LOS ANGELES — Tom Clancy, who died Tuesday at age 66, was an author who created imaginary stories from the raw material of a real world in conflict. His audience seemed to grow exponentially as he conquered one media platform after another.
In his 1984 debut, The Hunt for Red October, he proved himself a master of the late-Cold War espionage novel, with assorted Russian generals and commissars as his foils. But his fictional creations also took life in movies, television programs, and even in video games to which he lent his name.
Today, millions of young people who’ve never read his novels, and who weren’t alive when the Soviet Union existed, storm Russian (and Mexican and Kazakh) cities in the virtual worlds of video games that bear Clancy’s name. In recent years, the value of his film, book, and game empire surpassed $100 million.
In his novels, Clancy gave his readers the old-fashioned escapism of richly detailed worlds where simple moral dramas play out to unambiguous endings — and where compassionate but tough American men use their courage and smarts to defeat evil empires and cruel warlords. Clancy came to the book world in midlife, after years as an insurance broker and military history buff. And his “military fiction,” as it came to be known, helped create an American archetype: the savvy spy or warrior who parachutes in to sort out the mess created by assorted criminals, dictators, and bureaucrats.
The Hunt for Red October opens with a sympathetic portrait of a Soviet naval officer (played by Sean Connery in the movie) that’s colored with rich specificity: from the “five layers of wool and oilskin” the officer wears at an Arctic submarine base, to his “half Lithuanian” heritage and his father’s past in “the Great Patriotic War,” as World War II is known to Russians, with Clancy filling in the father’s military back story with much accurate historical detail.
On screen, heartthrobs like Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford gave Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, a sex appeal and emotionality he lacked on the page — the result was several nine-figure Hollywood blockbusters.
Clancy’s books appealed “to the most boy part of you,” as the novelist Bob Shacochis wrote in a review of Sum of All Fears for the Los Angeles Times in 1991. Video game versions of those boy-friendly worlds were, perhaps, inevitable.
In the Ghost Recon game, released in 2001 and an early hit of the then-new Xbox and Playstation platforms, one could enter fantasy worlds where the details were constructed with screen pixels. Players walked through the rubble of cities in the Caucuses and assumed the roles of U.S. special-ops troops fighting a Russian nationalist army. The game spawned many sequels.
“Colonel, the United States of America once again emerged the victor in a great worldwide conflict,” Scott Mitchell, the hero of many Ghost Recon games, intones in the sequel, End War. “History won’t soon forget what we’ve accomplished together...”
Clancy more than likely did not write that stilted dialogue. The best of his 18 novels were lively, original, and unfailingly realistic. The late David Foster Wallace was a fan: He reportedly admired the novels for their ability to pack in facts.
In recent years, Clancy kept the literary department of his brand going by relying on “collaborators.” The 2010 Dead or Alive credited Grant Blackwood, a veteran of similar collaborations with Clive Cussler, to tell the story of American operatives hunting down an Osama bin Laden-like terrorist.
In his review of Dead or Alive in the Times, Tim Rutten wrote that Clancy “has a tendency to both pander to popular fantasy (in this case, revenge) and, simultaneously, to play against it with hard-headed insights into the real world of military and intelligence operations. It’s a fruitful tension that lends his books a quirky, appealing unpredictability that sometimes can survive even the author’s eye-rolling politics.”
Clancy was an outspoken conservative. Days after the 9/11 attacks, he said “the political left” was to blame, because it had “gutted” American intelligence agencies. But Clancy’s appeal was, for the most part, bipartisan. Boys and men of all ages, especially, enjoyed the pleasure of losing themselves in the worlds he first built with mere words.