U.S. Intellectual History Blog

‘Techno-thriller’ Novels and Recent American Intellectual History

Walking through the aisles of a Barnes and Noble yesterday I glanced at the cover and blurb for the newest novel by Dale Brown. A former member of the U.S. Air Force, Captain Brown’s newest work, Iron Wolf details the fictional machinations of Russia in Eastern Europe, and the dedication of a few brave Americans, and their Eastern European allies, to stop them. In the middle is the current American president, the first woman to hold office, who is unsure of how to handle the burgeoning foreign policy crisis. Oh, and I forgot the part about the use of manned drones by the heroes in the book. The book’s premise brought back memories of my reading habits as a teenager and young adult. As a young man growing up after the Cold War, I read quite a few of these books. Looking back, I begin to think about what those books said about an American society struggling to deal with a post-Cold War world.

. The “techno-thriller” genre, of which Iron Wolf is a part of, is filled with the adventures of America’s military men and women, fighting threats all over the world using the latest in military hardware. Iron Wolf fulfills two parts of the essential elements of the so-called “techno-thriller” genre: ripped from the headlines stories, and a concern with America’s place in an unstable world. Starting with and popularized by Tom Clancy, techno-thrillers have been among the nation’s best-selling books since Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October was released in 1984. Seeing as how techno-thrillers sell so much and offer a unique look at how a sizable portion of Americans view foreign policy, intellectual historians will have think about these books if we’re to get a grasp of recent American red octoberintellectual history. Although there are several key authors in this genre (Brown of course, as well as the late Vince Flynn), for the purposes of this post, I’ll briefly discuss the giant of the genre: Tom Clancy.

Tom Clancy looms large in the genre. Writing many of his important works in the 1980s and 1990s, Clancy’s books offered both a dose of thrills and a series of morality plays through the character of Jack Ryan. The protagonist of the vast majority of Clancy novels, Ryan was a Marine turned foreign policy superman who tangled with America’s enemies, foreign and domestic. In other words, Ryan not only went up against the Soviet Union, Muslim extremists, and Japan (I’ll get to that in a second), but also had to fight off feckless American officials who, unlike Ryan, were not sure about America’s moral certitude in a chaotic world. The fact that Clancy’s career as a writer took off when President Ronald Reagan declared The Hunt for Red October my kind of yarn” is also important: an American president enjoying a work of fiction that spoke to America’s greatness during a trying time is also worth thinking about.

Clancy’s books offer a conservative version of America as a shining city on a hill, fighting enemies all across the valley below. The scenarios in some of Clancy’s novels, at the time they came out, seemed a bit preposterous. Debt of Honor (1994) for example detailed a war between Japan and the United States…in 1994. But one has to remember the deep concerns among American political and social leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s over the rise of an economically powerful Japan. This nation became, in Clancy’s novel, militarily powerful enough to launch a modern equivalent of Pearl Harbor, crippling both America’s Pacific Fleet and the nation’s stock exchange through a cyber-attack on Wall Street. Yet in the novel, it seemed realistic enough.

And then there’s the ending—when a Japanese civilian airline pilot, angered by the war’s end and Japan’s defeat, crashes his plane into the Capitol building just as Jack Ryan is about to be sworn in as the new Vice President of the United States. Such an ending was eye-opening in the late 1990s (I remember getting the book as a teenager partially because I’d heard so much about the ending) but became an eerie prediction of the future in light of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In fact, Clancy may be best remembered for that “prediction,” something that was mentioned in quite a few of the obituaries written after his death in 2013.

Intellectual and cultural historians of the late twentieth century would do well to read some Clancy, and the other techno-thriller authors, to get a sense of America’s fears—and dreams—in a post-Cold War world. In the books, the United States was able to crush the plans of Muslim extremists and a resurgent Iran (Executive Orders) and become allies with Russia while rolling back Chinese ambitions (The Bear and the Dragon). Those are just a couple of examples and do not even touch the movie versions of Clancy stories (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears). For intellectual historians especially, however, Clancy’s books should not just be seen as exciting fiction. They should also offer a window into how some Americans, especially (but not all) those on the Right, saw America’s mission in the 1990s: defending democracy in a chaotic world thanks to the bravery of a few soldiers, sailors, marines, as well as the technological wizardry of America, and beating the bad guys over and over again while ignoring the foreign policy ineptitude of liberals at home. Clancy’s novels offer a fascinating insight into key ideas of American foreign policy after the Cold War era.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Clancy belongs to that odd club of novelists whose books were published by presses that never published fiction until they published the author’s book. Red October was published by Naval Institute Press after Clancy got nowhere with trade publishers. Another famous example is Dune, which Frank Herbert sent to Chilton, known until then for its automotive repair manuals, after he too struck out with regular publishers .

    By the way, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the fact that Jack Ryan is a historian by training. If I recall correctly, he has a PhD from Georgetown. I think the movies give him a different background, but in the books he’s definitely one of us.

    • You know something, somehow I forgot about Ryan being a historian. In fact it comes up as a plot point in ‘Debt of Honor’ because the Japanese think that Ryan’s expertise in European history will, somehow, be a liability in fighting an Asian power.

      But yeah, Ryan is the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams, right? A historian shaping modern events?!

