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.

Check them out here. If you’re not sure where to begin, may I suggest either The Friendship of Mortals or the short story collection Tales from the Annexe, the latter of which includes one of my all-time favorite Halloween stories. Both are free as part of this sale.

In addition to Richard Pastore’s books as posted yesterday, today I learned that Peter Martuneac’s zombie apocalypse trilogy is also free on Kindle now through Thursday. These are dark, emotionally powerful, and ultimately rewarding stories of characters grappling with trauma. Highly recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Richard Pastore’s books are free on Kindle this week to celebrate his birthday. The Devil and the Wolf and Perseus Kills His Grandfather are both highly entertaining blends of humor, fantasy, and mythology.

You can read my review of Devil and the Wolf here and my review of Perseus here.

The following is the prompt I gave the new AI assistant, after asking it for a book review:

The book title is “The Directorate” The author is Berthold Gambrel. The plot is about a soldier named Theresa Gannon who becomes involved in an interplanetary war in the year 2223. I think the story and characters are strong; the pacing and some of the setting details could be better.Readers who like sci-fi might like it.

And this is what it gave me back:

***AI content ***

Title: The Directorate
Author: Berthold Gambrel

Theresa Gannon, a soldier, finds herself embroiled in an interplanetary war in the year 2223. As she fights for the survival of her planet, she must confront difficult moral questions and grapple with the consequences of her actions.

In my opinion, “The Directorate” is a strong sci-fi story with compelling characters. The plot is engaging and keeps you invested in the outcome, though some of the settings could benefit from more details. However, the pacing could be improved in places, making it feel rushed at times. Overall, though, I enjoyed the book.

If you are a fan of science fiction, “The Directorate” is worth checking out.

***End AI content***

Huh. That’s… not that useful?

(Thanks to Audrey Driscoll for making me aware of this.)

If you’re on Twitter, you know there has been a lot of drama about the future of the site. If you’re not on Twitter, well, now is probably not a good time to join.

I have no idea what will happen to Twitter. All I know is, my follower count is around 250, which is the higher-end estimate of Dunbar’s Number, and thus seems to me to be the perfect amount. I only regularly interact with about 5% of them. But I have alternate ways to get in touch with that 5% without using Twitter. So, even if it goes, it wouldn’t be the end of my world.

What I’m more interested in is what this means for social media as a whole. Frankly, I dislike the term “social media.” It reeks of early-2000s tech speak, in which hackers reinvented terms for well-established human behaviors and thought themselves geniuses.

Of course, the internet is a wonderful way of meeting people, and I’m grateful for all the friends I’ve made through it. (They are, after all, the real treasure.) I would not want to lose touch with them. Fittingly, Twitter is a canary in the coal mine. What happens to it could, in theory, happen to all online relationships.

At times like these, I like to flippantly reference Deus Ex, a 2000 cyberpunk video game in which the world is ravaged by terrorism, poverty, and pandemics, all while sinister global megacorporations scheme to reengineer humanity itself for their own ends.

However, while this game may sound very dated and completely irrelevant to our modern era, the part I’m thinking of is the “Dark Age Ending,” in which the protagonist, J.C. Denton, destroys the global computer network controlled by the tech billionaire villain, plunging the world into a state of anarchic freedom:

(By the way, one high-profile fan of Deus Ex is none other than… Elon Musk.)

Now, before you all get excited and form an anarcho-syndicalist commune, I’m not saying that our future is necessarily small tribes communicating only by letters and carrier pigeons.

Rather, I’m saying we need to think about what the whole goal of online socializing is. What do we want to get out of it? Do we actually want a forum where anyone can say anything to anyone? Maybe we do.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe all we want is a place to talk with our friends. I don’t know; these are tough questions.

But this I do know: it’s got to be about the quality of the relationships, not the quantity. The ability to attract millions of eyeballs is not that important. What’s important is that we cultivate friendships with people that are actually meaningful to us.