Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: The Bear and The Dragon

In this series of posts, we're reading Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series (including the Jack Ryan Jr. and John Clark books) in its own chronological order rather than the publication order.  Your comments are more than welcome, but tread lightly: SPOILERS AHEAD!

So Many Plots/Subplots

Sergey Golovko, Chairman of the SVR and principal sounding board for the Russian president, is cruising to work when a car, identical to his and very nearby, is blown to bits by an RPG. After he is rushed to safety, he (and the intelligence communities of the US and Russia) have to consider: was this just a botched assassination attempt or did somebody really want to kill the pimp who was taken out? Since you've read Tom Clancy before and therefore don't believe in coincidences, you'll come to the correct conclusion. Who is trying to kill Golovko and why?

Jack Ryan has been re-elected and is running the country in a way left-wingers like to imagine George W. Bush did. Having subdued so many enemies foreign and domestic and having achieved so many policy goals (beefing up HUMINT in the CIA, rewriting the tax code, readying the military for massive conflicts), he can now turn his attention to helping out the poor Russians take advantage of some newly discovered mineral assets and fend off the Chinese who wish to seize them.

Did you spend the last two books wondering who the hell was vice president? Why, it's Robby Jackson! We're glad to have Robby back to bust Jack's balls - he humanizes Clancy's work, bringing elements of friendship, casual conversation and normal relationships - but it's in part a setup for some really poorly conceived and executed stories in The Teeth of the Tiger and the books thereafter. We will complain about that at length in the following post.

Bear has a ton of clergymen at the forefront. Hosiah Jackson, the vice president's father, visits D.C. to check in on his son and provide some mild tension later. His Baptist colleague, white preacher Gerry Patterson, also leads a congregation in Alabama, and his is full of wealthy white people. Both of these congregations partially support the one led by Reverend Yu Fa An, an American-education minister in China. One of Yu's congregants is a woman pregnant with an unauthorized pregnancy (her access to China's one child policy was used up in a little girl who died in an accident) and she's trying to cover it up. Monsignor Schepke is a local Catholic priest who is hosting Renato Cardinal di Milo, a diplomatic representative for the Vatican, who befriends Reverend Yu. Together Cardinal di Milo and Reverend Yu try to save the life of the unborn baby, with dire consequences.   

Barry Wise is a decorated and venerated reporter for CNN, assigned to the Beijing Bureau. Bored by the prospect of covering Sino-American trade talks, he becomes interested in Reverend Yu and the idea of what Christian life is like in an officially atheist culture. He and his crew happen to be present when matters escalate between the local Christian alliance and the police, both at the hospital and outside Yu's home, broadcasting the effects of official Chinese policy to the whole world.

Cathy returns to worry about Jack, perform amazing surgeries, keep her husband from being a totally bumbling/poorly-dressed oaf, and despise the media.

Andrea Price-O'Day is now married and pregnant, struggling to keep up her invincible badass demeanor while trying to mask issues like morning sickness. She seeks out Cathy for pregnancy advice, pondering possibly not carrying the baby to term if there are significant health issues. As if she doesn't have enough to deal with in this book, when Jack foolishly hurls himself into danger at the climax, he has her restrained so she can't stop his stupidity.

Bretano, Winston, Adler, and the other non-Carol Brightling cabinet members return to spend a lot of time making racial slurs and insinuations while doing Ryan's bidding and speaking for Tom Clancy. President Ryan decides his gaffe about "two Chinas" is now official policy, so Secretary of State Adler is sent over to get repetitively yelled at by the PRC representatives.

Mark Gant, George Winston's right hand man, discovers that China is likely experiencing major financial problems as a result of having spent so much on a massive military buildup. Despite his being blunt and crude, he is sent along with Cliff Rutledge to head a trade delegation to Beijing. The main purpose of this story is to remind you that the Chinese government is super arrogant and in denial about their own situation.

Alan Gregory, the laser engineer genius from The Cardinal of the Kremlin, is now an employee of TRW, Secretary Bretano's former company, and is called in to upgrade America's defenses against ICBMs. His upgrades come in handy.

China's behated shadow premier Zhang Han San has set his sights on Russia's vast oil reserves and newly discovered enormous gold field. Rather than engage international co-conspirators, he orchestrates his plan to ensure Chinese dominance for the foreseeable future using his nation's army. He's "arrested" at the end of this book but you know he's not going down like that.

The success of Zhang's plan to invade Russia depends heavily on Marshal Luo Cong, the leader of China's armed forces. At least Luo isn't a jingoistic delusional nutjob, right? Wrong, and when his invasion falls apart, he launches an ICBM at Washington, D.C.

