I’ve never been that much a fan of Tom Clancy, though I admit a lot of my problem comes from a “seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect. To me, The Hunt for Red October was just OK, and it’s very hard to judge Red Storm Rising because I’ve emerged in a totally different context (but if I had to give a rating, I’d say it’s OK as well).
Executive Orders is not “OK”.
So why did I read it? Genuine curiosity. Not snarky curiosity, but a sincere desire to both see if it was as iffy as I’d heard and see how far the apple fell from the tree. This is a long review, and not just because the book has lots of problems. I figured a big book by a big author deserved a big review.
So, take a post-1991 technothriller, with the tropes of crisis overload and limited force. Then take a political thriller. Then take a medical thriller. Then add a second draft of a technothriller. Then shuffle all the notes together and call it a book. It’s several stock thrillers all stuffed into one book.
The tangled plotlines all take a long time to spool up. Sometimes it feels like a filler episode of a shonen anime where Ryan and the antagonist Daryaei spend half an hour yelling at each other and glowing so the manga writer can maintain a head start on the proper chapters.
Clancy (and/or whatever ghostwriters assisted him) has to describe everything. When he gets a description wrong, it feels bad. And stuff gets described wrong. Predators, a workman basic drone, are treated like they’re RQ-whatever stealth aircraft that can just fly slowly at 10,000 feet above a heavy mechanized army without a care of being shot down, and tanks specifically designated as T-80s die as easily as early export T-72s did in the Gulf War.
Coming on the heels of Debt of Honor’s Japanese-American War, this brings about a United Islamic Republic. So about par for the course in 90s technothrillers concerning the opponents. A lot of other stuff ranges from “implausible” to “very implausible”, but to be honest, my mind was either accepting it as part of a (supposedly) dramatic story or just not wanting to nitpick details that I’d handwave aside anyway when the literary fundamentals were that bad.
But I think the biggest zombie sorceress handwave is the series as a whole. Because it’s gone from Jack Ryan, everyman analyst who fights an evil cook, to Jack Ryan, President Mary Sue of the United States with a clean slate to remake the federal government. Now that’s a zombie sorceress plot.
As mentioned in the “Iceland” section, this is a very jumbled book. It’s the story of a new inexperienced president and his family getting the hang of the job and a political rant tract and a bioattack and a “normal” terror attack and a conventional war in the Middle East and a crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the story of rednecks with a bomb. All weaving in and out of focus, diluting what few plotlines could have had some potential. Then when they are resolved, it’s often done very, very quickly and sometimes anticlimactically.
It does get a little more focused at the end of the story, but the tame battle in the desert only served to remind me of how much better Michael Farmer did something similar in Tin Soldiers. There’s one late-war, late-book scene in Tin Soldiers where the American missiles and aircraft maul an Iraqi division but don’t stop it, it’s followed by a scare where enemy Hinds with guided missiles of their own do some damage, and is followed still by a ferocious close-quarters battle where one of the main characters loses his tank.
In a similar scene near the end of Executive Orders, a similar UIR force is just walloped by gee-whiz superweapons and finished off by those good ol’ Americans in an almost nonchalant way.
And then Jack Ryan drops a smart bomb on the UIR leader’s home on live television. The end.
I found only two real plotlines that actually seemed like they could be effective.
- The bioattack. While the most effective on its own terms, it shimmies around the various plotlines in a way that loses its punch, it’s wrapped up far too neatly once the quarantine is established, and in a way it serves as an excuse for a smaller force to face the UIR invaders in…
- The conventional conflict in the desert. The pacing and flow does improve significantly once it finally revs up. Except it feels like Clancy put in the minimum effort to create theoretical dramatic tension before going back to the stomp he was comfortable with.
As for the characters, not only are they stock thriller characters, they’re overexposed thanks to the long plot. They’re also the subject of many infodumps that characterize them by telling rather than showing (and which makes the book even longer and less coherent).
The Only Score That Really Matters
Executive Orders doesn’t work. It has the one thing that dooms a cheap thriller more than anything else-bad pacing. There’s the “slowly ramp up to something you know is going to happen” problem made worse by there being several plotlines that get in each others way and stop whatever momentum does develop. When action does happen, it feels second-rate. So I found it as bad as I heard it to be.
On top of that, it just feels exaggerated. A lot of the Ryan-as-president scenes are there simply to allow Clancy to rant about domestic politics. Instead of Iraq or Iran, it’s a union of both, turning individually plausible opponents into an implausible one. The American triumphalism that was always in his books reaches even greater heights. I think my “favorite” example is how Clancy mentions the rightfully successful NTC OPFOR in a way that gives as little credit as possible to the actual Soviet/Russian tactics they’ve trained to imitate.
Clancy was the author at the very top, the king of the technothriller, the writer who stayed at the top of the bestseller lists while other technothriller authors faded or changed genres entirely. If he had become like this, does that mean the imitators would go from mediocre to bad, or from bad to worse?
I actually don’t think so. I believe Clancy to be a victim of his own success. Certainly most of the negative trends I could find before in other thrillers written before Executive Orders’ publication date in 1996. I think he simply was so popular that there was no perceived need to make his work “tighter”, and thus all the flaws compounded each other.
It’s just that the end result of a self-published writer working without strict editors and the superstar author having the editors lighten up on their strictness is mostly the same-a big, aimless tale. Clancy faced the same pressures everyone else in the genre he played no small part in creating did. He also faced the fall of the USSR and maintaining novelty in a large series.
About the only thing I can safely say Executive Orders did was help popularize, even before 9/11, the Middle Eastern Coalition antagonist set, but even with that I don’t want to credit it too much. After all, the 90s scramble for new villains would likely have turned up something similar.
I felt no schadenfreude at this book, and felt legitimately disappointed that I considered it as bad as I’ve heard. It’s sad to see the face of a genre decline so noticeably, but decline he did. Thankfully, there are better post-1991 technothrillers out there.
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