SPECIAL FIRST ANNIVERSARY REVIEW: THE SUM OF ALL FEARS
This is it. For the first anniversary of Fuldapocalypse, I felt I had to review something big by a big-name author. And The Sum Of All Fears was not exactly a difficult choice. I felt it had to be Clancy, and I wanted to pick what’s often regarded as his absolute height.
Now, I’m not and have never been that much of a Tom Clancy fan. Even in his Hunt For Red October/Red Storm Rising-era “early, lean” period, I’ve felt he was never more than decent, and that his rise was more about circumstance and being able to tap a national mood than actual standout writing. And his later period (at least from Executive Orders onward) is just bad.
Enter The Sum Of All Fears, between them. It’s 1991, right before the Soviet Union collapses. How does it hold up? Well, that’s a tough question. What bizarrely helps is that judging it by the standards of something like Executive Orders, as opposed to The Hunt For Red October (to say nothing of books by other authors), means that any improvement over that clunker makes it look better. Also beneficial is that The Sum Of All Fears is over 100,000 (!) words shorter.
Comparing the two, they have a very similar structure. There’s a bunch of plot threads and they move forward for hundreds of pages with all the speed and gracefulness of a NASA Crawler making its way through the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster. Then in the final couple hundred of pages or so, the plot becomes vastly more focused, moving fast and much, much more smoothly.
And here’s where The Sum Of All Fears beats out Executive Orders dramatically. The latter’s final act was nothing but a dull, triumphalist stomp. This is a far more somber and unflashy piece with the goal being to stop a war rather than fight one. If I had to pick out a strange analogy, it’s the “peaceful resolution” paths of Undertale or a Fallout game. Jack Ryan being Pacifrisk or a speech-maxed protagonist is more conceptually interesting than him as a cook-shooting action hero or as a president. Here’s the sharp-tongued analyst doing sharp-tongued analyst things in a way that takes advantage of a character built as a sharp-tongued analyst.
This also has the best villain(ess) I’ve read in a Tom Clancy book, in the form of national security advisor/presidential girlfriend Elizabeth Elliot. In a strange way, I liked that she was just petty, shallow, and wrong in a world of blindly ideological supervillains. She’s also one of the few fictional characters that I could instantly pick an ideal actress for-in this case, Amy Poehler (aka Regina’s mother from Mean Girls).
So was The Sum Of All Fears a Team Yankee-style pleasant surprise for me?
Not really. First, there’s still the rest of the book. The plot threads aren’t as tangled as in Executive Orders, and they fold back into the final climax better (there’s nothing like EO’s useless “rednecks with a bomb” subplot in Fears), but they’re still there and clunking along. The setup portion of the book has its share of out-there plots (The “Swiss Guards For Middle Eastern Peace” is very zombie sorceress ) and axe-grinding political figures. Not to the extent of Executive Orders, but still there.
Second, the book is plagued by what felt to me like what can only be described as self-indulgence, even in the conclusion. There’s the infamous chapter (actually, chapters) devoted entirely to a nuclear bomb exploding, but the descriptions of actually building the stupid thing get a much larger word count than they deserve. The adventures of various submarines, aircraft, and electronics get giant infodumps. That’s to be expected, but what really pushed me over the line to “Ok, you’re going ‘Look how much I know’ constantly ” was talking about the vice presidency, from its initial “loser gets in” to the post Twelfth Amendment ticket system.
In the first act, this contributes to the bad pacing. In the climax, it neuters some of the punch (there’s nothing like going from Denver being nuked to a rote description of something far away). This would have been a good finale to the Jack Ryan series. But it had to go on, and some of the elements that weren’t so bad here move on to devour it in later books (which are set up here in plot points that do nothing but slow down the main plot of the current book even more).
If The Sum Of All Fears was four hundred pages long, focused completely on the nuclear bombing and subsequent near-World War III, and written as something completely self-contained by a writer who expected no further success, it would be a good technothriller, if a little clumsy. But it’s over a thousand and clearly written by someone who (accurately) saw nothing but new books, dollar signs, and ever-lighter editing ahead of him.
So, for my conclusions on The Sum Of All Fears, I’d say that the people who argued that this book marked when Clancy jumped the shark were right. It has most of what made his post-USSR books as bad as they were, and the redeeming part is its conclusion. Had it gone with something different (like more direct action, which Clancy never was the best at), I would have viewed it as just a slightly better Executive Orders. But it has that well-done, appropriate climax.
That leaves The Sum Of All Fears as a deeply flawed novel that still has a good conclusion and can serve as an ideal stopping point for Jack Ryan-if not for the writer, then for the reader.