Book Review: ‘SSN’ (originally published as ‘SSN: Strategies of Submarine Warfare’)

(C) 1996, 2000 Berkley Books (Penguin Random House)

The Inspiration: Tom Clancy’s SSN

(C) 1996 Simon & Schuster Interactive, Clancy Interactive Entertainment, and Virtus Corporation

Rating: 3 out of 5.

On November 16, 1996, Simon & Schuster Interactive released Tom Clancy’s SSN, a computer video game/submarine simulator based on the Improved Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack sub USS Cheyenne (SSN-773). Co-produced by Clancy Interactive Entertainment and Virtus Corporation, SSN was a single-player third-person perspective game set in what was then the near-future 1997 and an undeclared war between China and the United States over the status of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

SSN was what is known as a “closed” single campaign game in which the player – who sees Cheyenne from the outside only (like in a movie but with no interior shots) – must complete a set of 15 pre-scripted missions against China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in order to “win” the game. There were no branching alternative missions; players could only advance from Mission One to Mission Two if they completed the first mission, and so on, and so forth.

Tom Clancy’s SSN was designed for Windows 95 and was visually and aurally impressive, but it was more video game than sub simulation – even 1988’s Red Storm Rising was more interested in portraying submarine warfare with a modicum of reality than SSN even though it had inferior graphics compared to the 1996 game. In brief, SSN consisted of the player – in the role of Cheyenne’s skipper – sailing to an assigned sector, blowing up Chinese subs and surface ships while avoiding being sunk by enemy torpedoes, then proceeding to the next mission.

SSN’s saving grace was that it had a storyline, and the game featured “newscasts” from the fictional Total Cable News (TCN).[1] The game’s designers had shot footage of live actors – some on actual sets, others green-screened into footage shot aboard U.S. Navy warships or in Hong Kong, which at the time had not yet been handed over to China by Great Britain. I liked those newscasts, as well as the intro by Tom Clancy and the supplemental 40-minute interview (conducted by British journalist James Adams) with the best-selling author and a retired Royal Navy submariner, Capt. Doug Littlejohns.

The “Forgotten Clancy Novel”

The original paperback edition of SSN. Note that this version has the 1996 edition’s subtitle on the cover. (C) 1997 Berkeley Books.

On December 1, 1996 – not long after the release of Tom Clancy’s SSN – G.P. Putnam’s Sons published SSN, a technothriller novel created by Clancy with his friend and colleague Martin H. Greenberg. Based on the eponymous video game, SSN is often referred to as “the forgotten Clancy novel” and only the second novel that was not part of the Clancy “Ryanverse.”[2]

SSN follows the same storyline as Tom Clancy’s SSN. As in the game, the protagonist is the commander of USS Cheyenne, only this time Clancy and Greenberg give him a name and rank: Captain Bartholomew Mackey, USN. In his late 40s and a Naval Academy graduate, we’re told that Mackey is married, has two children with his wife, and that he is a gifted and well-respected officer in the Navy’s Silent Service.

The front cover of the 2000 reissue.

Publisher’s Back Cover Blurb

(C) 2000 Penguin Random House

China has invaded the oil-rich Spratly Islands. The American response has been swift – and deadly. And the Third World War has begun…

Captain Bartholomew Mackey is the skipper of the U.S.S. Cheyenne, a nuclear submarine dispatched to the Spratlys to protect a carrier group. But in a few moments, the Cheyenne’s mission – and the world – have changed, as a tense situation has exploded into a full-scale war of nightmarish proportions.

Tom Clancy presents fifteen thrilling scenarios – fact-based mission profiles for Captain Mackey and the Cheyenne – stirring plots and characters, perfectly accurate details, and the chilling knowledge that it really could happen…

Between the Covers

As the publisher’s back cover summary says, SSN is divided into 15 chapters, each one of which explores and expands upon the 15 missions in the video game Tom Clancy’s SSN.  As in many of Clancy’s works of fiction, each chapter has a descriptive title based on the tale it tells.

The chapters in the novel are:

1              Preface: “Prelude to War”

2              “First Blood”

3              “South China Sea Station”

4              “Four if by Sea, Six if by Land”

5              “Dogfight”

6              “Interdiction”

7              “Ambush”

8              “Target: Convoy”

9              “Patrol”

10           “The Fourth Patrol: From Russia with Love”

11           “Rescue”

12           “Battle Royale”

13           “Strait Up”

14           “Typhoon Hunt”

15           “Hornets’ Nest”

16           “Special Delivery”

The novel also features maps in each chapter and – in the mass trade paperback – an insert of black-and-white photos, some of which are official U.S. Navy photographs of ships, aircraft, and submarines that have roles in SSN’s story. Other illustrations are screenshots from the game’s fictional “TCN News” broadcasts, including shots of Emily Procter (Leaving Las Vegas, The West Wing) and Tucker Smallwood (Contact, Star Trek: Enterprise).

Additionally, SSN is supplemented by a transcript of the game’s “Greek Island Interview,” in which Clancy and Doug Littlejohns – the game’s technical adviser – discuss the real-life disputes over the Spratly Islands, China’s growing naval abilities and ambitions as a major world power, modern submarine tactics, and, of course, the SSN game itself.

