(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)
As a hardcore pacifist and anti-military activist, this book might surprise all of you by appearing in this list. Not to mention, it’s old (as old as me, in fact, dating from the early 80s as do I) and it’s popular fiction, all things that most people would use as excuses not to put such a book on a list of best things ever written. But I assure you, it deserves its place here and its military-ness is more an example of why we shouldn’t have them in the first place than a glorified exploration of heroism. The point of the book is to show just how badly things can go wrong if people start fighting. And it succeeds. Tom Clancy is a serious military historian in many ways but his frequent argument (in this and other work, particular The Sum of All Fears) about the danger of a divided world and the presence of military forces is staggeringly and overwhelmingly pacifist.
The plot goes through a huge amount of twists and turns, technically speaking, but it’s quite a simple premise. There’s an energy crisis in the Soviet Union and instead of asking for help, it engages in a war that is designed to overwhelm the west and colonize the middle east. This is the story of how that plays out, much to everyone’s surprise.
Yes, the idea of the Soviet Union is a bit outdated, since it hasn’t existed in a number of decades but that doesn’t make the premise any less significant — in fact, in this time the notion of an energy shortage is far more realistic than people in the 80s would have thought possible and this book is a painfully clear reminder of what we might all have to face the day certain countries start to see their energy market dominance start to shift, not least the new Russian Empire.
But why is this book so important? Firstly, it’s incredibly popular and that from a time when culture was very much focused on audio and video media. This book took the world by storm, a technical and slow-burning contemplation of future warfare was not what most people would have imagined being a top best-seller. But it was and, unsurprisingly to me, still is. Of course, being popular doesn’t necessarily make something worthwhile to read. In fact, it usually means the opposite. But in this case, it’s definitely a reason to look at it more deeply. If this were another murder mystery or bitchy diatribe of sexually-unfulfilled bitterness, that would explain its popularity and likely consign it to mediocrity. Being an unusual topic and still highly popular means there’s probably something to look more deeply into there.
There is something to be said for name recognition and many people now read books by Clancy because they’re, you know, by Clancy. But that wasn’t the case then because this was an early book and he wasn’t particularly well-known. So why is this worth including in your reading and why should you list it in your course and recommend it to your students? Well, to put it simply, it’s beautiful — the technical language doesn’t descend to the level of banality or complaining about life. It is clear and concise but has a poetic quality to it that tastes like it’s been refined over many modifications but hasn’t lost its meaning. It’s pleasurable mostly because it tells an excellent story. Not all good stories are pleasurable and not all pleasurable experiences make good stories but this story, you will want to keep reading it. It doesn’t end quickly and with each new piece, we ask another question and want to know the answer. And it’s educational but that’s somewhat unsurprising.
On the first criteria, it teaches an interesting lesson about language. This is a study in how different types of people interact. Varied cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, there are many (and I really do mean many, even taking into consideration that this is an exceptionally long book for popular fiction) characters. They don’t get confusing because each has their own particular way of speaking, choice of words, approach to problems and distinct internal character. This doesn’t falter, not even once. In all those hundreds of pages, even my first time reading it, I felt as if I could have told you who acted or spoke a certain way without there being descriptive cues interspersed. Thankfully, many of those cues that drive me crazy in other books are left out in this and it is clear without them. One more “he said” in a lot of books and I’m ready to toss them out the window. The use of language also demonstrates that technical language doesn’t have to give up its beauty and that day-to-day experiences don’t have to be talked about as if you were sharing your daily complaints in a locker room. They can be discussed with flair and philosophical detachment and in this book that’s how nearly everything is approached.
The human lesson is very obvious. The moral question of whether war is ever justifiable is a constant throughout every chapter and the ethical dilemma of whether fighting for your people is more important than helping achieve a more generalized peace is what the war that’s described in it is about — the Soviets fighting for personal goals and the western world seeking peace but going about it all the wrong way. It’s far more complex than that, though, which makes it worth reading — with most of the Soviet characters being against fighting and most of the Americans being far more aggressive in general, it is a frequent question over ways and means. Is it more important to seek world peace but to do so aggressively or to be forced to fight for your country but be emotionally conflicted and try to stop it? Who is really the bad or good actor in these cases? There is no simple answer, not ever, and this is well reflected in the book.
The third lesson, that of how the world works, is showed in the vast individual character details but perhaps more significantly in the descriptions of how warfare works on a technical, individual basis. Most people truly have no idea how combat functions and those who do understand it are generally either very experienced military leaders or those who have been victims of war. Those who are in the military have a good grasp of their particular small piece of combat but, until they become responsible for a large group of forces, usually across multiple services, which would imply until they get to the level of a general officer, they likely have little comprehension of what others do in case of war. This is a beautiful demonstration of how the pieces fit together, even the civilian ones and while its accuracy is not always 100% and some is quite outdated now, the concept is one that can be held onto and will be valid well into the future.
Anyway, this is probably the most academically-interesting work of popular fiction I have ever encountered and whether you have an interest in the military, in history or just are interested in human nature and how cultures interact when things get more difficult, this is a beautiful example of how writing can inform and entertain at the same time — and all without having to resort to sounds and images.
[Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy on Amazon]