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The Techno-Thriller

ISSUE:  Winter 1993

When Thomas Leo Clancy was a boy in Baltimore, he wanted to be a soldier. His heart beat for the stars and stripes. On good days he could catch the scent of sea spray from Chesapeake Bay. In his student years at Loyola College he carried no signs and made no audible protest. His mind was elsewhere, weighted stem to stern with the lore of the sea and warships. What he really wanted was to fight for his country in Vietnam. This didn’t happen. His eyesight was, and is, too weak for combat. He was never a U. S. Marine. Too bad. Clancy was no doubt cut out for this, in spirit and sensibility. His intellect is keen and disciplined. And utterly military.

Instead, Tom Clancy became a writer of big books. Hefty novels for summer beaches or those long airline flights to spots where Clancy never goes. His first, The Hunt for Red October, arrived for sale in late 1984. Clancy’s stars were clearly in place for Christmas. The publisher was the U. S. Naval Institute Press. Clancy’s first book was the Institute’s first gambit at publishing original fiction. It caught good attention in official Washington, D. C. Here at last was a fresh new thriller for career professionals in the Defense Department. Some important people in the State Department’s diplomatic corps read the book and passed it around. The novel was mentioned at parties. A copy was placed under the White House Christmas tree. Not long after New Year’s 1985, President Ronald Reagan told a Time interviewer that Red October is “the perfect yarn.”

Only a few have questioned that praise. The book has no doubt carved a niche in cultural history as a phenomenon of the 1980’s. It proved to be a pace setter for Clancy’s further authorship and an impressive model to all Clancy disciples and imitators. This was the new way into big bucks from books. Surely this was a business after all. . . . Or was it?

William S. Burroughs once asserted to me that every novelist writes as well as he or she can. He means that all writers produce at the peak of their skills or forms no matter what they say to seminars or interviewers. In the end, the collective aim of Melville, Faulkner, Kerouac, Mickey Spillane, and Iceberg Slim has been to earn two or three squares a day by one’s pen. So if it’s a business, it has some integrity.

The phenomenology of Clancy and devotees in his train occurs in literary circles. What spurred this discussion was the quick-draw jargon or newspeak of those three-minute oracles who review books for the mass media. I remain unwilling to call those persons critics. But their mission is to pinpoint trends, fads, shifts in the psychotic American breeze. By the late 1980’s, one or more of them were calling Tom Clancy the wizard inventor of the techno-thriller.

To accept this blurb as literary history is to admit that Clancy created a new genre fiction. When his Red October and Red Storm Rising (Putnam, 1986) were published, no one else seemed to be writing or even talking about his kind of novel. Then came Stephen Coonts with Flight of the Intruder (U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1986) and Harold Coyle with Team Yankee: A Novel of World War HI (Presidio Press, 1987). In short order a battalion of mimickers brought up the rear. Their colors are brazen and evident. Meanwhile, Clancy’s sixth novel, The Sum of All Fears, was published by Putnam’s in August 1991.

The techno-thrillers stand tall and thick in bookstores. The paperback renderings shimmer with glossy inks (good for reading in foxholes and duck blinds) and comic book graphics. The stories ring with patriotic fervor and a Manichean discernment of good versus evil. You always know your enemies. You quickly spot the good guys. You know from the outset which side will win because destiny commands it. These books are the proving grounds and playing fields of a warrior class. Heroes abound in the stories, most of them soldiers, seamen, fighter pilots, military officers, spies, or other mavens of espionage. The novels are just long enough to become variously exciting, laborious, and silly. The plots and crucial sequences always rely on advanced technology for waging war. This quality of the techno-thriller links it to science fiction. Remember that or underline it. What annoys many readers is that such SF purists as Isaac Asimov and James E. Gunn sacrifice character development for scientific explication in their stories. The techno-thriller makes a similar sacrifice much of the time and mounts a paradox. Heroes and other soldiers are game pieces, mannequins, cardboard stand-ups in a showroom window. They have all the human complexity and élan of the Blackhawks or Batman and Robin of the World War II comic books. In inverse proportion, the Soviet enemies, terrorists, and other villains are sculpted to deliver character traits and singular menace. This is the case in all of Clancy’s published novels to date.

