Tom Clancy and co-author Mark Greaney have just released their latest spy thriller, Threat Vector. It’s one of a remarkably long-running series of novels starring Clancy’s best-known protagonist, Jack Ryan, whose outsized exploits over the decades have formed a fascinatingly extreme alternate global political climate.
The Jack Ryan saga begins nearly 30 years ago with The Hunt for Red October (1984), a page-turner about a top-secret Soviet submarine, its rogue captain, and the struggles on both sides of the Iron Curtain to find them. Ryan is the crack CIA analyst who figures out what the captain’s intentions truly are.
Tom Clancy does his homework when it comes to military technology. He has written nonfiction books about Air Force squadrons and submarines. Part of the joy of reading his work is his knowledge of some of these arcane mechanisms. But the plots of his novels are 100 percent over-the-top good guy/bad guy stuff. There are American heroes, there are foreign heroes, and then there are black-hearted villains bent on doing unspeakably cruel things, often for less-than-rational reasons.
So let’s follow the high-stakes spycraft and superheated global political schemes in Clancy’s books to see how Jack Ryan rises from lowly financial analyst to President of the United States.
The novels bounce around in time. Several years before Red October, Ryan heads to the United Kingdom, where he runs afoul of vindictive terrorists in Patriot Games (1987). Next comes Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988), in which Ryan heads to the Soviet Union amid weapons treaties and the race for satellite warfare superiority to protect a top informant in the KGB.
After that, Ryan gets embroiled in the War on Drugs as he becomes aware of a botched covert U.S. military operation and chases its cover-up all the way to the top in Clear and Present Danger (1989). The Sum of All Fears (1991) finds Ryan promoted to CIA deputy director — just in time for terrorists to try to detonate a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl in Denver.
Debt of Honor (1994) eerily presages the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, though Clancy’s scenario has more fantastical origins: Instead of a group of Islamic political extremists, we meet an airline pilot, embittered over his country’s defeat in a (massively improbable) war against the United States, who crashes a jumbo jet into the Capitol, killing Congress and elevating Ryan to the presidency.
In Executive Orders (1996), President Ryan sets about rebuilding the U.S. government while dealing with a deadly plague unleashed by a newly formed Middle Eastern nation.
Red Rabbit (2002) takes the action back to the early 1980s, as Ryan tries to help a KGB officer defect amid word that the KGB plans to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
There’s more after this, though these novels tend to focus on Ryan’s son, Jack. Jr. — and another improbable war between two world powers. But Threat Vector picks up as Jack Sr. returns to the presidency just as another major military crisis emerges in Asia. With all its nuclear detonations, plagues and assassinations (and, yes, 9/11, too!), Jack Ryan’s fictional universe sounds like an exciting place to visit — but maybe a little too violent to settle down.