Playing Reversi with Tom Clancy

Photography by ariadnerbAt 11:47 last night I finished Net Force, a futuristic espionage novel conceived by Tom Clancy in 1998. As with all books set in the future – in this case 2010 – its prescience is imperfect. It anticipates the significance of the internet and the rise of big data, but flunks badly on terminology.

For me the significance of Net Force is its place as an American novel. It’s an unashamed apology for American exceptionalism, even though it was written three years before the twin towers were brought down. In its implicit justification of America’s right to do as it wishes with the world, it’s no different to many other Tom Clancy novels.

The essence of Net Force‘s plot is this. A former Russian living in Chechnya uses his exceptional programming skills to amass money and influence, attacking the internet police to divert attention from his takeover of East European governments. In Clancy’s universe the internet police force is, of course, an American government agency, and the American narrative so dear to Clancy’s audience demands that it defeat this threat with minimal loss to American interests.

Enough of this. The moral ambiguities are best highlighted by turning the book on its head.

[box title=”Force Net – the plot” color=”#777777″]

  • A few years in the future, a software developer domiciled in the United States amasses wealth and influence by using his exceptional skills to hack overseas systems and divert funds in foreign markets.
  • To provide a distraction for his ambitions, he attacks the United Nations’ Europe-based Global Internet Governance Agency.
  • The head of GIGA is from eastern Europe. His assassination prompts his own country to dispatch a covert military force in retaliation.
  • After bribing Mexico with the promise of future trade opportunities, two low-flying East European helicopters cross the border into Texas and kidnap the US developer from his home in San Antonio.
  • During the raid several Americans are killed, but the invading force completes its operation without casualties.


Playing Reversi with the plot highlights the essential contradiction of Clancy’s perspective: American interests do not trump the sovereignty of independent states, even if agencies in those states collude to enable such violations (I’m thinking of you, Kim Dotcom). Any entity which believes it has the right to overrule the basic principles of international law ought not to act surprised when the tables are turned.