Sea Chase


There’s a movie by the same name, but this is about a book. It’s The Hunt For Red October, by Tom Clancy.

This was Clancy’s first published novel, and it came out in 1984 to quite a sensation. The first movie in the Clancy series was released in 1990 and is based on the book. A review of the movie is being posted simultaneously with this.

The book introduces the character of John Patrick “Jack” Ryan, Ph.D., who appears in all the Tom Clancy movies. Astute readers will notice that the chronology of this story follows that of a book that came out later, Patriot Games, previously reviewed. Had you been given the opportunity to read that book first, you would already know how Jack Ryan got up to his neck in the CIA and how he obtained a British knighthood. Of course, when Clancy wrote this he likely didn’t know what a hit it was going to be and had to scurry to come up with a book to fit the circumstances.

See the movie. It follows the book, to a point. As with all of Clancy’s stories, there’s a lot in the book that can’t be crammed into the movie. Compared to Clear And Present Danger, this book is better captured in the film. I’m not going to  recap the plot. My plan is to provide enough to put the movie into  perspective with the book.

Both the book and the movie begin with the sailing of Red October, a newly-minted nuclear Soviet missile submarine. The action begins when the boat is out to sea, and Captain Marko Alexandrovich Ramius murders Political Officer Ivan Putin, the only person who can foil his plot to defect to the United States, taking the boat and its officers (who are in on the plot) with him. Clancy’s depiction of the political officer’s murder went straight into the movie script:

Ramius kicked Putin’s feet out from under him just as he was stepping away from the table. Putin fell backwards while Ramius sprang to his feet and grasped the political officer’s head in his strong fisherman’s hands. The captain drove his neck downward to the sharp, metal-edged corner of the wardroom table. It struck the point. In the same instant Ramius pushed down on the man’s chest. An unnecessary gesture— with the sickening crackle of bones Ivan Putin’s neck broke, his spine severed at the level of the second cervical vertebra, a perfect hangman’s fracture.

Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October (A Jack Ryan Novel, Book 3) (pp. 14-15). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Enter Jack Ryan. He’s in  England, doing analyses for the CIA. He gets hold of photos for a new Soviet sub. It’s the Red October. He’s on the next available flight to D.C. At CIA headquarters we meet Vice Admiral James Greer, Ryan’s boss. In the movie the part is played by James Earl Jones. In the book it is assumed Greer is a white man, since whenever a character is not European, Clancy makes mention of it.

The interlude with Skip Tyler  is captured in the movie. Tyler is the engineer who points out the sub photos indicate a “caterpillar drive,” something that would allow the sub to run quieter, but an idea that  had been abandoned by American engineers. As in the movie, Tyler is a former sub driver who lost a leg in an auto accident and has been  sidelined from sub duty.

Book and movie have Ryan, ostensibly an analyst—not a field operator, taking on the assignment of contacting Captain Ramius and entering the Soviet vessel by means of a rescue craft. Watching the movie gives the impression that Ryan comes up with the idea Ramius is defecting and taking his officers with him. The book tells of a CIA mole in the Soviet government, who reports that Ramius has left behind a note of his intentions. In  the movie the first indication that the Soviets are scrambling for Red October is when all of a sudden a large segment of the Soviet navy heads out into the Atlantic.

Ramius has the plan to ditch the enlisted crew, who are not in on the plot and would not defect when the boat reaches the U.S. The Americans would like to take the sub without the Soviets knowing they have it. This can only happen if the officers can abscond secretly and go into hiding under CIA protection. The plot by Ramius is to fake a reactor emergency, getting all the enlisted off the boat and rescued, while the officers give the appearance of going down with the boat.

This plot, from the book, is nearly foiled by Red October‘s cook, who is a Soviet intelligence agent planted on the boat. Ryan kills him in a gun fight as he attempts to scuttle the boat.

There has to be an excuse for giving up on the hunt for Red October. The movie incorporates a duel between Red October and a Soviet attack boat, with the attack boat being sunk by one of its own torpedoes. Red October then sails into hiding in an inlet on the coast of Maine. And that’s the end of the movie

The book has the presumed sinking of Red October on its final voyage from Pamlico Sound (North Carolina) to Norfolk. Same sort of thing. Ramius outwits his protégé, commanding the attack boat, and sinks it, instead.

Ryan, who has been  going practically nonstop since leaving his office in  England, sees Ramius off to safety, provides an after-action report to  his bosses at CIA headquarters, gets the nod for future advancement, and heads back to England to spend Christmas with his family.

