Dead or Alive (Tom Clancy)
I missed the great time of techno-thrillers. Born as the Cold War and Soviet Union began to end up on the ash heap of history, most great techno-thrillers (The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, Red Phoenix, Vortex, Team Yankee) were already written when I was a kid. Thanks to used book stores and the internet I was able to read these works through high school and college. So now that I’m older it does pain me that the good classic techno-thriller seems dead. Even the man who somewhat invented the genre, Tom Clancy seemed to lose his skill with his last three fiction works, The Bear and the Dragon, Teeth of the Tiger, and Red Rabbit (the most acceptable of the three IMO).
However like one of Max Brook’s zombies, it seems Mr. Clancy has returned from the dead, so to speak. The newest Tom Clancy novel came out shortly before the holidays titled, Dead or Alive. Now there is a question of how much of the book Clancy actually wrote, since there is a co-author, Grant Blackwood. Blackwood had ghost written for other series. Even if you hadn’t noticed Blackwood’s name on the cover you can tell the writing doesn’t flow like usual Clancy (not in a bad way but the change is noticeable).
Dead or Alive is the follow up book to Teeth of the Tiger which featured the first adventure of Jack Ryan Jr. son of the more famous Jack Ryan. Jack Jr. works not at CIA but a secret off the books anti-terrorism agency named The Campus. Set up in the waning days of the Ryan Administration, The Campus is run by a former Senator Gerry Hendley who disguises it as a mutual firm. Unlike CIA, The Campus is allowed to prosecute and eliminate terrorists without government oversight. In case any of this is discovered President Ryan made sure to leave dozens of signed but blank Presidential Pardons for all involved. Jack Ryan Jr. being a smart boy figures all this out in The Teeth of the Tiger.
The second novel starts not too long after the first. Jack Jr. works as analyst at The Campus. He eliminated a terrorist near the end of his first book prompting the young man to think about more fieldwork. The rest of The Campus crew returns as well. Among them are Jack Jr.’s cousins Dominic Caruso and Brian Caruso both who are twin brothers. Dominic was an FBI Agent and Brian a former Marine. In Teeth of the Tiger they were the operation element of The Campus. Other characters are part of the group but none of them stand out as anything other than background players.
Since Tiger was received poorly, Clancy I think made a decision to bring more familiar faces into the story from his pervious books. First are John Clark and Domingo Chavez. Clark, Clancy’s CIA paramilitary man turned into Rainbow commander plus his friend and son in law Chavez, who also worked for CIA before joining John at Rainbow. The start of Dead or Alive had both men returning to USA from England. Rainbow which had a successful run (read Rainbow Six and The Bear and the Dragon) is being reformatted do to European politics. One could also speculate that Clancy had his characters coming back because terrorists no longer really focus on hostage taking but inflicting mass causalities. This eliminates Rainbow’s usefulness as a story tool (although there is one last Rainbow mission in Libya which provides intelligence for later in the book).
Other returning Ryanverse characters are the former President himself. Jack is upset at what is happening with the country and the damage that the current president is doing to the economy, military, and intelligence agencies. Robbie Jackson, Jack’s best friend and VP from The Bear and the Dragon, was killed before The Teeth of the Tiger (something I’ve never forgiven Clancy for killing him off-page) so his opponent, Ed Kealty from Debt of Honor and Executive Orders walks into an easy victory. As Jack stews he is being pushed to re-run for president by his former Chief of Staff Arnie Van Damm. Jack’s role in the book is limited and probably included to further his role in perhaps a new novel in the future. Another returning character is Mary Pat Foley. Once the Deputy Director of Operations at CIA, she is now hovering near retirement but still working for the government at a joint terrorism task force. She like the rest of the characters (excluding Jack Sr.) is hunting the same man, the Emir.
The Emir is Clancy’s version of Osama Bin Laden. Running an Al-Qaeda like organization he was mentioned in Tiger but now plays a more centered role. He is surrounded by various other terrorists who are coordinating a series of attacks designed to do massive harm to the United States. All the action in the book involves hunting the Emir and figuring out what he is up too. This causes the books to plod along for the first half with us following multiple terrorists and characters across the globe whose actions don’t come together till later. Things speed up two-thirds of the way through heading to the conclusion.
My main problems with the book do not stem from the plot or terrorist plan. Its fine, nothing ‘too’ unbelievable, The Emir hopes to push the U.S. into a gross overreaction to his terrorists attacks (some small scale against people, others larger including an attempted chemical attack and a nuclear attack against the Yucca Nuclear Waste site). Kealty being a dumb-ass would move against the terrorist hideouts in northern Pakistan brining about the collapse of Pakistan in general in which the Emir’s terrorist network could then get their hands on the Pakistani nukes. No surprise to you, this plan fails.
