RogerBW's Blog

SSN, Tom Clancy 21 March 2014

In 1997, an Improved Los Angeles-class attack submarine, USS Cheyenne, joins the war against China.

Apparently by Clancy himself, unlike many of the books which went out over his name, SSN was written as a tie-in to the computer game of the same name. The game didn't get good reviews: not enough whiz-bang action for arcade-style gamers, not enough complexity in play for serious submarine fans.

The book is similarly unsatisfying. All right, I admit I know more about submarine warfare than the typical computer gamer. But much of the action feels like by-the-numbers copy and paste of standard verbiage. How many times do we have to hear "Make tubes one and two ready in all respects, including opening the outer doors"? Twenty-one, apparently. All right, that includes a couple of times when it's tubes three and four instead.

Clancy says in an interview at the end of the book that combat is "not really a technical exercise. It's a human exercise, and a psychological exercise." But alas, this book is almost exclusively about the technical. The captain of the submarine is very nearly the only character with a name (everyone else is referred to by their titles), and even he doesn't have a personality. The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, the books that made Clancy's reputation, handled this much better.

There are a couple of errors ("flaming datum" does not mean a flame from a recently-launched missile pointing at the submarine, it means learning that there's an attacker in the area when one of your ships suddenly gets hit; and when you haven't yet classified the sort of submarine you're listening to, you don't know how many blades are on the propeller or how fast a given blade rate means she's going) which I would not have expected Clancy to commit; I wonder, in spite of the total lack of other credit, whether he really did write this himself.

The real problem with the book, though, is an utter lack of tension. Everything basically works: the good guys always get their kills, the bad guys never do. Coordination between Cheyenne and the surface fleet is perfect at all times. Only one American ship is sunk and two are somewhat damaged, off-stage; not even one American aircraft is shot down; but the entire Chinese submarine fleet is eliminated, almost all by the Cheyenne, along with most of its surface ships. Sometimes they even panic and collide with, or attack, each other. It's all very well to show us how concerned the captain is, but there's never any real feeling of danger.

The book is a technical exercise, and a distinctly imperfect one.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:48pm on 21 March 2014

    This was the point where I stopped reading Clancy.

  2. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:11pm on 21 March 2014

    I have, unfortunately for me, read later ones. I've even ranted about it a bit: see my FACEBOOK entry for 15/06/12 for the bilious reaction I had to DEAD OR ALIVE which is one of the series of meretricious tripe set in the So-Super-Secret-The-President-Doesn't-Know-About-It agency that Jack Ryan set up to kill, torture, fold, mutilate and spindle anyone who might be dangerous to the USA. Warning: this book contains macho wish fulfillment, right-wing rants, slanders against anyone who dares disagree and many other things to make your brain run out of your ears.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 11:27pm on 21 March 2014

    I stopped reading Clancy with the one where all the Japanese turn out to be evil and Jack Ryan becomes President, Debt of Honor. But while Without Remorse had its moments, and The Sum of All Fears had exactly one (highly technical) moment, the only ones I've gone back to since are The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising; I can get past the politics to enjoy the combination of decent (if somewhat superficial) characters and tech that's got right. I only took a look at SSN because it wasn't in the Jack Ryan universe, and I thought that might work in its favour.

  4. Posted by John Dallman at 02:50pm on 22 March 2014

    Yes, THfRO and RSR have aged far better than his later stuff.

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