I first became addicted to techno-thrillers when I was unemployed. Needing something to keep me in the house without resorting to daytime TV, I scoured charity shops and second hand bookshops for anything to read. The only things which were less than a decade old were the free romance booklets given away with copies of More and the works of Clancy, Brown and their imitators.
I didn’t expect to like the politics and wasn’t surprised by the flat characterisation. But I was hooked and have now waded through a dozen or so of these bricks. It has become obvious to me that the genre adheres to a few simple formulae, as follows-
1. The military is always right.
Politicians have rarely been able to make sensible military decisions- influenced as they are by paranoia about backstabbing or spin- and there seems no reason why soldiers should be any better at making decisions about the economy. However, in the techno-thriller, the only people whose decisions are for the good of the country come from one of the armed services.
1a. Some parts of the military are more right than others.
Depending upon the favoured service of the author, their branch of the services gets more of the action. Stephen Coonts’ guys are usually naval fliers, Dale Brown favours the boys and girls of the bomber wings and Area 51’s toys. Clancy himself, who didn’t serve, is most balanced, even bringing in the Feebs and Spooks. Write about what you know, and all that, but sometimes there’s a bit of childish name calling.
2. America, America Uber Alles.
Even the rare Brit writing techno-thrillers centres upon the US of A. Other countries are only good for occasional specialists, who are still in awe of the Yanks’ military system.
3. Muslims are a bad lot.
With the Soviets no longer a plausible threat, most plots now revolve around the towelheads running rampant. (Though Clancy did take a little time out to show those uppity Nipponese who was still boss. [Debt of Honour]) Occasionally someone will comment that most Muslims are honourable people before proceeding to send hordes of them to meet Allah, but usually the only followers of Islam encountered are about to be used as target practice by the Marines. [Executive Orders, Shadows of Steel]
3a. China’s a bit dodgy too.
Pre September 11th, ragging on the ragheads had worn thin with everyone, and they turned their attentions to Mao’s boys [Hong Kong, Fatal Terrain, Sky Masters, The Bear and The Dragon] (though Clancy took time out again to slap ecologist about and defend GM and Ford’s right to build cars that need their own oilwells [Rainbow Six]). I guess that’ll be over with now.
4. Women must always be protected.
And wait at home and worry. And be prepared to give up their career to go where their husband’s job takes them.
4a. Jack Ryan is the most fertile man in the world.
In all of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels that I have read, the character has only had sex with his wife twice. And she got pregnant each time. This reminds me more of The Meaning of Life than a mature relationship.
5. ‘It was the sort of thing that only happened in bad movies/ novels/ TV programmes.’
An observation made by characters each time some horrendously contrived plot twist, suitable only for a bad movie, novel or TV programme, happens. As characters turn into franchises the twists are getting ever more convoluted.
And, finally, the award for being most out of touch with reality. In Task Force 61, the task force has landed, ready to kill a few Arabs. The commander is strolling along the beach. He marvels at how all his troops- black, white, hispanic- have rallied together to listen to the hard, raw, gritty music of the streets. The song- ‘You can’t touch this’ by MC Hammer.
Break out the baggy trousers men, we’re going to war!