When he's not enjoying the bedroom company of his female underlings, Fang Gan is a moderating influence among the Beijing government zealots and the cowards too weak to oppose them. It is not at all disturbing to hear the secretaries describe him in ways like "grandfatherly" then describe what acts they did with him. [Please excuse us while we barf]

Lian Ming is one of Fang's underlings, serving as his primary assistant. She seems pretty cool with being used for her body by her boss and instantly hooks up with the guy selling her department computers. Her likes include working hard, eating out, receiving semi-expensive gifts, and terrible haircuts. She doesn't have any discernible dislikes because she never expresses negative emotions or sentiments at all.

Chet Nomuri is an American of Japanese descent undercover CIA agent who poses as a guy selling computers. Having been instrumental in taking down Raizo Yamata and the Japanese bad guys in Debt of Honor, his Agency work now takes him to Beijing. He coaxes Ming into installing software into her work computer which will transmit to the CIA all of the notes she takes of Minister Fang's recollections from Politburo meetings. He is also a distributor of Japanese sausage.

This book is over 1,000 pages long and it takes place in Russia. Is it War and Peace?

Ivan Yurievich Koniev is also known as Klementi Ivanovich Suvorov, an underworld interdisciplinarian, engaging in activities from smuggling to pimping to attempting assassinations on behalf of foreign governments. He is being tracked down by the Russian police agencies and American FBI attache Mike Reilly, who is there to help out the revamped organizations and demonstrate American superiority at all times. 

We meet Pavel Petrovich Gogol, a World War veteran who personally disposed of countless Nazi invaders with his rifle. He and his rifle, along with the gilded wolf pets he's acquired over the years, live out in the remote forested area where Russia has found massive gold deposits. Gogol doesn't want to leave when the Russian army asks him to retreat to safety, so he and his rifle join the troops where he's promised that he won't be made to leave until he gets some shots off at the Chinese. 

Gennady Bondarenko has assumed an important promotion in the Russian army as the leader of the forces in the Far East, tasked with rebuilding their shoddy defenses in that part of the country. All of his fears come true as word of the forthcoming Chinese invasion reaches him, but he is helped out by American cavalry demigod Marion Diggs. They plan a trap for the invaders which will demolish their supply lines and wreck their communications, aided by an aging Russian recluse sniper icing one of the commanding generals.

John Clark and Domingo Chavez are bored at Rainbow headquarters, having deterred all terrorism in Europe. They are called upon to help train Russian special forces units and drink voluminous quantities of vodka in Russia. When China's war plans unravel and they consider using their long-range missiles, Rainbow and Spetsnaz troops team up to take the missiles out. They mostly succeed. 

Tom Clancy, Romance Author *Shudders*

Remember the vile sight as a child of your parents kissing, even if it was a peck? Now imagine it was your grandparents tonguing each other and getting handsy and you have a feel for the love scenes in this book.  The fact that they're not "explicit" almost makes them grosser.  It could be interesting that Chet feels conflicted that he feels his job requires him to seduce Ming to gain access to the intelligence she can offer and he develops genuine feelings for her, but the bedroom scenes just befoul the whole story line.  Clancy felt the need to even end the book with Ming going home from the restaurant with her lover for "a dessert of Japanese sausage."

Though we're sorry we even typed that, now you know our pain. Most of the relationship that's not about getting information off of Ming's computer is about Chet considering how he should spend money on her because everything Chinese is crap - the food, the clothes, the booze, the housing, and especially the culture. That and we get to read how much Chet enjoys getting laid. Chet/Ming has all of the sensitivity and romance of YouTube comments on a 50 Shades of Grey fan video.

Yo, Is This Racist?

We've addressed Ryanverse xenophobia and racism in our post for Without Remorse, explaining that Clancy's respect for cultures pivots on the quality of their work, their perceived dedication to universally accepted human principles, and possession of other civic virtues.  Traditional intra-American racism is deplored and many Clancy heroes are black, Latin, immigrants, etc.  The British and Germans are revered, even with their silly European quirks.  Numerous Ryanverse villains are Arabic, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian, but Islamic culture is treated well and Saudi Prince Ali is a colleague and friend of Jack's.  By the time we get to The Bear and the Dragon, the Russians are no longer the main enemy (but really frenemies thanks to Sergey Golovko and company) and are now allies, even joining NATO.  With their excellent mathematicians, sub-par engineers, amazing ballet performers, lousy clothiers, overweight babes, unparalleled intelligence services, and brave but poorly-trained and -equipped soldiers, Russians are pretty great too.

