Pros:Once implausible, it's a novel that is still VERY relevant.
Cons:Denver residents, beware. It's your city that gets nuked.
The Bottom Line: Forget the 2002 movie. Read this sometimes exciting, often scary, and always engrossing novel instead.
In his sixth novel (and fifth entry in the Jack Ryan series), The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy once again turned his attention on the specter of global terrorism and meshed it to the themes of the limits of Presidential power, the sometimes nasty backbiting that goes on in the world of politics, and the ever-present danger from weapons of mass destruction.
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The book opens with a prologue set during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Egypt, Syria, and even a few Iraqi units attacked Israel in a stunning surprise attack. Faced with possible defeat for the first time in 25 years, Israel alerts its small nuclear deterrent to be placed on standby. In the confusion of increased mission tempo, a single small nuclear bomb is loaded onto an A-4 Skyhawk attack bomber whose pilot has no clue what he is carrying. In an attack on a Syrian SAM battery, this A-4 is shot down and its deadly cargo falls into a Druze farmer's rocky field, where it will lie undisturbed for almost two decades.
Fast forward to Clancy's fictional mid 1990s-era world. The Cold War is ending, and the easing tensions between East and West offer the weary world both hope and fear. With America and the Soviet Union now working together to solve some of the thorniest problems on the planet, expectations are high for a new, peaceful world order.
First and foremost of these problems, of course, is the Middle East, where Israeli-Palestinian relations have once again heated up in a chain of religiously-motivated incidents. This time, though, the Palestinians have taken a cue from the American civil rights movement and started a Martin Luther King, Jr.-style "peaceful confrontation" campaign, which places Israel on the moral defensive. Yet, a chance remark by Jack Ryan to a senior White House official begins a promising process that might lead to a fair solution to the long conflict between Muslims and Jews
The down side to all this is that not everyone is overjoyed with the wave of good news washing over the world. In Eastern Europe, die-hard Marxists refuse to accept the end of communism and rail against the "betrayal" by their former "socialist comrades" in the Soviet government. Among these deluded die-hards is German terrorist Gunther Bock, a vengeful radical whose wife is now behind bars in Germany and his twin children put up for adoption. On the run and lusting for the ultimate payback on the world, Bock will journey to the Middle East, where he will make contact with Palestinians sponsored by a shadowy Islamic leader who is equally unhappy about the coming peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And when by sheer luck this group (which will be joined by the unstable Native American Marvin Russell) comes across Israel's missing nuke, the ultimate revenge plot will begin to take form.
In this huge and complex novel, Jack Ryan is pushed to his limits both professionally and personally. For although the stalwart CIA analyst has now stepped up in rank to the post of acting Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, he is not held in the highest regard by the new Fowler Administration, which ironically won its place at the White House in part due to Ryan's actions at the end of Clear and Present Danger. The new Director of Central Intelligence, Sebastian Cabot, is merely a pawn cleverly manipulated by the "power behind the throne" in the West Wing, and the President himself, Robert Fowler, is more interested in securing his ultra-liberal domestic agenda at the expense of a strong and consistent foreign/defense policy.
To make matters worse, Ryan has earned the personal enmity of Dr. Elizabeth Elliott, President Fowler's new National Security Adviser, who not only wants the acting DDCI to be fired from his CIA job, but wants to wreak havoc on his personal life.
When all these plot threads converge and a deadly crisis arises, it is Ryan who must act quickly to avert an even worse conflict that could be the product of the sum of everyone's fears.
For Clancy and his readers, this would be the crossroads of both the series and the real world that inspired the novel's themes and ideas. The Soviet Union, whose evolution from Cold War enemy to post-Cold War peace "partner" was mirrored in the Ryanverse, experienced an abortive coup the same week the book was published, and within four months, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist in name and structure. From here on, Clancy would have to look elsewhere for potential crises, although Russia and the various Russian/Soviet characters the author had created would later loom large in future novels.
It's also a crossroads for Jack, as well. He reprises his "voice of common sense" role in another face-off with another President, but this time he's had to face both inner demons (marital stress, a bout of excessive drinking) and a set of external enemies, some closer to home than the obvious adversaries. He has risen far and fast in the power corridors of the Central Intelligence Agency, but at a great cost, and Ryan pays a price for it at novel's end.
Despite Clancy's limitations as a writer of prose, The Sum of All Fears is a chilling page-turner, and its once "it's just an entertaining scenario" of terrorists successfully using a weapon of mass destruction now seems eerily prescient.