Book Review: “Rainbow Six” by Tom Clancy

A while back, I asked on Twitter what the best techno-thriller book is. In the replies, Clancy’s name came up. I’d never read a book by him, so I figured I’d give one a try.

Now, I could have just started with his first book, The Hunt for Red October. But, frankly, its Cold War-era plot sounded a bit dated to me, and besides that, I have a connection to Rainbow Six. It was written in 1998, concurrent with development of a video game by the same name. I played this video game on the N64. It was sophisticated for its day; as it focused more on tactical operational details than more arcade-like FPSes of the day.

So, what about the book? Was it sophisticated for its day? People had been writing books longer than they have been making video games, so some might suggest there has been more time to explore the possibilities of what can be done with the written word. Still, Clancy was the King of the Technothriller, and one of the best-selling authors of his time. Surely, he could do something interesting with the concept.

The book follows John Clark, the head of an international anti-terrorism organization called “Rainbow”. I can’t remember if this is stated in the book, but according to Wikipedia, the name was inspired by Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation.” The “Six” meanwhile comes from a code designation from for “captain,” which is essentially what Clark is. (In the naval, rather than army, sense of the rank.)

Clark commands an elite squad made up of soldiers from all over the world, able to respond to terrorist activities attacks at a moment’s notice. And, it so happens, there is plenty of demand for their services, because almost as soon as the group is formed, terrorist incidents start happening all over the place. It is almost as if it is being contrived as part of some larger conspiracy.

Of course, it is. A pharmaceutical mega-corporation called Horizon, headed by an environmentalist named John Brightling, is planning to unleash a deadly virus on the world. This virus, and the fake vaccine they intend to manufacture for it, will cull nearly all of the human race, save for the select few that Brightling marks to receive the true vaccine. Once this is done, Brightling envisions, humanity’s polluting ways will be ended, and the Earth can be allowed to heal, with him and his eco-conscious elite living in harmony with nature.

But, to spread the virus, Brightling needs to manufacture a series of terrorist incidents to heighten security at the Olympics, so he can then put his people in charge of said security, and distribute the virus to athletes and spectators from all over the planet.

As Homer Simpson once remarked about a similar scheme: “Of course! It’s so simple! Wait, no, it’s not. It’s needlessly complicated.”

I’ve only mentioned two named characters so far, but there are actually a bunch. It’s a regular sweeping epic with a cast of thousands of terrorists, counter-terrorists, police, politicians, and their wives and daughters and sisters and cousins and aunts. Unfortunately, all of them are boring and I didn’t care enough about any of them to remember their names. Well, except the ex-KGB man who initially works for Brightling until he learns the enormity of his plot, at which point he surrenders himself to Clark and Rainbow. He was kind of interesting, but I can’t remember his name either, because he uses so many aliases.

But this is a techno-thriller, after all. You can’t expect us to explore complex nuances here; we’ve got to have a terrorist attack every few pages! People ain’t reading this to find out what makes the characters tick; they’re reading it to find out what rifle you’d use to snipe a terrorist from a helicopter at an amusement park. (I don’t remember offhand. Probably something H&K.)

The book is in love with military technology: guns, cars, aircraft, and so on. Clancy never misses a chance to tell us what kind of gear everybody’s got. Probably, this is partially why the idea of a return to primitivism as Brightling intends is so abhorrent. Where will all the cool tech be if we go back to the Bronze Age? (To be fair, even Clancy’s eco-terrorists don’t want to go that far; indeed, many of them look forward to hunting buffalo with Sharps rifles, not to be confused with Sharpe’s Rifles.)

Clancy was a man with an intuitive feel for the politics of his day. He made his name with Red October, which proved quite influential in the 1980s, as this fascinating paper by Benjamin Griffin observes:

Clancy’s ability to to turn [then U.S. President Ronald] Reagan’s strategic thinking into a relatable and realistic narrative reinforced Reagan’s confidence in his policy, even as aspects of it faced withering criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

But in the late ’90s, the wall had crumbled and the Cold War was but a memory. What, then, did Clancy see as the Great Enemy in the wake of Soviet collapse?

This book was written in 1998, between the arrest of the Unabomber in 1996 and around the time of the early 2000s “Green Scare,” when the U.S. government began to take action against radical environmentalist movement. Clancy maintained his knack for knowing what would play well with the U.S. intelligence apparatus, and he brought his Cold Warrior mentality to the fight against eco-terror: the superbly well-trained and equipped heroes like Clark et al. will triumph over the druidical New Age wackos and their depraved plot to turn back technological progress. Why, in the world of Rainbow Six, these people are no less menaces to human freedom and dignity than were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and every bit as deserving of being the next foe to be vanquished after the end of the Cold War in the late ’80s.

