Like Tom Clancy but Less conservative?
March 13, 2018 5:27 PM   Subscribe

I've been going through a small Tom Clancy re-read, and realizing that while I enjoy his plots, even some of the improbable ones, the conservative politics rubs me a bit the wrong way. Is there anything which might scratch a similar itch, light-ish military thrillers with clear good vs. evil, but not as much political soapboxing? I like the older Cold War and early 2000s-era Clancy, but haven't been able to get into the post 9-11 stuff, let alone any of his collaborations. Bonus points for a few personal thoughts on why I might like a particular author/series.
posted by Alensin to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Back in The Olden Days, I was a big techno-thriller junkie. Along with Clancy, I love(d) the works of Dale Brown (_Flight of the Old Dog_) and Larry Bond (Clancy's co-author for _Red Storm Rising_). Both of them are apparently still writing, but I can't speak to anything either wrote after about 2001.
posted by hanov3r at 5:32 PM on March 13, 2018

Sum of All Fears is Clancy at the height of his powers. Debt of Honor is okay, but it started his slide towards author tracts. Executive Orders was even worse, and Rainbow Six's ending was beyond ultra-conservative wish fulfillment.

To answer the question, I have never read anyone else who has been able to summon up the skill Clancy had at weaving threads together in the techno-thriller genre.

Maybe Jack Higgins? Robert Ludlum's non-Bourne books are not bad. Frederick Forsyth is a good read if you like the info dumps Clancy indulged in. Forsyth's books are how-to manuals. They are all classics, though none of the works I've read are as long or as complex as Clancy's mature work.
posted by Fukiyama at 5:39 PM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yes to Forsyth
posted by Pressed Rat at 5:54 PM on March 13, 2018

I remember liking Ken Follet's "Eye of the Needle" but it's been ages since I read, it so I can't tell you why. Goodreads is pretty positive about it.
posted by evilmomlady at 5:55 PM on March 13, 2018

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross is as if Tom Clancy and J.R.R. Tolkien had a love child in a British bureaucracy, but in a good funny way.

"Flight of the Old Dog" by Dale Brown is similar to early Clancy.
posted by nickggully at 6:03 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recently read Dan (not Dale!) Brown's Deception Point and Digital Fortress, which I thought were in a similar vein to Clancy, but rather left-leaning and each featuring a female lead. It's been a long time since I read Clancy's stuff, so I'm probably underestimating him at his height. And I can't say either of the Dan Brown books was a good book, but they scratched an itch.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:39 PM on March 13, 2018

Just today I read a tweet about just this, where someone mentioned that Clancy had a ghostwriter who wrote their own books that aren't as jingoistic, but Twitter search is trash so I can't find it now.
posted by rhizome at 6:45 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend "The Faithful Spy," the first and best of the John Wells books by Alex Berenson (less politically conservative too, author was former NY Times correspondent).

You should also try John le Carré. The best of his are probably "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Today, JLC's politics are substantially more left wing than they used to be, but he was never conservative.
posted by Jahaza at 6:49 PM on March 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Stephen Coonts's Jake Grafton novels are definitely in the classic techno-thriller vein. The best of them is the first in the series, Flight of the Intruder.

For Larry Bond, the best of those are probably his collaborations with Patrick Larkin, Red Phoenix and Cauldron.

If you can transpose your techno-thriller love to earlier eras you should try C.S. Forrester's Hornblower books and Caleb Pettengill, USN by George Fielding Eliot, who is equally obsessed with technology as Clancy.

Another somewhat orthogonal option might be Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, which gets into the technology of seafaring in WWII a bit as well. If you like The Caine Mutiny, you should try his Winds of War and War and Remembrance as well, but it's a big commitment so try him out with The Caine Mutiny first.
posted by Jahaza at 7:01 PM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think author David Poyer's series about naval officer Dan Lenson is exactly what you are looking for.

But, I will say serious authors writing genre fiction doesn't always work. As much as I really want to love Poyer's military fiction, sometimes it doesn't quite come together. You really need a sort of crappy don't-care-too-much author to write this kind of pulpy adventure stuff. Another example would be serious "literary" author Colson Whitehead's zombie novel, Zone One. I think I am one of the few people who really liked it.

