Tom Clancy: “Locked On”

04/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Now, I know Tom Clancy isn’t what most of us might call literature — indeed, I took flak today from some of my friends for merely traveling around with a library copy of the book (though perhaps that’s more a matter of my staunch refusal to convert to e-books) — but there’s plenty to learn from the guy. Even if he is collaborating with an ever increasing number of “co-writers” these days merely to make ends meet; even if all the film versions and video game tie-ins have shifted his focus more from the political intrigue from within the CIA to the hyper-intelligent, action-oriented counter-terrorist organizations that serve to justify absolutely everything the Republicans have ever scared you into believing. At least his latest, Locked On, is set within the “Jack Ryan Universe” and thereby at least tries to find new adventures for its seemingly immortal heroes — one of whom, John Clark, is still partaking in intense operations at the age of sixty-four (forget John McClane; don’t worry about casting Sylvester Stallone) — in this case, by splitting the narrative between Jack Ryan Sr.’s attempts to get elected (for a second, non-consecutive term) against an increasingly villainous Democrat incumbent, and the clandestine operations of his son, Jack Ryan Jr., who is dealing with both the U.S. fallout of his off-the-books team’s takedown of “The Emir” (in Dead or Alive) and the ramifications that power vacuum has created in a new terrorist threat, one that’s brewed in separatist parts of Russia by means of stolen nuclear weapons from Pakistan/India. (China, apparently, is sitting things out these days.)

Now, the bad stuff off the table first. Clancy is more reductive than ever: French detectives are reduced to sniveling stereotypes, liberals are broadly painted as both conscious and unconscious supporters of terrorists (most notably an aged, Straw Man-looking, Rhode Island billionaire who, in his fear that Ryan will subvert American freedoms — military courts for terrorists! GASP! — ends up turning to torture, thereby proving Ryan’s own points), and villains are only ever shown as psychopathic murders with egomaniacal reasons for their attacks (i.e., identity issues, or desires to become a Shah) rather than, say, a complex and idealistic rebel. It’s been a long time since I read the original novels — from the brilliant set-piece of The Hunt for Red October to the combined economic/political/military coup-de-literature of Debt of Honor — but at least those made you think a little, and, in retrospect, were eerily prescient (here’s hoping the events of his latest novel do not come to pass). Locked On, however, gains all its plausibility from technical data rather than descriptions or character development: you’ll learn more about the Kamov-50 helicopter gunship used in Russia (“The KA-50s’ contra-rotating coaxial rotors chopped the thin mountain air. The unique twin rotor design negated the need for a tail rotor…”) than you will about Jack Jr.’s budding romance with a whip-smart analyst named Melanie. This is particularly troubling, given her role within the final hundred pages, as this — like so many other developments, including the appearance of Rainbow Six — comes out of thin air. Likewise, conversations are as terse and unbelievable as they come (there’s a reason technical manuals don’t have dialogue): “Cathy Ryan will make sure Sandy is okay while we’re gone. We make a hell of a team, and you are going to need me to watch your back.” “Appreciate it, but The Campus needs you more than I do. The OPTEMPO is too high for both of us to be gone.”

The novel — if you can call it that, since there’s not much here you haven’t seen before — is a monochromatic affair, sure, and in attempting to create sheer momentum, has sheared off all but the most factual of flourishes. And that’s the real problem here, the lesson to be learned. There’s nothing wrong with spy novels (or any genre, really); for the targeted audience, they’re often thrilling page-turners. But especially when there’s a glut of similarly themed books, it helps to have insight and growth (as in Neal Stephenson’s sprawling, entertaining mess, Reamde), to have something unique that stands out (the Jones-like cryptography that Dan Brown’s all about), or to fill the pages with lush details that give the superficial action a bit of a spine, that makes you feel as if you’re reading or seeing a gun fight in a whole new light — this is one of the ways in which Stephen King manages to keep soldiering on, even in a somewhat derivative novel like Under the Dome. Then again, there’s a reason the sunglasses-wearing Clancy looks so smug on the back cover, why his name is larger than the title: none of this really matters: the author is what’s on sale here. (I can see why some authors fight so hard to make sure their “intellectual” property can’t be used without their consent, lest they be shown up. Consider: Was Samuel Beckett concerned someone might do a “better” job of staging his work?)

That said, there’s nothing for me to really critique about Locked On. When one isn’t skimming over the technical stuff, skipping over the sappy or undeveloped stuff, and is just reading the clearly defined action sequences, it’s a fine read. It does, however, lack punch, which is a concerning trend, given that Locked On was theoretically going to resolve the loose ends of Dead or Alive. Yes, by the end of the day, a nuclear plot has been resolved, and Jack Ryan Sr. is the new president, but Pakistan and Kazakhstan are still reeling from military action and terrorist strikes and it’s unclear who the double-agent is reporting to, now that this person’s boss has been arrested (in a hastily written “epilogue”). Whereas previous Clancy novels might have given us actual analysis of the consequences of, say, the Ryan Doctrine, or the free-rein of the Rainbow organization, or reactions from, you know, the rest of the world, it seems more like that the inevitable “next” installment will simply move to the next theater of war, and so on, in a never-ending shell game of diminishing returns (especially now that Locked On‘s clever side-plot re: Clark has been wrung dry) — much like the Modern Warfare franchise. On a positive note, at least Locked On is cheaper and less painful than a shot of adrenaline: enjoy this extremely guilty (and only slight) pleasure at your own risk.

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