My initial supposition about the audience for these books was that only the techno-freaks attached to research and development firms, or troops in “Ollie’s Army,” would ever buy them. Those are in fact the true zealots. But much of the English-reading world has ingested works of this genre. C. S. Forester’s “Hornblower” series and George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” frolics have now been outclassed—for now, at least—by Clancy’s chronicles of Jack Ryan. I was bound to be curious sooner or later. With a lot of bothersome questions, I first approached Tom Clancy, and later, his friend Stephen Coonts.

If there is a new genre, Clancy denies any connection with it. He insists that he writes novels, and they are thrillers. To make much more of it is to test his anger. He referred to Michael Crichton’s big seller, The Andromeda Strain (Knopf, 1969). “If anybody invented the techno-thriller, what about Crichton, when I was in college? All you’re doing is describing tools used by your characters. Technology is another word for tools.”

The matter of Clancy’s characters and how they function is a short subject made long by engaging the author in debate. He believes that he’s done an exemplary job. His reinforcement comes from “people in the business” who read his books right on time and comment that what he does well is “capture the personalities.” But what business is he talking about? The genre fiction that used to be just for newsstand pulps? What people in what business?

Not long after reading Clancy’s The Cardinal of the Kremlin (Putnam, 1988), I got hold of a short story he had published in a high school literary magazine. Its title is “The Wait.” Printed in 1965, it indexes the personality of a teenager who’s patriotic and fine-tuned to world affairs. His concerns then are his concerns now. Clancy loathes revolutionaries and guerrillas, most likely because they flout the law. He emulates the tough, faceless soldier who puts his life on the line against Communism. “The Wait” is precisely the same schmaltz on a sub roll that he’s been packaging for “thrillers” ever since. If Clancy refuses to own up to the techno-thriller, he might grant instead that he has given us five or six national security Westerns. The cowpokes wear black shoes and know how to fight showdowns with computers. Those are Clancy’s people. Their business may not be for our eyes and ears. But trust Clancy.

He told me of a conversation from 1987, when he and his family visited England a second time. “A friend of mine was the skipper of H. M. S. Boxer, a frigate,” he said. “We were having lunch in his stateroom aboard. He looked at me and he said, “Tom, the technology in your books is not terribly impressive, but I think the characters are bloody accurate.” I wanted to grab him by the throat and say, “Why don’t you tell the God-damned critics?” But the people in the business tell me that the technology is no big deal, because any fool can do that. What I do well is capture the personalities.”

What I’ve heard and read is just the reverse. Clancy has prodigious facility with high technology but his characters are tilting scarecrows. His third novel, Patriot Games (1987), deals less with war technology than with law enforcement and shooting it out with urban guerrillas. When we spoke, he said he regards this novel as his finest. Most reviews faulted this book more than his others, and on the same grounds. Only he and those “people in the business” have kind words for his characters. But the book sold extremely well as usual. Clancy need not defend himself.

In conversation with him I pushed the issue of his characters, perhaps a bit too far. I asked, for example, whether Prince Charles had shown any reaction to Clancy’s portrayal of him in Patriot Games.

“No more than President Reagan had a reaction to the fact that there’s a president in Red October, Red Storm and Cardinal,” he said. “He was a generic character. He was never intended to be Charles, Prince of Wales. He’s just a character. If in any American political thriller novel you have a president, you don’t necessarily mean President Reagan or President Ford or President Carter. You just mean a person who has the job. I simply treated the Prince of Wales as the same sort of literary invention. If you pay close attention there are enough clues to tell you that it’s not Charles.”

Again, please take note. The techno-thriller is bound to be inhabited by generic characters. Once the reader has expended those brain cells in processing data on machineries of devastation, he is perhaps amenable to drastic suspensions of disbelief. The existence of parallel worlds, for example. The one on which we walk, eat meals, read books, watch television, and gratefully go to sleep. The other is for Clancy’s callow Prince, his renderings of nameless U. S. presidents who attain to dullness and stupidity, a martinet national security advisor named Jeffrey Pelt, a CIA director known as Judge Moore. Men with jobs. With each big book we get a cigar box full of tin men with guns. In the usual course of things, Clancy’s women are as wan and insipid as tea left standing for three days. Clancy’s recurring hero is Jack Ryan, very square and very opaque. With every book Jack’s ties to the CIA are tighter. He advances upward, gets richer. The nation relies on him more and more. He could run for Congress if we ever knew anything meaningful about him.

