Review: The Hunt for Red October
by Tom Ingram
Tom Clancy has something of a…reputation, let’s say. On the one hand, his books have made a mountain of cash, spawned four (soon to be five) movies, and a handful of video game franchises (some excellent, some not so much). However, his books are notorious for getting bogged down in the technical details of how various types of military hardware work. His research is impeccable, but he overlooks one critical fact: nobody cares.
I picked up The Hunt for Red October as something to read whenever I had a couple of free minutes. I figured that it would be entertaining enough to keep me engaged, but if I didn’t finish it (or I forgot what was going on halfway through) no tears would be shed.
Captain Marko Ramius, a Lithuanian sub commander in the Soviet navy, has been given command of the brand-new, top secret missile sub, the Red October. Within a few minutes of meeting Ramius, we see him murder the political officer aboard his ship and make it look like an accident. It’s revealed that Ramius and all his senior officers except the doctor are planning to defect to the US, and to prevent any possibility of turning back Ramius sent a letter to a Soviet admiral outlining his plan.
Meanwhile Jack Ryan, a historian and CIA analyst, brings home some new intel about the Red October. He’s quickly and accidentally established as the expert on the submarine, and he deduces Ramius’ plan on his own power. This gets him dragged against his will into a plot of political intrigue, manipulation, and naval warfare.
Clancy uses an omniscient narration style that jumps into a wide variety of characters’ heads, from admirals to deck swabbers. This way we get to see everything from the high-level strategic ploys of the Joint Chiefs to the individual exploits of sub commanders. Clancy does occasionally get carried away with it, and by “carried away” I mean giving full backstory for incidental characters who appear in one scene. It’s hard to get a handle on what’s going on with the people we actually care about because there are extended sections where the main characters aren’t mentioned.
And the technology. Oh god, the technology. Clancy certainly did his homework, but he spends a lot of time describing technical details that weren’t necessary. In 1984, it might have been impressive to read about, but it’s become dated since then. The 1.9 gigaFLOPS speed of the Cray-2 supercomputer is not much to write home about these days. The novel would have aged much better if he hadn’t given quite so much technical detail. Remember what Ernest Hemingway says about that sort of thing.
At almost five hundred pages, it’s slightly clunky, but the plot is actually resolved a good hundred pages before the end. A submarine battle is tacked on to give one last action scene, but it actually makes things make less sense than before. Still, this was an exciting read that lives up to the “thriller” ideal in every way. In the last half, I could hardly put it down.
For all its flaws, The Hunt for Red October does the job it set out to do, and does it well, leaving no one displeased. It’s a solid debut novel, and an excellent read if you’re looking for something exciting.