Tom Clancy Got It Right

When I learned about Tom Clancy's death, I remembered back to 1984, when a successful browse at a local bookstore yielded a copy of The Hunt for Red October published by, of all things, the Naval Institute Press. We've had a long technothriller romance since then, all the way up to yesterday when I put in my Amazon pre-order for his latest -- Command Decision.

So it is worth reflecting on Clancy's legacy, not only as the provider of a certain genre of entertainment, but as a testament to the power of the imagination in preparing for an uncertain future.

I will never forget the conversation I had with a "figure" in the national security community who remarked that no one could have foreseen hijacked passenger jets being flown -- kamikaze-style -- into buildings. Well, Tom Clancy did. In 1994, a full 17 years before 9/11, Clancy's novel Debt of Honor described how a deranged commercial airline pilot plowed his plane into the Capitol building.

Or consider recent and horrific massacre at the Westfield Mall in Kenya. Again it was Clancy who in 2003 wrote Teeth of the Tiger, documenting in detail the gory details of multiple mall invasions -- in the United States -- by determined terrorist groups.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but yesterday's fiction also has a habit of becoming today's facts. In the 1980's, when I did some advisory work for the strategy team at Royal Dutch Shell, I found them all immersed in William Gibson's visionary cyberpunk sci-fi masterpiece Neuromancer. Shell was a company obsessed with the future, given the fact that even small changes in the social and political climate could affect the price of oil and therefore their core business model. Reading science fiction for them was simply one facet in their overall approach to sense-making and "future-proofing" themselves.

So, when I imagine national security strategists sitting around trying to figure out what lies around the next corner, I hope they will spend at least part of their time reading Tom Clancy and the Tom Clancys to come. I hope they will acknowledge the power of imagination and intuition that can come out in the best, and most prophetic, fiction.

John Kao is Chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation. Follow him at and on Twitter @Johnkao