This sentiment is in no way extended to the Chinese.  While the Jack Ryan series worships at the altar of civic virtues, the Chinese culture of deep respect for authority is the result of mindlessness and oppression, stifling what the country could be. Everything they make is either stolen or garbage; Chet Nomuri spends most of his time lamenting the shoddy restaurants and retail goods while the Jack Ryan cabinet drones on about the numerous copyright violations permitted by the Chinese government.  In past books of the series, bad guys are the racist ones - anti-Semitic, anti-black, etc.  In The Bear and the Dragon, casual (and not-so-casual) racism against the Chinese flows abundantly from the good guys: on the gentler side there are a dozen or so references to "Joe Chinaman" or "John Chinaman" or "Chinaman" or just "Joe", but 21 uses of "chink" and plenty of derogatory uses of "little", "yellow", and a term for a performer of certain intimate acts. About a half dozen times they are referred to as Klingons, too alien to understand in a series that has visited numerous countries, cited a dozen languages, and explored countless subcultures. We feel secure in saying Mr. Clancy does not care for China.

Missed Opportunity

The symbolism of the title of the book is spelled out on the cover, which looks mostly the same in its various printings.  Having Googled "the bear and the dragon" and found this image, we feel as if there was a substantial opportunity missed by the cover design team.
Image courtesy of The Voice of Idaho

Writing this post has been nearly as agonizing as reading this book. There are enough positive elements and characters (like Gogol) that keep us wanted to like the book yet we can't get over the many, many terrible things in this book. We've addressed the weaknesses of the story of Chet Nomuri's penetration (innuendo intended) of the Politburo's information systems; it's an interesting and useful story structurally and absolutely abominable in execution. Jack Ryan spends the entire book either lamenting having to be president or being furious with the Chinese; he's only really a dynamic figure for after we're 1,000 pages in. So many of the good guys come off as racist, dumb, or at best apathetic about trying to understand the culture and motivations of their opponents. Clancy's fascination with technical details here feel less like his usual intellectual curiosity and more like droning on about his hobbies.

The Bear and the Dragon is bloated as Homer Simpson on Thanksgiving. It's difficult to tell if the trade discussions were intentionally repetitive and annoying to convey the characters' ennui or if Clancy had just forgotten he had already written that part. Hundreds of pages are devoted to the anti-abortion plot line; a pregnant Christian factory worker in atheist/one-child China who calls on her pastor to help her when hospital authorities are trying to kill the baby. When her pastor and his Cardinal guest are slain protecting her and the baby, CNN happens to be there to broadcast it to the world, which triggers anger in American and European consumers against Chinese products, which causes international companies to cancel their orders with Chinese manufacturers (and place them with Taiwan, etc.) The story of the Christian Chinese couple is potentially interesting and covers a vital issue, but it is written with little empathy or heart and eventually just serves to convey that China is evil and we shouldn't take it anymore. Many pages are filled with actual sermons offered by Hosiah Jackson and Gerry Patterson in each other's churches, which CNN decides to broadcast to the whole world. The pro-life story feels like it's from another, more heart-felt book, and stands in stark contrast to endless cabinet discussions, trade delegation banter, fascination with military technology, and a CIA agent's physically-focused affair with a Chinese bureaucrat.

The central idea of the book is that war is just armed robbery writ large, so here's the progression of events: 1) China discovers that already mineral-rich Siberia is about to get a lot richer. 2) China decides to build up the military to invade Russia, exacerbating China'ss currency reserve issues. 3) A cop kills two Christian clergymen, China does not apologize in any way, and American and European consumers are enraged. 4) Vast swaths of enraged consumers plan to boycott Chinese products, which compels companies to switch their business from China. 5) These gigantic industrial losses motivate the hotheaded Chinese government to accelerate their war plans. 6) The Chinese invade Siberia, but the clever Russian strategy and American technical superiority quickly decapitates the PLA plans. 7) Jack Ryan decides to broadcast the drones' feed of the PLA getting dismantled, which then incites anti-government riots all over the country. 8) Rioters storm the government headquarters and seize their oppressive rulers. If the sequence of events seems flimsy to the readers of this blog, then they agree with the post's author. Clancy has shown the ability previously to make the implausible seem plausible, but The Bear and the Dragon mostly consists of shoddily strung-together narrations whose purpose is to vent about China's awfulness.