Clancy insisted more than once that he writes about a “generic category of hero” The idea by itself is specious outside the comic books. All the same, the legions of devotees who read his novels have not diminished. He tells a good story, spins an exciting yarn. The characters don’t accomplish a thing in the techno-thriller. They generate no electricity. They are understood only by what they do. Their definition is the purpose of their mission.

Readers of this genre fiction are apt to find escapist fun but little or no artistry. Clancy told me that he thinks of himself as an entertainer with no pretense to literary matters or concerns. In my own fashion I looked for a durable message in the works of Tom Clancy. He often denies that he ever intends any such thing. But I asked anyway. In all those Cold War potboilers, isn’t Clancy saying that there are ways to wage peace through a new balance of power in the world?

“You may be right,” he answered. “As Claudius Appius the Blind said, “Si vis pacem parate pro helium. . . . If you desire peace, prepare for war.” The other thing I say in there is that people we have wearing uniforms and carrying badges are important members of our society and entitled to respect. They don’t have halos. You may not always want your daughter to go out and date one. But we should treat them decently because they’re out there for us. The Pentagon Navy is not the same as the fleet Navy. I know that. And that may find its way into my next book.”


Following the success of his Team Yankee, Harold Coyle wrote Sword Point (1988) and Bright Star (1990), both techno-thrillers from Simon & Schuster. Coyle is a friend to Tom Clancy, as is Stephen Coonts, After his Flight of the Intruder, Coonts encored with Final Flight (Doubleday, 1988), then The Minotaur (Doubleday, 1989) and Under Siege (Pocket Books, 1990). Standing in Clancy’s long shadow is no encumbrance for the other two. They are where they are because Clancy was the pathfinder. But I paid special attention to Coonts because of his rather different style and approach to a story. When The Minotaur appeared, I spoke to him personally. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

In his youth, Stephen Coonts read a lot of genre fiction. He seems to have liked spy novels best of all. After a point he gave up on science fiction books. His enthusiasm for high technology was low and remains so. His Muses have yodeled from somewhere else in the Rockies. After flying many combat missions for the U. S. Navy over North and South Vietnam and Laos, he accumulated a footlocker of stark and scary experiences. He had in mind a book of all the close calls. His own and his friends. That volume is Flight of the Intruder. He still calls it his best.

Coonts draws on classical mythology to shape his stories. Ovid’s Metamorphoses has long been his source book. But he also told me that Flight of the Intruder is largely based on the Biblical story of Job. The hero of his novels is fighter pilot Jake Grafton, a battle-tough counterpart of Clancy’s Jack Ryan. In this first novel, Jake is up against temptations of hubris, vengeance, and reckless disregard for human lives.

Coonts talked about how he became a novelist. “A man is scared and shot at and changed,” he said. “If he comes home alive he finds a new zest in life. He sees things as others do not. He deals with timeless conflicts of the human condition. You’re on solid ground as a storyteller if you take new approaches to man’s duty to society and to other human beings. Stories should try to captivate but not preach or give answers.” In Coonts I would say the key word is changed. . . .

Those are lofty ideals, all right. Stendhal might have vocalized them, or Ernest Hemingway during breakfast. Do they apply to the techno-thriller? Some years ago, metacritics and a few popular novelists wrote and lectured on moral fiction. Where are those debates today? The techno-thriller and its practitioners may be standing athwart. Tom Clancy, for one, made it clear to me that he has no interest in contemporary literature as Literature. He perennially scorns any salon environs. He spoke of the legendary Algonquin Round Table in pejoratives. Never studied the modern novel as a course, never took creative writing in a school setting. He has warmth and praise for Frederick Forsyth as a wordsmith but would much prefer to talk about how his friend Freddy so spellbinds a reader with elegant language that he or she becomes a character such as Jackal. Forsyth is plainly Clancy’s ideal. That is, for Tom Clancy he is a contemporary paragon. Underline contemporary.