My Take

(C) 2000 Penguin Random House

I have been a fan of the late Tom Clancy and his novels since I read The Hunt for Red October when I was in college. I also owned and played SSN for about a year; I bought the game when it was first released in 1996, and it ran well on the inexpensive “built from parts by a friend” PC that I owned at the time. (However, when I bought a newer PC that ran on Windows 98, SSN did not run on it. At all.) And, as you know from my description of the game, I liked the visual aspects of the game and the cinematic nature of the “news broadcasts,” but it was not as good a sub simulation as Red Storm Rising or the more recent Cold Waters.

SSN – the “forgotten Clancy novel” – is also not as good a reading experience as either The Hunt for Red October or Red Storm Rising.

It’s not a bad book; unlike other paperback novels that were published under the Tom Clancy brand in such series as Op Center and Power Plays, Clancy wrote SSN himself with some input by Martin H. Greenberg (who wrote the non-fiction reference book The Clancy Companion and was a driving force for Clancy’s non-fiction Guided Tour series about different military units from the various armed services).

Fans of Clancy, who died unexpectedly at the age of 66 in October of 2013 – will recognize his writing style. The attention to technical detail, fact-based material about submarines, aircraft carriers, and other warships and weapon systems and how they work is evidence that SSN was written by the “Master of the Technothriller.”

Having said that, SSN is what I consider to be “Clancy-Lite.” Because it is based on a video game where the “star” is a submarine that destroys essentially the entire Chinese navy seemingly on its own – it doesn’t, but it seems that Cheyenne is a “one-sub Navy” in both the game and novel based on its campaign.

The only character who is developed in SSN is Capt. Mackey, but he never feels fully fleshed out in the same way as Clancy’s sprawling cast of characters in the Jack Ryan novels. Mackey is, in fact, the only officer aboard Cheyenne who is a “named” character; everyone else is referred to by his position on the chain of command or posting aboard the sub, i.e.  “the executive officer,” “the sonarman,” “the OOD,”[3] “the weapons officer,” “the helmsman,” and so on.

The dialogue, too, is somewhat limited. There isn’t much interpersonal banter or non-mission-related conversation in SSN. There is a great deal of naval jargon and specific-to-submarine operations terminology in the 15 chapters of the novel, including the different words used to denote contacts on a submarine’s various sensors.

It was in SSN where I first learned that:

  • Sonar contacts are referred to by the NATO phonetic alphabet letter Sierra and given numbers, e.g., “Conn, Sonar: New contact, bearing one-eight-zero. Designated Sierra One.”
  • Radar contacts are referred to by the NATO phonetic alphabet letter Romeo
  • Contacts detected by the sub’s Electronic Surveillance Mast (ESM) sensors are referred to by the NATO phonetic alphabet letter Romeo
  • Contacts detected by multiple sensors are referred to by the term Master and given numbers

The dialogue – which unfortunately tends to be repetitive and without the casual and often verbal shorthand that’s unique to crews that serve together for extended periods develop over time – is dryer than the Sahara Desert and leaves a lot to be desired.

The most interesting part of SSN is the transcript of the game’s Greek Island Interview segment, which was written by British journalist and defense writer James Adams. As I mentioned earlier, this interview with Tom Clancy and Doug Littlejohns covers several topics, including the then-political climate in China, the importance of the Spratly Islands, and why they are so coveted by various countries in the region (Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippine Islands, Taiwan, Brunei, and China all have competing claims) – and why they might be a source of armed conflict in the South China Sea.

The Greek Island Interview from SSN.

The Greek Island Interview also delves into Tom Clancy’s SSN and how authentic it is vis a vis real post-Cold War submarine warfare and naval strategy. Clancy and Littlejohns explain their roles in the development of the game and explain why certain sacrifices were made regarding “realism” to make SSN playable by the average computer gamer and still maintain some of the “atmospherics” of commanding a nuclear fast attack sub in the late 1990s.

Is this a great Tom Clancy novel?

No, not really. It’s based on a video game and does not alter the ending from the source’s storyline. It doesn’t even keep any of the on-screen characters we see in the TCN “news broadcasts” in the text, even though stills from Tom Clancy’s SSN show TCN anchor Jim Collins (Cary J. Pitts) and TCN correspondents Sally Jarvis (Emily Procter) and retired Adm. Jeb Thomas (Tucker Smallwood) in the photo insert in the middle of the book.

As a result, SSN – which in its first editions bore the subtitle Strategies of Submarine Warfare but was reissued in 2000 without it – is a rarity in the Clancy bibliography: a lightweight novel aimed either at fans of the 1996 game or Tom Clancy completists.  

Still, SSN is readable enough to at least borrow from the local public library or from a friend who owns a copy. The paperback edition is out of print (OOP) and copies you will find on Amazon and other e-retailers will be used. However, Penguin Random House – which owns the Putnam imprint – offers SSN in an e-book edition, complete with maps and illustrations.

[1] A name chosen, I think, because the initials “TCN” could also stand for “Tom Clancy News,” which at the time I found amusing.

[2] The first and best-known novel Clancy wrote with zero connections to Jack Ryan was 1986’s Red Storm Rising.

[3] OOD stands for Officer of the Deck.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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