirely black-and-white. Close, but there are shades of gray. There are turncoats and spies. People fail at times. But if you had the ability to transform John Wayne and Gary Cooper into 1980/1990s military techno-thrillers, they’d be sitting on the front rack in the bookstores alphabetically under C.

Red Storm Rising is as good an example as any of all this. I had read this novel during that 90s phase and spotted it at a book sale in October 2013, shortly after Clancy had died, and picked it up. It appealed to me when I first read it for two reasons: First, it was his only novel (up to that point) that did not feature his ubiquitous hero, Jack Ryan; and second, it promised to depict, well, World War III, as it might have occurred in the mid-80s, with the Soviet Union as the aggressor.

Since I devoured the book twenty years ago, and have read something like six hundred books since, I didn’t remember much of it. I did remember that I sped through it, unable to put it down, and thought it a worthwhile read. A few images stuck with me: fighters zooming over the German front, complex and elaborate scenes of sub-hunting, and a twist ending that tied everything up in the last five or ten pages.  

Turns out I remembered correctly.

[some spoilers]

An act of terrorism results in a Soviet Union desperate for oil. A corrupt Politburo (I know, a redundancy) sees war as the only way to prevent economic collapse and remain in power, so it initiates a false flag operation to justify invading Germany in the hopes of comprising NATO so they can snatch those poorly defended Arab oil fields. Intelligence personnel in the US military start noticing strange things about Soviet movements, and something as innocuous as the execution of four Russian colonels for not having their troops properly trained set off alarm bells. But before NATO leadership can be persuaded, Soviet forces seize Iceland, to use as a base to harass supply convoys crossing the Atlantic from America, and steamroll into West Germany.

Thus, the 725-page paperback edition of World War III. We have a Navy weatherman and a group of marines eluding the Russian invasion force on Iceland, making contact with their superiors, trying to survive the occupation and perhaps give American forces an edge in retaking the island. We have a sub commander and his friend, now helming a frigate cuz he drove his destroyer onto a sandbar, doing the whole cat-and-mouse thing hunting and being hunted by Soviet submarines. And we have brash, brazen, and brilliant General Alekseyev, an anti-hero of sorts, leading Operation Red Storm in Germany, handicapped by the self-defeating politics of communism lest he drive all of NATO into the Atlantic. But in the end, America (I mean, NATO), saves the day, and Alekseyev kinda turns good guy, delivering the Politburo to its comeuppance in a very neat ending that caught me by surprise.

It’s a long book and does take some effort to get through. The sub hunting scenes, tense and exciting at first, gradually become tiresome (there must be twenty-five or thirty such scenes in the novel). Tons of acronyms and much military jargon, so you can’t daydream as you read or else you’ll have no idea what ASW or MAU or SACEUR or DIA stands for and will have to flip back pages or you’ll drive yourself crazy. As in all Clancy books, characterization is kinda weak and one-dimensional, but you don’t read a Tom Clancy book for the characters.

You read it for the ASW and the MAU and the SACEUR and the DIA …

Grade: B+

PS – A neat little factoid about the novel was that Tom Clancy had worked out some of the battles, particularly the taking and retaking of Iceland, playing a friend’s war game. Don’t know much more about that, like whether it was a computerized game (this was the early 80s) or some type of a roll-playing game. Also, I don’t know if this makes Clancy cooler or nerdier. Possibly both.

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