I am one of those people who doesn’t have a problem wearing their influences on their sleeve. I am also one of those people who regards the lit-fic crowd with a definite mistrust. I consider story to be the be-all and end-all, and someone who compromises their story in order to appear more arty, more erudite or more critically acceptable will raise my suspicions and my hackles in equal measure.
There are many, many criticisms that can be laid at Tom Clancy‘s door. And many of them are entirely valid. He had an ideological agenda that made him the poster-boy for conservative Republicans. He was capable, on occasion, of committing the most grievous atrocities to language. And my friend Jo makes the argument that The Bear and the Dragon was, in parts, just flat-out racist.
I owe Clancy a debt of honour. (The novel Debt of Honor, incidentally, is my favourite of the Jack Ryan series). It is a big debt, and one that possibly requires a little explanation. It is this: if it hadn’t been for Red Storm Rising, I would not have written Ghost Among Thieves.
But first, a diversion. My love of science fiction as a genre began in several places more or less simultaneously. The most important of these was the library in Ballyholme Primary School, where they had an enormous collection of the Target novelisations of Dr. Who episodes.I started reading them and my parents, perhaps not fully realising the power of prohibition as a motivation, promptly forbade me from reading them on the grounds that they might give me nightmares. What this meant was that I then read them all – but in the library, where they couldn’t stop me.
A few years ago there was a scene in a Doctor Who episode, ‘Family of Blood’, that had a character describing the Doctor. I loved the scene, because it was the writer of the episode talking directly to the seven-year-old me, about the Doctor we both knew. And who could not be entranced by such a creation?
The second major factor in my love of science fiction was a cassette sent to me by my aunt, who at that time lived in Cardiff. As a result I only saw her maybe a couple of times a year, when she came back for Christmas and Easter, but she sent me mix tapes that to this day influence my taste in music. From her I get my love of Pink Floyd, Simple Minds, Led Zeppelin… and The War of the Worlds, because she copied the whole of Jeff Wayne’s musical version on to tape and posted it to me. (Don’t worry, Mr. Wayne; I have long since bought my own copy).
So Dr Who introduced me to science fiction in general, and The War of the Worlds, even with its long-outdated technology, introduced me to the idea of a science fiction war. But we remain with my aunt for the final piece of the puzzle, because she was the Tom Clancy fan. Again, my parents were not enamoured of Clancy (mainly because of his use, on occasion, of four-letter words) but I, albeit unknowingly, was already a huge fan, because my favourite film of all time was (and remains to this day) The Hunt for Red October.
My aunt had several of Clancy’s books, but the one that, as a thirteen-year-old, absolutely captured my attention was the story of the Cold War going hot, with the Russians invading Germany, seizing Iceland and attempting to dominate the Atlantic in the hopes of staving off American reinforcement of NATO ground troops. This was Red Storm Rising, and it did something I had never seen attempted before: it attempted to tell not just a war story but the story of a war.
Although it took a while before I was able to own my own copy, I nevertheless managed to reread it every time I saw my aunt for more than a couple of days (it only takes me a couple of days to read it. I am a ludicrously fast reader. This sounds like a gift but it isn’t: mostly, it’s expensive. When you read fast and you love reading, you wind up buying an awful lot of books). It sat in the back of my mind like an unfulfilled promise. “One day,” I told myself, “one day, I am going to write something like that.”
When I was sixteen I sat my GCSEs. During one of the English Language papers I was bored, very nearly, out of my mind, answering a question on the symbolic relevance of the squareness of some bin bags in a school playground, when the thought suddenly occurred that I could have a lot more fun writing a story. A big story. A big, science-fiction war story. Something with the scale and ambition of, say, Red Storm Rising…
It was at this point that the single most important idea I have ever had entered my head. I pictured a man, a hard, scarred man, running down a burning steel corridor. I knew little more than that, except for one thing: the corridor was burning because the scarred man had set it on fire himself.
And that, really, was my starting point. I went away from my exam and started drawing up bullet points – who the man was, what he was doing, what he wanted to achieve, who were his antagonists.
I even knew his name. I had been writing a techno-thriller called Stealing the Thunder which was a Dale Brown fan-fic (don’t judge me, okay? I was fifteen at the time) in which, in addition to Dale Brown regulars Patrick McLanahan and a heavily modified EB-52 Megafortress bomber (my version fitted with an experimental cloaking device and named Black Cat), a scarred colonel called Paul Ray was out to try to save the world.
Paul Ray had been kicking around my subconscious for ages. He had been the XO on the USS Nimitz in a previous aborted story called, variously, either The Seventh Phial or (drum-roll please!) White Waters Rising; he had been the commander on a British Challenger 2 MBT stranded in Chechnya at the start of the Chechnyan War when the Russian Army unit with which it was cross-training was wiped out, in a book to be called Challenger Deep. He even appeared as a kind of Han Solo figure in a work of actual science fiction called Ray’s of Light (in which he was captain of a ship called Graviton Panther – a name I was to resurrect and re-use in Ghost Among Thieves).
The problem with all of these stories was that Paul knew exactly who he was, and he didn’t quite fit in any of them. And then…when I had that image of the scarred man in the burning corridor, I knew exactly who he was. I knew that this, finally, was Paul’s story.
What I didn’t know, exactly, was how to tell it. But I knew it could be told, that it didn’t matter how complicated it was – because Tom Clancy had written Red Storm Rising, which was enormous, and structurally complex, and yet coherent and a rattling good yarn all at the same time. That said, I knew enough to be patient. I knew I wasn’t yet capable of writing such a thing. I noted my notes and plotted my plots but I didn’t actually start writing for another couple of years. Those teachers who knew about my pet project thought I was nuts. They also, increasingly, began to suspect I was all talk and no trousers – if I was really serious about the story, I would be writing it, not learning about tachyons, or free-electron lasers, or the kinetic physics of impacts on laminate armour.
Events, as they say, eventuated, and I found myself working aboard MV Logos II from 2002-2003. There, finally, I had the time and space to write the story. (I did, however, only have sufficient luggage-space to take two novels. One was Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. The other, of course, was Red Storm Rising). It took me ten months to get from the 2,000 words I had with me when I went on board to the complete first draft of 180,000+ words. That’s still shorter than Red Storm Rising but that’s okay: GAT is the first of a trilogy that by the time it’s done will be some 800,000 words (or, if you prefer, roughly 2,400 pages) long. It, like me, wears its influences on its sleeve: mention is made of the Terrestrial Constitution-class Fleet Carrier FSS Red Storm, and as recently as last week I was writing scenes in the third book featuring characters whose predicament brings to mind that of the Keflavik Marines.
Tom Clancy died two days ago, at the age of 66, in Johns Hopkins Hospital (the same hospital, coincidentally, in which his creation Cathy Ryan was an eye surgeon). He taught me that it’s okay, as an author, to dare to write big. He showed that it can be done. I owe him a debt of honour.