For Coonts the works of Eric Ambler were sublime, especially two thrillers from 1943: A Coffin for Dimitrios and Journey into Fear. Today he admires John le Carre. The Little Drummer Girl he calls a masterpiece. But he finds the novels about George Smiley “too cerebral.” Even in thriller genres there are lines rarely crossed. John le Carre may prove to be more daring than his younger frères in the business. But don’t look for Smiley in a techno-thriller.

As with Clancy, the techno-thriller does not exist as a distinct genre for Stephen Coonts. Or so he says, when you first ask.

Coonts and Clancy are now fast friends. On many scores their opinions are alike. They no doubt swap war stories and gripes about book reviewers in the mass media. On the techno-thriller, Coonts remarked, “There’s nothing new about it. I know that Tom sat down consciously to write a modern submarine tale that he hoped would be as good as Run Silent, Run Deep, by Edward L. Beach [1955], and told in the same style. In that novel you have all the elements of what is now called a techno-thriller. The military guys are the heroes. The tale is told in carefully crafted, solid, accurate technical details, all part of the story. You’re told what it is the crew is doing and why they’re doing it. That sets up the scene and the conflict, so it’s part of the story. And it’s an actionadventure story. Those are the elements of the so-called “techno-thriller.”“

He said he didn’t read The Hunt for Red October until his own first novel was accepted for publication by the U. S. Naval Institute Press. Coonts told me he intended a flying story modeled after Ernest K. Gann’s Fate Is The Hunter (1961). That impressive book is a work of nonfiction. Coonts chose to write a novel because he believed the form would allow him generous space to interweave his own Vietnam experiences with those of other pilots.

“Gann puts you in the cockpit in an unobtrusive way,” Coonts indicated. “He explains to you what the hell it is they’re doing in there. You can’t understand the story he’s telling unless you realize what the pilots are doing. That’s the essence of what Flight of the Intruder tries to do. You don’t understand the problems Jake and Morgan and Tiger Cole have unless you understand what they’re up against. How the airplane works, how the system works. You can’t understand what it feels like to fly at 400 feet at night over North Vietnam dodging the flak, until you get a feel for what the crew is doing. And how Jake flies the airplane, and what he’s looking at. The story can’t be told without those details.”

He credits Tom Clancy with rescuing the story of the hero in uniform and making it shine. After a long lapse the publishers could sell those swagger-and-salvo books in high volume. It isn’t corn and camp any longer. So says Stephen Coonts. He looks back at 20 years of American fiction and sees the military image scarred by Vietnam recoil. The man in uniform was often painted as psychopathic, perverted, and criminal. But didn’t the splendid novels of James Webb accomplish this revision years before the techno-thriller? Not as Coonts reads the flow chart. Jim Webb writes best sellers but they don’t reap the rewards of the mammoth Clancy sagas. To Coonts this profit margin is ultimately a line of demarcation. On one side are war novelists the likes of Webb, James Jones, and Tim O’Brien. Their priorities have to do with realism and art. On the other are the new breed of genre writers who are mass-producing techno-thrillers. The difference for Coonts is between what he calls “realistic, thoughtful novels” and “popular commercial fiction” which “makes absolutely no pretenses of being literature.”

Publishers have been contracting writers by the score to pound out techno-thrillers. The result has been a glut of this kind of book in the nation’s drug stores, airline terminals, newsstands, supermarkets and—oh yes!—book shops. The mass-market paperbacks are frequently emblazoned with glossy allusions to Clancy and Coonts in their cover copy. This no doubt hastens the heartbeat of millions and does honor and justice to the genre. It also proves to the publicists in New York that you can always sell chicanery with its own gimcracks.

“I think that ultimately it’s a fad,” Coonts remarked. “A lot of the books are mediocre at best. I see a lot of shoot-‘em-ups out there with high-tech stuff thrown in but not essential to the story. It’s terrific that the guys who write them are breaking into publishing. Halleluia! But I think it’ll pass. How many times can you do the next Korean War or the war in the Mideast? There’s a limit on this stuff, and I think it’s fast being reached. Tom Clancy can write anything he wants because he’s a good-enough storyteller. He will always be able to sell his books. I’m a whole notch down from the public acceptance Tom Clancy’s got. I’ll have to grow and change to survive. But I guarantee you, I’m not about to do a book about the next Korean War or the war in the Mideast. I don’t think the publishers are going to keep buying this stuff.”

