Farewell to Tom Clancy and the age of the techno-thriller

Tom Clancy died this week, aged 66. Sad news. I enjoyed his books in their day. His writing – and games – brought a good deal of pleasure to many people.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.
Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode in an RNZAF P-3K Orion on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

He achieved something few authors manage; he defined a genre, the ‘techno-thriller’. Other authors followed,  some of them service personnel whose own experiences gave their stories a ring of authenticity. And if their characters were at best cardboard, their plots contrived, the stories nevertheless struck chords in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly.

It was a genre born of the Cold War, and it was a genre of its period. The realities of warfare at personal level (stress, isolation, noise, fog of war, death without warning, visually unspectacular), were lost amid the gee-whizz factor of boys-with-toys hardware. It was also largely an American genre, suffused with all the symbols of American patriotism. Some of the more extreme techno-thrillers could have substituted slabs of text with the chant “America! Flags! America! States! Mom! Apple pie!” without anybody particularly noticing.

To me that spoke a good deal about the human condition in general; for the late Cold War was not the first time that popular militarism had led to popular loss of touch with the realities of this darker side of our existence. My own country, New Zealand, went through the same experience in the 1890s, plunging into fervent ‘social militarism’ pivoting on the same fantasy glorification of warfare and popular idolisation of hardware.

An Airfix 1/76 Mk IV "Male" tank from 1917, which I built when I wasn't writing.
My Airfix 1/76 Mk IV “Male” tank. Contriving a “WWI” style photo for it covered bad assembly details on my part.

That led to such things as a letter from one of our ‘lads’ heading to the Boer War in 1900, telling his mother he hoped to get shot as a way to earn glory. He was; and it was not glorious, it was a tragedy, especially for his poor mum. The trend culminated, in 1909, in our getting into a ridiculous debt to buy a battlecruiser for Britain. I wrote a Masters thesis on how that happened. Later, after that thinking had been blown out of us by the First World War, it did seem a little silly.

Looking back on the techno-thriller, I can’t help thinking the same thing. I read a lot of them in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and enjoyed them at the time. But they were not exactly literature. Some read like Murder on the Orient Express as written by the Eric Olthwaite Locomotive and Rivet Counting Club instead of Agatha Christie. Today, for me, novels need to be more than a thinly disguised catalogue of military hardware working to design specifications. That never happens in reality, and it shouldn’t happen in a novel if disbelief is to be suspended.

heroesWhat’s more, real warfare has more to do with hearts, minds, morale, tactics and support than it does with hardware specifications. I could give dozens of instances, but let’s put it this way – in a ‘techno-thriller’ world, we’d have lost the Second World War because the German Tiger II’s, Me-262’s and V2’s, out specced anything the Allies had and, by techno-thriller logic, therefore made the Germans invincible.

To me, the techno thriller in its original ‘cold warrior’ form is a period genre – one sliding away from us as the years roll by. I suspect many of its books will fade too, as ‘airport novels’ (which is what these things really are) inevitably do.

But we’ll see. Your thoughts? Have you read any of Clancy’s work – or any other techno-thrillers? What did you think of them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, and ‘Write it Now’ on style.

8 thoughts on “Farewell to Tom Clancy and the age of the techno-thriller

  1. My dad was a huge Clancy fan. His current fave is Jo Nesbo. I haven’t read either but my sister shares books with him. I think that’s cool. Great picture!


    1. Thanks. It was a pretty cool experience to do that submarine hunt. We were flying in circles over the Hauraki Gulf – only time I’ve spent many hours in an aircraft going absolutely nowhere and having a great time doing it. The quarry was an Aussie submarine…and I have to say the only time I’ve ever felt even slightly claustrophobic was when I went on board one of those boats.


  2. I think the only Clancy novel I ever read was Hunt for Red October, though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his books and enjoyed many of the games he helped create. What I do remember about Red October is the high level of detail. After that novel I had a fair understanding of how submarine warfare worked. He really did excellent research and managed to give the facts in the novel without ever letting up on the suspense. Though for that era I much prefer the espionage-novels. (And here it would be prudent to mention that I have never read John le Carre. I have an omnibus of some of his early novels waiting on my TBR pile, though.)


    1. I think it was the detail that made this the break-through novel – he really nailed it in many ways. I thought the movie was better than the book, but of course it had NZ’s own Sam Neill in it, so I am probably biased…


    1. I read many, many techno-thrillers in the day – including Clancy, of course, along with his non-fiction. I think “Hunt for Red October” was one of the best of the genre. He wrote stuff initially with Larry Bond, whose work never impressed me so much. For me the stand-out consistent author, though, was Stephen Coonts – a real US naval aviator who was also a very, very talented writer – to me his stuff transcended the genre and entered mainstream literature. Worth checking out if you haven’t already discovered him.


  3. Well said sir. I thank you for your service to your country.

    I think Clancy’s novels focused more on the strategic perspective of war. That may be the reason why you didn’t get the personal aspects of being in combat. Having said that, I am hugely influenced by Mr. Clancy’s work.

    To me the best aspect of his novel’s is that I always felt that “it could happen.” Many of todays authors find creative ways to get out of a jam, but many times those creative ways are not realistic or plausible. I admire him for keeping it real.

    Great Post!


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