If you are willing to stray into alternate history, Eric Flint's 1632 series and its spin-offs are full of military science fiction about a small American town that is accidentally zapped by aliens into Europe in the 17th century's 30 Years War. The first book of the series has been officially available for free for many years.

If you are willing to stray back to WWII fiction, British naval officer Nicholas Monsarrat's novel The Cruel Sea is very fine, as is its non-fiction autobiographical counterpart, Three Corvettes.
posted by seasparrow at 7:19 PM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I also recently read Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean (Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare). Much of Zebra takes place on a nuclear sub, like Red October--but it's interesting to see how the technology (and the storytelling) has changed since 1963 when it was released. I don't think it would register as conservative, and it was a pretty diverting read.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:45 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maybe a little off your target, but I really enjoyed Linda Nagata's The Red: First Light (The Red trilogy #1). Quite-near future military science fiction, but with little, if any, obvious R/L political lean. My brief GoodReads review: "Near-future, MilSF thriller - more The Forever War than Starship Troopers in its cynicism. The narrator is pretty much the only character that has more than 2 dimensions, but the premise is interesting, the action is fast, and the pages fly by."
posted by ClingClang at 7:54 PM on March 13, 2018

Yeah Alistair Maclean's stuff is the style Tom Clancy originally cribbed. Len Deighton's war novels are as easy to get into (though not quite so light, particularly Bomber), and his early spy novels (Ipcress File, Horse Under Water) are great. If you want light militaria, admittedly with completely improbable plots---despite historical accuracy---can I recommend George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books, which have a remarkably ambiguous politics?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:44 PM on March 13, 2018

Dale Brown gets worse and worse, like Clancy. Probably faster.

When I couldn't stand the politics of technothrillers anymore I moved on to sci fi for the plots and nonfiction for the real-world technogeekery. Including military history, technology chronicles, espionage memoirs, infosec stuff, etc.

For military history with a lot of technology in it, check out Eric Bergerud (Fire in the Sky, Touched with Fire, Red Thunder Tropic Lightning)

You might like The Closed World by Paul Edwards for stuff about the development of computing through Cold War technology. You might also be interested in Gibson's The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam.

There are also technology-focused reviews on the more recent conflicts (the Gulf war, the Balkans, Afghanistan & Iraq.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:22 PM on March 13, 2018

Best answer: Maybe out of left field but have your tried the Jack Reacher novels? They are a little more toward hard boiled action/mystery than techno thriller, but Lee Child puts out a lot of fun and well-paced plots that for me scratch an itch similar to early Clancy.

Reacher is kind of a thinking man’s thug IMO, smart and strong and a little crazy. He’s a cliched drifter and gets a bit formulaic after you’ve read a few, but thecliches don’t bother me much because of the sheer beach/plane binge fun.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:55 PM on March 13, 2018

Tobias Buckell's two Arctic Rising books are sold as SF but are basically near future techno thrillers with global warming a bit further along people scrambling for new resources or to defend old ones. This especially applies to the second one, Hurricane Fever.
posted by mark k at 11:04 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Michael Crichton is absolutely not an author to read indiscriminately if you're worried about unbearable author politics and plots turning into tracts, but I loved his book Airframe in part because the thing he was preaching about was so... inert.

Like, it's a 90s high-tech corporate espionage thriller about... how safe planes are. (Also how TV news is over-sensationalized.) Not a great novel, but I really enjoyed reading it. (And it made me like 10% less afraid of flying, which is a really nice benefit to earn for reading a mass-market paperback.)
posted by Polycarp at 11:55 PM on March 13, 2018

Less techno and more stiff upper lip, the British military/intelligence thrillers by Anthony Higgins are very well written. See also the spy series by Clive Egleton. Very suspenseful, densely plotted and literate.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:42 AM on March 14, 2018

An espionage thriller set in WWII, with lots of sequels: Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst. I don't know his politics for sure, but from what I've read, the antagonists are mainly fascists and purge-era Stalinist spies.

I enormously enjoyed the writing and thought that the plots threaded together well.
posted by wires at 9:18 AM on March 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

snuffleupagus: For military history with a lot of technology in it, check out Eric Bergerud (Fire in the Sky, Touched with Fire, Red Thunder Tropic Lightning)

By the way, those first two books were really what opened up the history of WWII in the Pacific to me when I was researching my grandpa's service. Great, immediate details.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:32 AM on March 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Bergerud is a treasure.