About the time the book, and then the movie, came out I was doing work that involved development of advanced weaponry. There was a lot of interest in military stuff, and the Clancy novels, and the movies, were popular. The consensus was (I had neither seen nor read any) that Clancy had the inside track on how this stuff really worked.

Clancy had no first hand experience with military matters, neither weaponry nor tactics. What is in his books he gained through research, which included obtaining advice from people in the business. My own familiarity with things military has been limited  to a short stint in the Navy Reserve and later working on weapons systems. To that extent, reading the book brings back memories from an  early life, particularly anti-submarine warfare and some of the East Coast military facilities in the book.

A short stint in the AT shop aboard the USS Randolph introduced me to the concept of MAD (magnetic anomaly detection) gear and sonobuoys. Training as an aviation ordnanceman acquainted me with the homing torpedoes mentioned in the book. Much later in life I worked on a project to automate tracking of submarines with sonobuoys. This was about the same time frame as the book plot, and the impression I have is that technology was advancing rapidly at the time, making some of the book’s terminology now seem quaint.

Prior to  this book Clancy appears to have had no other experience in professional writing. Considering this, the book is well-crafted. Action moves along without stranding the reader in detail  overload—although Clancy can be faulted by piling on too much detail. Clancy also takes opportunity to reflect his political conservatism and also his naiveté regarding some facts of life. In the book there is the added incident of a Soviet attack sub sinking with a sole survivor. Americans rescue the survivor, and his treatment is explained to Soviet officials in  the U.S.:

“His name’s Albert Jameson. We call him Jamie. He’s twenty-nine, graduated Harvard third in his class, and he’s been with us ever since. He’s board-certified in internal medicine and virology. He’s as good as they come.” Tait suddenly realized how uncomfortable he was dealing with the Russians. His education and years of naval service taught him that these men were the enemy. That didn’t matter. Years before he had sworn an oath to treat patients without regard to outside considerations. Would they believe or did they think he’d let their man die because he was a Russian? “Gentlemen, I want you to understand this: we’re giving your man the very best care we can. We’re not holding anything back. If there’s a way to give him back to you alive, we’ll find it. But I can’t make any promises.”

Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October (A Jack Ryan Novel, Book 3) (p. 267). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Clancy feels he needs to explain the Hippocratic oath to readers. He also needs to remind us how more rewarding is American capitalism. He describes an American supermarket to an incredulous Ramius:

“A building about the size of a football field— well, maybe a little smaller than that. You go in the front door and get a shopping cart. The fresh fruits and vegetables are on the right, and you gradually work your way left through the other departments. Ive been doing that since I was a kid.”

Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October (A Jack Ryan Novel, Book 3) (p. 450). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And Clancy’s religiosity tends to  leak through in his tales:

“You are be— believer?” Borodin asked. “Yeah, sure.” Ryan should not have been surprised by the question. “Hell, you gotta believe in something.” “And why is that, Commander Ryan?” Borodin was examining the Pogy through oversized night glasses. Ryan wondered how to answer. “Well, because if you don’t, what’s the point of life? That would mean Sartre and Camus and all those characters were right— all is chaos, life has no meaning. I refuse to believe that. If you want a better answer, I know a couple priests who’d be glad to talk to you.”

Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October (A Jack Ryan Novel, Book 3) (p. 397). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I’m reviewing the Kindle edition of a book that was likely composed on a typewriter and set into type by hand. Generating the Kindle required either manual transcription or else OCR, which can sometimes produce curious results:

…subs and surface ships all the timé, low-flying aircraft…

Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October (A Jack Ryan Novel, Book 3) (p. 286). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Descriptions of available technology and entertainment date this book. We see, for example:

  • Wordstar
  • Apple (new)
  • Commodore
  • TRS-80
  • Atari
  • Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator
  • Bubble memory (T.I. abandoned the technology three years after the book came out.)
  • E.T.
  • Star Wars
  • Hondo and Big Jake (after Wayne was dead for several years)

Also a computer:

Though only about the size of a business desk, it cost over five million dollars and ran at eighty million operations per second. It used newly developed sixty-four-bit chips and made use of the latest processing architecture.

Clancy, Tom. The Hunt for Red October (A Jack Ryan Novel, Book 3) (p. 80). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I’m composing this using a computer that costs about $800, is the size of a coffee table book, and can run circles around those eighty million operations per second.

Clancy’s first offering still shines after all these years. I faulted his follow-on, Patriot Games, for being overly maudlin and for sometimes stretching the story beyond endurance.



One thought on “Sea Chase

  1. Pingback: Schlemiel-in-Chief | Skeptical Analysis

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