Book Review: Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive

I feel like I grew up with Tom Clancy.  I discovered Clancy in high school and I proceeded to read every Clancy book I could get my hands on until there were none left.  In those days, he was releasing roughly a book a year, and it was great.  I loved it all – John Ryan, the “Ryanverse”, and I really loved the standalone Red Storm Rising which I was told was required reading for officers at West Point.  Simply put, I was (and still am) a fan of Clancy’s.

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Tom Clancy's Dead or Alive
Then I read the Bear and the Dragon, and the wheels started to come off a bit.  The descriptions of the characters (particularly the Chinese leaders) seemed extremely wooden and stereotypical.  There was a ridiculous plot involving a Chinese secretary giving secret information to an ethnically Japanese CIA agent, which, if you know anything about Sino-Japanese relationships and prejudices, would not fly.  The main plot point hinged on another falsehood (Chinese soldier executing a Christian who was trying to not have a state-forced abortion).  The resulting almost fetish-like description of the Chinese government falling out of power to a replica Tiananmen demonstration seemed firmly set in some sort of Milton Friedman “free markets lead to free speech” fantasy-land.  Real China observers know that the truth is a lot more nuanced in reality, and this particular example is far-fetched for many reasons.  I was in a word…disappointed.  For an author who I’d heard spent a million bucks (not sure this is even true, just heard it repeated a bunch) researching each book, the entire thing seemed really badly put together.The next book was the Red Rabbit and lets just say I didn’t like it.  It seemed to be a continuation of the annoying trends that began in the Bear and the Dragon and it started to make me doubt the previous works.  Would someone who’d lived in Russia or someone in the military feel the same way about the other books?Anyway, because of the most recent two books, I bought Dead or Alive with marginal hopes, but almost immediately serious problems jumped off the page.  If we remember, in the “Ryanverse”, there were two entire books that hinged on a major terrorist attack that occured where the entire US Congress and most officials were wiped out by an airplane flying into the Capitol Building during the State of the Union address.  Only Jack Ryan survived to become President.  It was even immediately referenced in the aftermath of September 11 by news reporters the similarities are so striking.  However, in this book, Clancy has decided to merge the Ryanverse back with reality, but do so in an incredibly crude fashion.  Jack is no longer president, and Edward Kealty, who is a barely concealed proxy for Barack Obama, is now the President.  September 11 is constantly referenced, even though in the Ryanverse it would be a much less meaningful attack than destroying the entire US government and Capitol Building.  We’re somehow still at war in Iraq (nod to reality) even though this would make it the third Gulf War in the Ryanverse (the previous one having already toppled both Iraq and Iran).  Also, most annoyingly – even though Jack Ryan would have been president during the bad decision of war in Iraq (it’s referenced that way many times in the book), this bad decision is hand waved away and never even mentioned.Put simply, it seemed like there were two reasons Clancy had to write this book: he needed money, and he wanted to simultaneously bash Obama and support Bush.  The first point came to me before I learned that Clancy had gone through a recent divorce which messed up his purchase of a pro sports team.  Check.  The second evidences an almost surreal parallel to Bush’s own book which was recently released and I happened to be reading concurrently.  The number one justification for everything in both books is “we need to keep Americans safe” along with constant references to the naive idealism of Kealty.  Check Two.Sigh.Even if you can get by the fundamental plot problems and the requisite suspension of all logic and narrative continuity, this book fails to deliver.  The dialog is wooden and forced.  There’s weird detail on the computer and technology items that only highlights inaccuracies and this new obsession with steganography which is sort of billed as a new technology (it’s not).  However, the marriage of one-time pad cryptography and steganography ignores all the operational realities that prevent this from being the widely deployed solution that he describes, yet easy enough to break.  It’s all hand waved away.  I liked the plot points on how the terrorists go about obtaining nuclear material, and there’s some good stuff with getting the Emir (Osama bin Laden proxy) transferred around the world, but then we’re back into dense sections that cover tactical engagements way too much.  These descriptions of storming buildings and killing suspects during a torture session were good in Rainbow Six but seem pointless in this book.  Are we for torture?  Are we against it?  We don’t seem to know.  We do know that we’re fore a completely illegal and off-the-books black ops private company who does all the real intelligence work for the United States in order to keep us safe.It all just felt way too rushed.  Too sloppy.  Too preachy.  Or maybe it’s myself who has changed and I can’t stomach the rabid neoconservatism that is given a voice in this book, but I don’t think that’s it.  The old books were just better, longer, more complicated, more logical, better researched, and fit together more cohesively.    One thing to note that I didn’t realize until halfway through the book – this is a collaboration with another author, which Clancy has been doing for years on other projects.  In that case, I’d expect better effort from the new guy.  Why not double-check your mentor and point out some of the silliness if it’s going to have your name on it and if you’re ostensibly going to be the do-boy for the big name?  Overall, a sub-par read, but probably better than a host of other competing authors out there.

1 thought on “Book Review: Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive”

  1. Clancy either does not understand how a one-time pad works, or thinks he can pull the wool over reader’s eyes. One-time pads can be stolen, or the sender or recipient can be captured and interrogated, but they are completely immune to cryptanalysis. If "breaking" means cryptanalysis, then they are completely unbreakable, not just "virtually unbreakable". The benefit of steganography is to conceal that a message exists. Protection of the message in the event it is discovered anyway is a separate area of cryptography.

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