For people who enjoyed Airframe, I haven't read any but there is a subgenre of technothriller that focuses on airliner in-flight crisis scenarios (John Nance seems prominent) and some crash investigation/NTSB stuff (I found Les Abend via Nance) with good reviews. Can't say what politics might be embedded.

I feel like good technothrillers, aside from satisfying descriptions of interesting tech, have a competence porn element to them. So, The Martian if you haven't read it/seen it. (The book has more of those ah-ha moments than the movie.) And anything else with that element might satisfy, depending on what kinds of technology (or just human endeavor) hold your interest.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:31 AM on March 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's not modern techno-thrillers, but for incredibly immersive, technically detailed historical fiction, you can't beat the Aubrey-Maturin seafaring novel series. They are wonderful.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:35 AM on March 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Here's another fun one from cold war history - Blind Man's Bluff: the Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.

Padfield's The War Beneath the Sea
is a good history of WWII submarine development and warfare. Budiansky's Air Power is a good technology history of military aviation. And The Air Campaign is a short read and the touchstone for current doctrine from the Gulf War forward. Black's The Cold War: A Military History has a lot of focus on technology and nuclear strategy.

The Dark Hero of the Information Age is a biography of Norbert Wiener combined with intellectual history of cybernetics. The Martians of Science looks at the remarkable cohort of Hungarian expat physicists Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller and their earth-shaking legacies.
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:42 PM on March 14, 2018

David Khan’s factual book The Code Breakers is very interesting, and a fun gloss on Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon so you can tell where the crypto stuff turns into fiction.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:07 PM on March 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

These authors are mainly not conservative and I see them as human stories suffering at the sharp end of international hot and cold conflicts... I search out writers who explore space and place and how they can be used from an agents pov - Andy McNabb does this really well, almost like a novelised approach to JB Jackson's - The Strangers' Path (Jackson was a WW2 bombing planner).

Robert Littell develops complex and flawed characters within byzantine (mainly cold-war) plots, but it all (sadly) seems current again. Legends is a good way to start - explores one agents' multiple personalities and ways of being. The Sisters explores interconnected pairs of spy-handlers, assassins, cut-outs, lovers and innocents.

Olen Steinhauer - early 21st C, set in China, Germany and US, deeply woven and an absorbing read.

For another more on-the-ground and gritty experience try Slow Horses by Mick Herron
About a group of sidelined spies (the slow horses) who for various reasons won't be fully accepted in to the fold but who have their uses.

Again older but Dennis Wheatley's Gregory Sallust novels are first-class (may be a little conservative but like Buchan a few years before are very relevant and interesting now) - Wheatley was a war scenario planner under Churchill, Buchan a spy and diplomat with an exquisite description of landscape from a spies pov.
posted by unearthed at 5:29 PM on March 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Happy Dave. Aubrey-Maturin stays pretty close to the two main protagonists and doesn't have much in the way of antagonist POV like Clancy, but it is definitely as immersive.
posted by Fukiyama at 6:13 PM on March 14, 2018

You should also try John le Carré. The best of his are probably "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Today, JLC's politics are substantially more left wing than they used to be, but he was never conservative.

Seconding this suggestion for John le Carré. A friend of mine kinda pushed on me and I finally relented. I started with this first book and have plowing through them in order since then. If you really want to get to know George Smiley (more or less the main character throughout le Carré's books, although not always), start with book one and keep going. For book four, The Lookin Glass War, Smiley was hardly in it all, but the nature of his appearances somehow added even more depth to the character. When I finished this book, I had to take a of week long break because it hit me pretty hard.
posted by NoMich at 10:00 AM on March 15, 2018

Have you seen the space operas written recently by Jack Campbell?

If you can move from Cold War to a thousand years in the future or whatever, the books focus on leadership and ideals and desperate crews fleeing a hostile power.

Reminds me a bit of the "Hunt For Red October" plot aspects where Ramius is hiding from the Dallas, except that every book includes several surprisingly-lucid space battle scenes.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:07 PM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

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