Some Other Guy's Review

We tend not to read other reviews of the Jack Ryan novels while writing our posts, but when we were almost finished with this one we came across a well-written Amazon review (two stars) by a user named Martin Asiner, who writes, 
"If Clancy were a novice author, it is not likely an editor would publish such a bloated and going-nowhere novel. The problem is not that Clancy has lost the ability to write. Rather, as he has churned out one bestseller after another, he has increasingly become the worst of all literary plagiarists; he has copied from himself. What is clear from merely holding such a massive novel (1,100 pages plus)is that if one comes to THE BEAR AND THE DRAGON from say, EXECUTIVE ORDERS, there is the sneaking suspicion that Clancy will place the titular hero Jack Ryan in a secondary capacity, have him mouth platitutes about his feelings about his new and unwanted job, and have Ryan react to rather than interact with the novel's complicating elements. In addition, Clancy here continues to fill out his novels with excessive details about bombs, missiles, and technical wizardry that do not materially add to the thrust of the action. As I was following the numerous and ill-connected subplots, I grew to realize that by page 900, Clancy had committed the worst sin a novelist could commit: the sinking feeling that Nothing Much Is Happening."
The whole review is well worth reading, but we'll include just one more passage:
"An egregious example occurs when a male CIA operative subverts a female Chinese stenographer in Beijing into betraying her country solely on his amatory capacity to seduce. She is the flat character that occasionally pops up in any novel, and in her cringing and servile attitude toward her seducer, I myself felt like turning her in to her Communist party bosses."
The Sure-to-be-Pretty-Good WYNE Media Production

"Room for improvement" is our motto in making the TV season of this book. We're tempted to skip this book altogether, but that wouldn't be any fun for this section of the blog. We'll spend the following few sentences with the changes we'd make.

We'd immediately ax Robby Jackson as vice president. The move reeks of cronyism, which is anathema to Ryan's character, and is lazy writing. Scott Adler would be a better vice president. What happened to our friends in Congress, Trent and Fellows, the gay New Englander and the Mormon Arizonan? We know they survived the Debt of Honor attack only to never show their faces again, so why not one of them? (Probably Fellows, given Ryan's politics.) Worst of all, Robby as VP sets up atrocious, unrealistic, stupid, and character-illogical writing later. We really like having Robby around, so we need to find a more logical role: Robby can be a special adviser, like Valerie Jarrett is to President Obama.

Abortion is an important issue to discuss and China's one child policy is worthy of examination, but those topics aren't really germane to our main story. That story - CNN, the clerics, the cops, the couple - is gone. The trade war will be instigated gradually and based on trade-related problems, like patent violations and intellectually property theft, which will trigger Congress's use of the Trade Reform Act, hastening the conflict.

We'd definitely keep the Ming and Chet story, but we'd let them have souls. Ming would express doubt at Chet's intentions, disgust at being used in the office for her body, and maybe resentment for China's lack of freedom's. Chet could be more conflicted about the gross but apparently necessary seduction (we could ask on the show: was it necessary to instigate a sexual relationship?) or express boredom and loneliness in his current lifestyle. Or we could mix it up and give him some local friends. We could also mine some obvious potential drama about the operation itself: conflict arises between Chet and Ming because she confirms her suspicions about the software and feels like she's been used to betray her country. Or the IT department at Politburo detects the activity of the transmissions and Ming is dragged into danger.  The scenario could go in many different directions.

Maybe most importantly, we'd activate Jack.  The constant griping about being stuck being president would have to go. Maybe he could make a complaint and then Cathy makes fun of him for it, then chastises him. In Executive Orders Jack hires an inexperienced Ben Goodley to be the National Security Adviser mostly because he's very talented, but Jack can excuse the inexperience because of his own abilities and experience. Jack's unparalleled analytical ability and his judgment are his defining characteristics, so why neglect them in The Bear and the Dragon? On the show, Jack is in the driver seat. If say the Nomuri operation in Beijing were going south, Jack could make a controversial call about how to handle it that would anger the Foleys at CIA, though he'd be proven right later. Jack would badger and entice members of congress into activating the TRA. Like he did with Daryaei, he'd try to blow up Xu and Zhang.

All of the battle passages from the book would remain, minus all the racism. We are decidedly Team Bondarenko and it would be compelling to see him think through and work out the obstacles he has in defending his country. He, not Sergey Golovko, is the closest analog to Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's Russia.

The Golovko assassination attempt and investigation story is worth keeping too, though we'd need to do a better job of connecting it to the China conflict. We'd also eliminate the pointless prostitution allusions.


Does anybody besides Tom Clancy call a computer a 'puter?

Bear ponders major religious themes and prominently features five Christian clergymen. Keeping (Bearing?) in mind that his next published book, Red Rabbit, centers around the assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II, we wonder if the early 2000s were some sort of religious awakening for the author.

We get the impression that Mr. Clancy was not exactly dialed in with pop culture. The military names their drones after some hot babes: Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. Clancy was about 9 years old when Ms. Kelly had her last credited role and 15 when Ms. Monroe last graced the screen.

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