  2. I was professionally disturbed by “Debt of Honor” when it came out — along with Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun” it was part of a whole spate of literature driven by Japanophobic scholarship — but the ending did fascinate me: obliterating most of the US government at a joint session of Congress. The sequel, “Executive Orders” reminds me a lot of “Red Storm Rising”: it’s a wargame scenario, played out with a kind of clear rule structure (“Hunt For Red October” and “Red Storm Rising” were both novelizations of wargames), the kind of thing that you throw at Model UN students.

    And I’m sure you’re right about the importance of this literature — considered “serious” by many people who actually make policy, or at least weapons — in the political landscape.

    • Jonathan beat me to the punch here — your mention of “Debt of Honor” also made me think of “Rising Sun” and the rabid Japanophobia it expressed. I remember laughing and cringing at the same time at the flimsy, hateful stereotypes of the Japanese villains — tremendously misogynist, sly, and malicious in a manner very unlike the Soviets. The shocking ending of “Debt of Honor” underscored for me the American fear of a different kind of enemy: where the Soviets had been a faceless, mindless collective, the Japanese were portrayed as volatile and crafty, and all too capable of destroying the Capitol in a rogue “kamikaze” attack.

      Because my work is in the history of science and technology, I was especially hopeful that you might address the “techno” part of your title. The Cold War arms race was also a competition of brute technological power — would we or the Soviets be able to destroy the earth more times over than our enemy? In this showdown, the technological race seemed to emphasize scale. Our shift to a new (potential) enemy in Japan was of a completely different sort — our enemy would defeat us economically, through sheer productive efficiency, and the mastery of a new battleground, the Internet. Again, the danger centered around the potential and the personality for cruel, cunning surgical attacks rather than the sheer destructive might of ICBMs. Where the Soviet was a bear, the Japanese was… what? A serpent?

      I’d love to teach a history of the US as seen through popular literature like this — the pulp depiction of our enemies says so much about American ideas and values.

      • Great points! The technology part is something that I, admittedly, glossed over. But one of the most memorable aspects of Clancy’s novels was the intricate detail with which he described much of the military hardware–spending whole pages describing plans, missiles, etc.

        And you’re right about how the Japanese are portrayed in the book. The way in which Muslims were written in ‘Executive Orders’ wasn’t exactly great, either. Although I think that, like with the Japanese, was about creating over the top villains AND reflecting American fears of potential adversaries.

        Finally, your point about popular literature is crucial here, and was what I was also arguing. I’d love to teach a course like that too. It’s interesting to consider how Clancy’s novels evolve in the early 21st century, as he ran out of opponents for America to take on but, at the same time, kept churning out books with post-9/11 scenarios.

      • Good question, Scott. From Robert’s reply, it sounds like these books basically focus on technology with military applications? (Although perhaps defined broadly, including surveillance and more.) Could be interesting to see what aspects of the tech are described, and what metaphors are used to describe it. That shift you suggest, between Soviet and Japanese strategies for developing and using technology, does suggest an interesting shift in how some Americans thought about technology and how it could be used.

    • Indeed–when I first read the book I couldn’t believe the Japanese were actually the enemy. Looking back I’m not too surprised, but it seems somewhat foolish that we were so scared of the rising economic power of Japan. Then again, in the 1970s and 1980s there was much talk of the potential of a ‘multi-polar’ world that included West Germany/Western Europe and Japan both being major powers along with the USA, USSR, and China (this is especially apparent in ‘Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’).

      • The really unique thing about the “Debt of Honor” plot is the way Clancy took the Japanophobic scholarship of the 80s — which was political science and economics, modernist with only a smattering of cultural elements — and remixed it with some of the Japanophiliac literature about Deep Rooted Samurai Values to posit a dead-ender veangeful anti-Americanism at the heart of Japanese competitiveness. That was something really rare…

  3. Robert–Great piece. It brought back memories of reading Tom Clancy as a teenager. My favorite Clancy novels are Patriot Games and Without Remorse. I recently re-read Patriot Games while visiting my family in Iowa a few weeks ago. I still enjoyed it after all these years. I stopped reading Clancy after The Bear and the Dragon because his work became too boring and predictable for my taste.

      • I like Patriot Games and Without Remorse because they are low tech thrillers. In his more hi tech thrillers Clancy had an annoying tendency to discuss technology for pages and pages.

  4. One thing that I found somewhat amusing about both Clancy’s and Brown’s series was the way the logic of producing sequels turned both Jack Ryan and Patrick McLanahan away from their origins as pretty unremarkable, midlevel functionaries into supermen. I don’t know how far you read into the Brown series, Robert, but doesn’t he eventually get an Iron Man suit and go into a sort of vigilante/Judge Dredd mode? And, of course, Ryan goes from an insignificant CIA analyst to President. What is remarkable to me, then, is that their heroes ever started out so humbly–I suppose Clancy and Brown had no idea where their heroes would end up, but wouldn’t it have been simpler to start out with truly powerful protagonists rather than the relatively modest, ordinary joes of the first novels?

    Sorry, just thinking out loud–thank you so much for causing us to revisit this genre!

    • You make a great point about the protagonists in these books–Ryan’s rise is one of the most improbable in any book series. It’s a combination of him being in the right place at the right time and being the only person capable of dealing with the crises America faces in each book while not losing his morals.

      I’m not sure about McLanahan–but that would not surprise me in the least. I think the most recent book is actually about his son–which is reminiscent of how Jack Ryan, Jr. becomes the protagonist in the later Clancy books. I am SURE someone here could write an interesting post about masculinity and techno-thrillers….

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