The biggest issue I had in the book was Clancy/Blackwood ignoring the Ryanverse’s own cannon. 9/11 still occurs in the Ryanverse including the response by invading Afghanistan. First there is a problem right there. Several Clancy books have featured deadly mass terrorist attacks, including the nuclear weapon used at Denver in The Sum of All Fears plus (now here’s the big one) the crashing of a 747 into the Capital Building at the end of Debt of Honor. Clancy wore the 747 crash years before 9/11, so shouldn’t the security officials in the Ryanverse be maybe thinking about this happening again? I would think things in the Ryanverse itself would butterfly away 9/11. Of course Clancy writes his books so that the politics and geo-political situation are tied into our own world for the most part. So I can forgive this. However I can’t forgive other things that make no sense at all.
My biggest continuality problem is Iraq. If you had read Executive Orders you know that Saddam Hussein was killed by a member of his own security detail (an Iranian agent) paving the way for Iran to take over the country (following the abandonment of Iraq by the Ba’ath Party). In its wake a new country the United Islamic Republic was formed. The UIR under the leadership of the Ayatollah launched a bio-war attack on the USA (another reason for 9/11 to be butterflied away) followed by an invasion of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. defeats them and President Ryan assassinates the Ayatollah with some F-117s and laser guided bombs. Iran and Iraq get new governments. Now you may be wondering why I mention all this. For some reason in Dead or Alive, Iraq has been invaded and occupied as in OTL. No explanation of why this occurred or who even launched the invasion is mentioned. Since Clancy altered the line of the Presidents far earlier in the timeline (Fowler, Durling, Ryan, Kealty) which one of them invaded Iraq? If Ryan had done it I believe it would be something he’d talk about (since he’s writing his autobiography in the book), Kealty is desperately trying to pull out of Iraq so he certainly didn’t do it.
This is an example of Clancy trying to bring our current world and problems into his creation and failing. The fact that we went to war with the UIR is hardly mentioned. Just as Iraq is screwed up in relation to the Clancy timeline so is Iran. Like our OTL Iran, its working on nuclear weapons and interfering in Iraq (there is also a massive nitpick where the book says the Shia are the minority in Iraq compared to the Sunni, when as we all know after nearly ten years of news coverage its the other way around). Iran had launched a bio attack against the U.S. and paid the price, why would they bother building nuclear weapons or go about trying to interfere in Iraq which they had already done once and failed at.
Further issues with established Clancy timeline also exist. No mention is made of the conflict between Russia and China in The Bear and the Dragon. Considering how bad that book was maybe it’s not the worst idea to say it never happened (like Superman III and IV). Even if I was going to forget it, there are other issues which seem to have been ignored or grossed over. Vladimir Putin is mentioned despite him never having existed in the Ryanverse before this point. Nothing is mentioned about Ed Kealty’s sexual misconduct (a theme of both Debt of Honor and Executive Orders). Kealty, trying to dig up dirt on Ryan Sr. seems to of forgotten he already learned about Ryan’s activities at CIA in Executive Orders.
Besides the continuality issues, there is also the issue of the portrayal of certain people in the book. Kealty’s administration seems too dumb to actually function. At the beginning of the book a team of Army Rangers raids a cave that might be a possible hiding spot for the Emir. During the raid one of the Rangers (who ends up a minor side character) kills nine enemy fighters as they sleep in the cave, their weapons close by. When this is discovered by a lawyer at DOD he is shocked and then sends the info to the Attorney General. In turn this info ends up at Kealty’s desk who also highly taken aback that the Ranger ‘murdered’ these men and wants to put the Ranger on trial…are you shitting me?
Almost every other character in the book sees no problem with the soldier’s actions. He killed enemy combatants, if they were asleep too bad for them. However the Kealty’s peoples’ reactions seem too stupid to be believable. The president thinks it’s a good idea to put on trial a soldier who killed during a sensitive mission, which needed stealth, even if he did think that, he doesn’t have anyone on his staff to tell him he’s a moron? The soldier is saved by Jack Ryan Sr. campaign announcement (further proof that if your opponent is going to use this against you, why you do it in the first place is beyond me). More stupidly is shown when John Clark does a debriefing at Langley with a character (whose name has to be a dead one from an earlier Clancy novel I swear) says his career at CIA was ‘messy’. Messy? Clark was a paramilitary officer who did clandestine stuff of course it was messy. Anyway some of this stupidity on the part of these characters is a little unbelievable, but maybe I’m giving government people more credit than they deserve.
These issues with Ryanverse cannon as it stands and the behavior of opposition characters (not the terrorists except for one action which I had a hard time believing, the Emir hiding out in the USA) are my main problems with the novel. Otherwise it’s okay, better than I expected. There isn’t tons of action more spying and field craft. There is a very gusty move on the part of the author regarding the loss of one of the characters, which surprised me. I’d say the best is B- or C+ work. If you wish to read it, wait for the paperback version and save yourself some money. It has made me want to go back and re-read Teeth of the Tiger to see if it is better a second time around. Hopefully if there is another Clancy book we’ll move on to something other than terrorism.