‘Rainbow Six’ – Tom Clancy

(Note: Spoilers in this review)

A military counter-terrorism unit – Rainbow – is set up as an international force funded by the US government, but whose personnel are also from the UK and a few other countries (Germany, France and Israel), and is based in the UK. In the first few months of operation, it deals – successfully – with three terrorist events in Europe which involve the taking of hostages. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a bunch of doctors are testing a virulent virus – Shiva – and their vaccine, on kidnapped homeless people and others gathered from places where they’re unlikely to be missed. The strands of plot are woven together with skill, and of course, the men of Rainbow (led by former CIA agent John Clark, who has appeared in previous Clancy novels) are victorious in defeating the enemy, a bunch of environmental activists so hardline as to make PETA and the Animal Liberation Front look like wusses. The book is an entertaining and engrossing read, with plenty of action – though I did tend to skim the descriptions of arms and ammunition, and daily training routines.

The main problem with the novel is one of timing: the book was published in 1998, and the threat of terrorism is so low that the villains go to the lengths of manufacturing terrorist attempts for their own ends. Only three years later, of course, the terrorist threat was no longer that, but an actuality, and against which Rainbow would have been largely powerless.

There are also a few more minor niggles: Clancy tells us that Canberra is the capital of Australia, for example, but assumes all his readers know where Fort Eglin is. Hereford is not quite so near London as he seems to think. And one bit of editing missed, which annoyed me briefly: the former KGB agent, Popov, is referred to abruptly by this name by one of his IRA contacts, when he is referring to himself, and always has in his dealings with them, by the name of Serov. A couple of characters inexplicably disappear: not killed off, but never seen again.

Criticising a Tom Clancy novel for literary failings seems a little pointless, given his success, and that no-one reads his books for literary merit, but there are two main issues that I have with this book:

  • The portrayal of women characters;
  • The caricaturing of environmental activists as insane tree-huggers who place a higher value on Nature than on Mankind.

Complaining about the stereotyped or negative portrayal of women in this sort of shoot-em-up spy-thriller Boys Own kind of novel seems rather beside the point, but here goes anyway. Although the book was published in 1998 (and is set in 2000 – the Sydney Olympics plays a prominent role in the plot), Clancy’s attitude towards women seems so antiquated so as to negate 30 years of the women’s liberation movement. It’s as if Clancy’s view of the role of women in the services (whether military or civilian) had petrified in the 1970s. It gives the book a slightly dated quality, despite the high-tech gadgetry.

There are, if I recall correctly, five women who have main “speaking roles” – two are wives of the main characters, Rainbow operatives John Clark and Domingo ‘Ding’ Chavez (Sandy Clark and Patricia Chavez); and three are villains – and they are callous and indifferent to human suffering. Every one of the Rainbow team is married, though none (apart from Sandy and Patsy, who is also John and Sandy’s daughter) ever appear ‘onscreen’, and none of them seem anything other than quite happy about having to move to another country with their husband’s posting. Sandy is a nurse and Patsy a doctor – nurturing and caring professions, eminently suitable, evidently, for women – and both transfer without difficulties to an NHS hospital in the UK. Mention is rarely made of a second Clark daughter, still in college in the US. It’s as if these women exist merely as plot devices: their effect on their men is what they’re there for: they don’t exist in their own right, except to be protected from harm. You also get the impression that poor Patsy, who spends almost the entire novel pregnant, is really only there to provide the next generation of little Chavezes.

The villains are no better characterised. Carol Brightling (the US government’s Chief Scientific Advisor) is more sympathetically portrayed at the beginning of the book, even if she descends into cartoon villainy by the end – but even so, her scientific achievements are glossed over, she’s shown as politically naive and in the job for the wrong reasons, and her frustration at being the token woman in a completely male-dominated administration is not taken seriously – and neither do the President (Jack Ryan, also a recurring character) or his staff take her or her advice seriously. And it isn’t as if the environmental arguments she’s putting across are bad or unusual, either. While she and her ex-husband divorced in order to start their plot in motion, poor Carol’s the one who has to be a sad and lonely divorcee without a lover, and only a cat for company, when her former husband’s taking advantage by dating several very attractive women.

One could argue that the military don’t really include that many women, and certainly not in their elite units, but none of the many FBI agents or police officers mentioned in the book are women, and neither are any of Rainbow’s technical – but non-combatant – specialists. Dr Paul Bellow, for example, the team’s psychologist and hostage negotiation specialist, could easily have been (in novelistic terms) a woman, so it’s interesting that Clancy evidently doesn’t think that women have any sort of role in a military situation. It’s a Boys Own world his characters inhabit, where women are largely irrelevancies.

Secondly, the environmentalist nut-jobbery. The Project involves a group of environmentalists who believe that mankind is so far gone in destruction of the planet that the only thing to do is to wipe it out – by manufacturing an engineered Ebola virus to kill almost all of the population (apart from a few of their own, protected by a effective vaccine). None of them seem at all fazed by the thought of such wholesale genocide, and not many seem to be motivated by real unselfish anger at the destruction of the natural world: one seems more interested in the hunting he’ll get in after the human population is wiped out.

Admittedly, these people portrayed here have to be extremists, since they’ve already been pre-selected, but it is a bit wearing to have all environmentalists tarred with the same brush – as though eco-terrorism is the norm and not the exception.

But then, I suppose one doesn’t read Clancy novels for realistic plots and rich characterisation: so as dumb thrillers go, it ain’t bad.

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