Techno-Thriller Echoes Headline News

CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER by Tom Clancy, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 656 pp., $21.95

IT was almost inevitable that the Iran-contra scandal would spawn literary imitations, such as ``Clear and Present Danger.'' This whiz-bang, blood-and-thunder, techno-thriller is Tom Clancy's latest novel of international intrigue. It will probably be an enormous success.

Many of the questions raised by Clancy are right out of today's headlines: Is it possible to resolve pressing national security issues, given the divided nature of the US governmental system, with its checks and balances? Can the US, in fact, resolve international problems on its own? Can the global drug trade be curbed without somehow taking the battle to the overseas citadels of the drug lords? What happens if an overseas covert operation goes awry? (Remember the Bay of Pigs?) Who ``polices'' the police, such as the US Navy, the CIA, and the FBI?

Clancy, unfortunately, doesn't provide as many answers as questions. In his scenario of extra-constitutional (and thus, illegal) incidents, covert operations are undertaken by grade-A, Hollywood-type heavies. But the history of the past several decades suggests that the clear and present danger to the US political system is that such operations usually come not from ``heavies,'' but from ``good guys'' (that is, many of the very folks elected to high office by the public.)

Still, quibbles aside, this is foremost an action yarn. Clancy's fans will not be disappointed, although newcomers to this genre might be put off by all the violence. But there are other problems.

It's not that ``Clear and Present Danger'' - all 544 pages - is a bad novel, or intemperate, or even unexciting. In terms of stark drama, the book explodes with high-tech-oriented adventure. The problem is that Clancy's formula-driven approach of playing off the Iran-contra scandal - and, in a sense, Watergate before that - tends to trivialize history and unwittingly misread many of the lessons that must be learned to avoid such incidents in the future.

Clancy's topic is not explicitly Iran, or the contras, although the book is full of contra look-alikes in the form of nasty Colombian drug lords and misguided American military personnel.

Rather, Clancy examines the complexities of the international narcotics trade, particularly the Colombian connection as it affects the US. What if, Clancy asks, a clandestine White House operation (complete with intricate money-laundering) were launched to invade Colombia, kill off drug dealers, and, in the process, win public points for the president? But at the same time, what if a CIA agent with scruples (the intrepid Jack Ryan) were to find out about the illegal operation and attempt to make it ``constitutional,'' as well as to save a number of American military personnel facing possible death abroad?

What Clancy fans seem to love most - and what drives his critics to distraction - is the author's fascination with high technology. If there is now such a subcategory of fiction as the ``techno-thriller,'' it is no doubt more because of Tom Clancy than any other writer. In this approach, character and motivation take a back seat to technical jargon. For a generation raised on computers and action-oriented home video games, such a preoccupation with technical minutia is understandable.

In the midst of an action sequence involving a bombing, we suddenly learn that the ``GBU-15 laser-guided bomb had a `guaranteed' accuracy of under three meters, but that was under combat conditions ... Two detonators, one in the nose and one in the tail, were triggered by a computer chip within a microsecond of the instant when the seeker head struck the fiberglass top of the truck.''

Or again: ``Each letter passed through the cassette player, which took note of the incoming letter and treated it as a number from 1 (A) to 26 (Z), and then added the number on the tape cassette''... well you get the idea.

Mercifully, when the movie moguls get around to filming this epic, such details will hit the cutting-room floor.

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