Recently I took a look at what is available around Washington, D. C., where five-dollar paperbacks are sold. Richard Herman, Jr. ‘s Force (Avon, 1991). . . about war in the Mideast. Patrick F. Rogers’ War God (Pinnacle, 1990). . . about facing the Soviets with SDI. Hostage One, by David E. Fisher and Col. Ralph Albertazzle (St. Martin’s, 1990). . . about the abduction of the U. S. President by a high-tech loony. Herbert Crowder’s Ambush at Osirak (Jove, 1989). . . about war in the Mideast.

One of the problems confronting writers in this genre is collaring a plausible villain. Cessation of the Cold War has all but eliminated the Red Army, the KGB, and other Russian golems. The Gulf War didn’t last long enough to suit the television networks, let alone the quick-book publishers. “The terrorists are the only plausible villains around right now who are obvious,” Coonts said. Tom Clancy rounded up terrorists, gangsters, and corrupt public officials foreign and domestic when he wrote his big one for 1989, Clear and Present Danger (Putnam). What we get is a pretty nifty book about the international drug war. Jack Ryan reappears as a three-star hero: CIA deputy director, concerned parent, and law-abiding citizen.

Jack Ryan would epitomize the “generic hero” if, as a character, he didn’t raise such aggravating questions about himself. Annoying, because answers are never forthcoming. Reviewers and other readers often guess that he’s the Walter Mitty projection of Tom Clancy.

Stephen Coonts presents another troublesome “generic” in the invention of Jake Grafton. Why should he warrant our attention? “Jake believes in himself,” Coonts told me. “He is Everyman, with common sense and ability to do a good job. Jake Grafton is not wise, witty, or handsome. He is average. Jake is not a believer in high tech. Far from it. Jake has been in combat. He knows that, in real combat, anything more complex than a pocket watch won’t work. Gadgets don’t thrill Jake and don’t thrill me! Jake is a timeless hero. I think that’s Jake’s appeal. He appeals to something basic in all of us.”

But again, the hero of a brace of techno-thrillers has dimension because he has a job that he must do. This goes for all the techno-thrillers. The genre is about war, real, imagined, or inevitable. The job is warfare, the heroes are warriors. A case can be made that the authors in this genre are opting for a warrior class. Clancy denies that he’s glorifying any such class but defers to the multivolume “Brotherhood of War” series. Those popular thrillers are the work of Coonts’ friend Bill Butterworth, using the nom de plume W. E. B. Griffin.


When he was a third-grade pupil, Tom Clancy began reading the fabulous novels of Jules Verne (1892-1905), the French author justly celebrated as the father of science fiction. Always an avid reader, Clancy has remained close to science fiction, for the pleasure of it and doubtless the inspiration in its other-worldly possibilities. While an English major at Baltimore’s Loyola College, he completed an independent study program in science fiction. His reading list included Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, John Wyndham, Philip Wylie, and Isaac Asimov, He reached back to a literary genre that had captured his boyhood. It was clearly his intent to write science fiction stories. This he did, in some quantity, but was never fortunate to sell a single one to any publisher. Clancy told me that he never throws anything out. So, it’s a safe bet that his SF manuscripts exist. Intuition tells me that they’re probably well above average for contemporary SF tales. They would be the proving grounds for the techno-thriller.

Stephen Coonts insisted to me that he writes about people and “not hardware.” High technology doesn’t impress or inspire him. Long ago he was turned off by science fiction. Instead he is immersed in the idea of change within a story. How an author deals with changes in points of view, especially from a cockpit and through a bomb sight. Clancy refers back to the eternal “What if. . . ?” of the science fiction visionaries. He applies their search for possibilities to modern warfare and foreign policy concerns. Among those classic prophetic writers, Jules Verne stands clearly apart as Tom Clancy’s avatar.