Speaking of things that ended in the late ’80s, another one was the “Fairness Doctrine,” which held that broadcasters had to present both sides of controversial issues. So, in that spirit, given that we now have Clancy’s perspective on the radical environmentalist movement, let us hear from a tree-hugging academic on the matter:

In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies… The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

In contrast to Clancy’s love of high-tech weaponry, our eco-conscious intellectual decries the inhumanity of modern warfare:

Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter – leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful.

People who work with machines gradually come to think like machines, losing all connection with the natural world. The machine-man:

“…has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

All right, probably that one tipped you off, if you weren’t already wise to my game. Our “tree-hugging academic” is none other than the late Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote a much-admired translation of Beowulf and many important works of philology. I am also given to understand that he apparently wrote some fantasy novels, from which the last quote comes. 😉

Forgive my fanciful mental exercise here, but as I was reading Rainbow Six, it struck me that it is basically anti-Tolkienesque in every way. Clancy’s simple, fast-paced prose is scarcely the same language as Tolkien’s slow-moving, nearly poetic voice. Likewise, the themes are diametrically opposed. Tolkien loves nature and simple, rustic folkways in bucolic settings, and deplores their devastation by soulless machinery. On the other hand, if transported to a bucolic setting, the heroes of Rainbow Six‘s first action would probably be to create Isengard.

And after all, why not? Why shouldn’t they defend the modern technocratic world? This was the ’90s, remember, and as I’ve written before, the ’90s were a time of unprecedented prosperity, made possible by the advancement of technology to promote global wealth, and how could anyone be against that? Sure, someone with Prof. Tolkien’s worldview might suggest there would be some sort of devastating spiritual price to be paid down the line, but probably nothing has happened in subsequent decades to indicate that might be the case.

What’s really interesting to me is that, in important ways, Clancy and Tolkien are alike. Tolkien was a conservative. Clancy was a conservative. Tolkien was Catholic. Clancy was Catholic. Yet, their work evinces radically diverging thoughts on some of the most important questions of modern times.

I can certainly understand if you’re thinking, “But Berthold, this is a techno-thriller! A techno-thriller written to be adapted into a video game, no less! What do you want, a techno-thriller that’s opposed to technology?”

Well, kinda.  I have idiosyncratic tastes, what can I say? What I’d really like is a techno-thriller that gives you something to think about, something unexpected and unpredictable, as opposed to the rather simplistic, almost cartoonish story we get here. I mean really, if you’re going to call it a thriller, there should be some element of suspense. But by the time we get to the climactic battle, there’s no doubt that Clark’s expertly trained super-soldiers will prevail against the amateurish eco-terrorists.

Oh, well. At least the game was pretty good for its time.


  1. I don’t plan to read this. For one thing, I’d probably be rooting for Brightling. Well, maybe not, but I wouldn’t be on the side of the “good guys” here.
    Interesting about eco-terrorists being an enemy after commies and before A-rabs, isn’t it?

    1. It doesn’t help that Brightling, while not really likable, is more interesting than the good guys. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s scathing take on Fenimore Cooper’s books: The reader “dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.”

  2. Tolkien was a language professor and slogged it out in the trenches, Clancy was a technical writer for the CIA. Despite their differences they had different perspectives on war.
    That said I’ve read lots of Clancy’s books and others in the genre. I’ve been in numerous homes of male friends and when looking at their book cases Clavell and Clancy are quite prominent in hardback. Just like romance novels are called “Mommy porn,” Techno trillers are “Daddy porn.”
    You get to go out and use the latest guns and other hardware, kill the bad guys and win the woman of your dreams. Modern day westerns.

    1. Exactly right. I definitely see the appeal, but it just felt too predictable. Maybe I should have read “Hunt for Red October” instead.

  3. “Unfortunately, all of them are boring and I didn’t care enough about any of them to remember their names.”

    This is a perfect description of Clancy’s characters. They may not even be one-dimensional.

    And, of course, the good guys are perfect, always perfect, while the bad guys are weak and stupid and bound to fall flat on their faces. Over and over and over again.

      1. But this defines the genre, but I also think it’s why I eventually just gave up on the genre. Why can’t authors let some of the good guys die? Why can’t the bad guys ever shoot straight? Why are the bad guys always egotistical idiots?

        That’s it! I’m writing a genre-bending techno-thriller!! No, actually I’m not.

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