RogerBW's Blog

Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy (and Larry Bond) 30 May 2014

Some time in the 1980s, a terrorist attack on oil infrastructure leads the USSR to invade Europe.

I first read this book soon after it came out; it's a big part of what got me interested in naval wargaming and Harpoon in particular. But I hadn't read it for at least ten years, and when I went back to Larry Bond's early "solo" work (Red Phoenix, Vortex, and Cauldron, which I now know were written "with" Pat Larkin) after a similar interval I was very gravely disappointed. So I approached it this time with some trepidation.

Well, nobody's going to mistake it for a great work of literature, but it's still distinctly enjoyable. Sure, there are only two female characters with speaking parts, and maybe I notice that more now than I did, my goodness, nearly thirty years ago. Nobody has a terribly sophisticated personality; but they do at least all have something, and one can readily picture more stories being told about even the most minor characters.

This time round, I was reading less for the action and more for the big picture. The thesis of the book, after all, is the necessity of the Atlantic bridge: without reinforcements of men and materiel from the USA, asserts Clancy, European forces as they existed in the 1980s would ultimately have been unable to resist the Soviet incursion. Therefore there's much more emphasis on naval activity in this book than there is in, say, Hackett's The Third World War. (Which I probably ought to re-read.)

What's a little odd is that chemical and nuclear weapons are largely left out of the picture. This is obviously a necessary fudge in order to tell stories of conventional combat, but the justification for keeping back the chemical weapons in particular feels pretty thin.

It's a huge story, and is told from multiple viewpoints: something like ten major characters and a variety of more minor ones. The Soviets are less convincing than the Americans, but they get the job done; nobody here is the sort of utterly self-interested villain that one would see in Clancy's imitators. The Soviets are clearly the bad guys, certainly, but they're (mostly) portrayed as fairly competent soldiers betrayed by their political leaders, rather than rampaging murdering idiots. (The exception is the KGB, no member of which comes off well here.)

I quite like the earliest chapters, dealing with the Soviet response to the terrorist attack and the American intelligence community's evaluation of what can be learned. Some people found this part slow, but I liked the way things were put together by connecting isolated bits of data. It's rather truer to what I've heard of real SIGINT work than many other portrayals.

It does seem that most times the dice are rolled they come up in the Americans' favour. (Yes, the rest of NATO is here, but this a work by an American author writing for an American audience; as a British reader one just has to roll with it.) Their kit's always better, and they don't have anyone incompetent slowing them down. I'd like to have seen on the American side a bit more of the confusion of command that afflicts the Soviets once things stop going perfectly for them. The ASAT missiles and the stealth fighter are particular examples of things that are far more effective than expected.

Ah yes, the stealth fighter. That's something that pins down the writing date of this book very sharply: after the rumours in 1985 and the release in 1986 of the Testor model kit that defined the shape people believed in, but before the public revelation of the real thing in 1988. This one's a whole lot more capable than the real Nighthawk, with underwing weapon pylons (um, how does that work with a radar-absorbent coating?), an internal gun, and the ability to fly faster than sound.

It's interesting to see that special forces, which most authors like to put in the foreground in stories of this sort, are largely absent; this is a story about naval, air and armoured warfare, and for the most part it doesn't deal with boots on the ground. Indeed, the weakest part and the most special-forces-like part are both the Icelandic section, where a love story is also shoehorned in; as one might expect, it doesn't fit terribly well.

Politics, often the bane of technothriller authors, are essentially absent here. The Soviet politburo is represented fairly simplistically, while the American political leadership is entirely absent from the story. (So's Jack Ryan, thank goodness!)

In summary, the book stands up to re-reading much better than I'd feared. I may even go back to The Hunt for Red October one of these days.

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  1. Posted by Ashley at 02:49pm on 30 May 2014

    When I red The Hunt for Red October I quite enjoyed it, but not as much as the film. Possibly down to the music and Sean Connery; both add value to the sensory experience of the story.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:52pm on 30 May 2014

    I thought the film of tHfRO was, hm, not terribly good. I think they compromised too much in order to show nifty outside shots of submerged submarines; if I'd been doing it I'd have dropped all of those completely, because it's not an image anyone in the world could actually see. If the audience needs visual cues, use some sort of position plot.

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