In The Hunt for Red October, Clancy introduces Captain Marko Ramius, intrepid commander of the Soviet submarine Red October. Ramius is a man of parts. In early chapters the reader discovers his substance and ideals. Ramius proves to be more interesting than any other character in the story. His resemblance to an earlier seafaring warrior is unmistakable. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) is considered by many to be Jules Verne’s finest work. Its central figure is Captain Nemo, master of the mysterious submarine Nautilus. When Verne wrote his novel, submarines only broke the waves in the minds of dreamers. What Clancy wrote about was a submarine so ingenious that the most sophisticated sonar devices could scarcely trace its undersea whisper.

Verne’s portrayal of Nemo remained cryptic. The indomitable submariner reappeared, a dying man aboard his Nautilus, in The Mysterious Island (1875). For all the readers knew, Captain Nemo was the sullen, embittered enemy of all oppressors. An undersea Robin Hood who settled scores and took out his personal vengeance on the world’s maritime traffic. A close look shows no sure enemy to Nemo. In the last analysis he was a renegade avenger, an outlaw genius. Aside from his obvious rage and high-handed intimidation, he displayed noble traits. Near the close of The Mysterious Island, we learn that Nemo was an Indian prince whose family was slaughtered during the English colonial wars. His life mission had been revenge.

Jean Jules Verne, grandson of the great storyteller, relates how the author held vehement political convictions. He was incensed at the Russian oppression of the Polish people and others in Eastern Europe. Much of this acrimony found its way into an early draft of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne was prevailed upon by his business-wise publisher, Jules Hetzel, to purge any political material for the sake of high-volume international sales. Details of this restraint on the author are revealed in his grandson’s Jules Verne: A Biography.

Nemo the obsessive-compulsive maverick is reincarnated as Ramius in The Hunt for Red October. He reappears as the Soviet defector in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, but only the mincing, incoherent shade of the pirate who stole away with the Red October. Tom Clancy summoned perhaps his only realized fictional character and set him adrift.

The authorship of Tom Clancy resembles Jules Verne’s in an important way. Both men are telling prophetic stories dealing with quirks or innovations in scientific technology. In all important cases, knowledge of what is going on—or what is anticipated—is known to only a select cabal of men (and no women). Only in rare instances do any of these men ever impress us as well-conceived or realized personalities. This is all right with Clancy because his men are “generic.” Jules Verne was criticized when the details of Nemo’s Nautilus nearly put the character Nemo in total eclipse. Nonetheless, Verne taught Clancy, and Clancy taught “generics” to all the rest.

Those cells of privileged information aren’t very interesting in Tom Clancy’s books. Nearly always they are cadres of intelligence and secret weapons specialists who read Clausewitz in day school. Just drop a name like “Angleton” and you’ll get a round of precise talk on the difference between strategic and tactical. Here are the Hollow Men. Heroes all.

Clancy told me that his favorite of his own novels is Patriot Games, the one he said was most “savaged” by reviewers. The story is outrageous and the characters are mostly clods. Technology is at a minimum. Instead we get bombs and an assortment of firearms, and the Clancy method of repelling international terrorists. The cabal is a bestiary of Irish nationalist guerrillas led by Sean Miller, a convicted bomber. In another place I have argued that Tom Clancy has such esteem for this work because it offered him an opportunity to pare his personality three ways. Accept Jack Ryan as Clancy’s idealized self, no matter how loudly he denies it. His “generic” Prince of Wales appears callow, open-faced, a clean slate for the sage lessons of Jack Ryan. This Prince is an innocent with the power potential to be a warrior king. Perhaps another Clancy ideal. Sean Miller represents a special menace. When Jack Ryan testifies at the Old Bailey, he is chilled by Miller’s cold stare. Clancy needed to create a duel, a shoot-out at Baltimore’s Dundalk Marine Terminal, to do away with this ogre. I remain convinced that Sean Miller is Clancy’s dark familiar, his Doppelganger, the armed and dangerous one. Sean Miller is all that Clancy is not. Disorderly, unmilitary, reckless, anarchic. Clancy told me that he began to write Patriot Games well before he wrote The Hunt for Red October. By the luck of the Irish, the reading public came to know Tom Clancy far ahead of his prideful Patriot Games.

Curtis Church wrote a perceptive “Foreword” to the omnibus volume, Works of Jules Verne (1983). Therein, Church indicates Verne’s schizoid outlook on modern science and its potentials. As much as he enjoyed science study and marveled at scientific advances, he dreaded the consequences of technology in mischievous or diabolical hands. Church further points to Verne’s projection of his own personality in Captain Nemo and in Phileas Fogg, hero of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873; British, 1874). Thus the cabals, the secret enterprises of men who take dares and risk lives— their own or others. Jules Verne was a precise and thorough researcher. In his time he could never be faulted for inaccuracy. His personal insistence was on the plausible. The same is true of Tom Clancy today. He insisted to me that he has always relied on open, unclassified, or declassified source material, even though some of his novels have stunned and confounded people in Defense, as much of Verne was prophecy a century and more ago.

Verne’s cabals are clusters of well-meaning eccentrics with mighty purpose. Like Clancy’s heroes, they’re going to have their day no matter what. In A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864; British, 1872), the sojourners underground are members of the Literary Society and Mechanics’ Institute, which publishes educational books. Its roster includes “many foreign scholars of eminence” who are “honorary members.” The gathering place is Hamburg. In From the Earth to the Moon (1865; British, 1873) and its sequel, Round the Moon (1870), Impey Barbicane and his fellow space travelers are officers of the Baltimore Gun Club, comprised of “artillerists” and sundry other militarists chiefly obsessed with warfare. In Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg belongs to London’s renowned Reform Club. Verne paints the club and its doings in lavish tones of opulent idleness. The all-male membership indulges in high-stakes gambling. Such a wager sends Fogg and his plucky valet, Passepartout, on a trip around the globe. In The Mysterious Island, five balloonists are stranded on what turns out to be Captain Nemo’s secret island hideout. The men are an engineer, a journalist, a seaman, a black man who had been a slave, and a child. Jean Jules Verne has interpreted this configuration allegorically as the five who “represent the successive stages in the evolution of mankind.” The novel begins at the close of the American Civil War. When Nemo is discovered, he is given ample room for philosophy.

Jules Verne loved the United States. He visited this country in the early spring of 1867 and traversed New York State, from Manhattan Island to Buffalo and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. His letters and diaries from this vacation were ultimately the grist of one of his last novels, Master of the World (1904; not in English till 1914). This relatively short work is a true techno-thriller as the genre has been described. It brings back an earlier Verne villain, Robur the Conqueror (1886). The character Robur is a rogue scientist. His aim in the second tale about him is world domination. He pilots an infernal machine that can zoom across land, sail the seas and fly through the clouds. He commands a skeletal crew of loyal henchmen. Only this cabal knows about Robur’s machine, called “the Terror,” and its hiding places in the Appalachians and the Great Lakes region. The man sent in pursuit of “the Terror” is John Strock, “head inspector in the federal police department at Washington.” He tracks Robur to Niagara Falls and then the Gulf of Mexico. At the close, the reader can only presume about Robur’s destruction.

Old and sick at the turn of the 19th century, Jules Verne was wealthy, respected, admired—and jaded. When he died, March 24, 1905, he had excited more than four generations of young readers. He had made an adventure of science, geography, and certain ideas about geopolitics. In the long run he trusted less in the future of science. His life had spanned too many wars, too many imperialist land grabs accomplished by advanced war technology. He could read a newspaper and conjure the visage of a Robur or a Nemo, just across the Rhine or floating in the Strait of Dover. If the planet would make room for new sciences, systems, and machinery, would there be new ethics and morals also? Verne wouldn’t live to know.

I don’t know whether Tom Clancy’s editors or publishers have tried to restrain him from expressing any ideas. His patriotism is evident in all he has written. His Russophobia was conspicuous in three of his first four novels. Uniforms, badges of authority, military decorations, Army tanks, Navy battleships and pep talks on the Strategic Defense Initiative can all make life worth living for him. When asked by others about the end of the Cold War, he said that he would almost surely continue to write political thrillers.

What does all this say about the techno-thriller genre? Is it for fun and escape, or is it a bill of goods? Maybe it is both. Jules Verne couldn’t be reached for comment. But I don’t think he ever conceived a novel about science and propaganda.


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