Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Scorpion's Gate, Richard A. Clarke

The Scorpion's Gate
Richard A. Clarke

I think I heard an interview with Clarke on NPR at some point and thought this book sounded interesting. Clarke, if you'll recall, was the counter-terrorism advisor to Bill Clinton who then carried over to work for President George Bush. Clarke was very critical of the Bush administration in a number of areas and wasn't afraid to say so publicly. There was a lot of controversy over what he said that can still be found in Clarke's Wikipedia entry, or at least in the discussion page related to the entry.

The tag line (if you want to call it that) on The Scorpion's Gate is "Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction." I'm not so sure - at least in this case - but he tried, and clearly he tried hard. So hard, in fact, that it appears he may have been dragged along by his publisher who saw a good thing if they made the right market window.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future and follows the activities of several groups in the middle east. There are two significant points of difference from the current situation:
  1. The Saudis have been overthrown and their kingdom replaced with an Islamic republic.
  2. The US was "asked to leave" Iraq sometime after the Iraq war ended.
  3. As a result of the above, the US has less power in the region, and most of it is in the form of naval vessels.
From there Clarke spins a tale of intrigue where the bad guys are in positions of power in the US, and where catastrophe (in the form of a significant war) is narrowly avoided by a small group of renegade intelligence and military people working on their own.

Quite frankly, the plot was OK at best. He does his best to drive the action hard - probably on the orders of his publisher as mentioned above - but as a result the characters are basically cardboard cutouts. And there's an off stage sex scene in here that may well have been added as an afterthought, again possibly at the request of the publisher. Gotta get the racy stuff in or no one will read it, right?

The writing is uneven, sometimes sounding a bit like those old radio news broadcasts. "FLASH! Something interesting just happened in Iran!" But again, the entire work feels rushed, just as if the publisher said "you've got two weeks to write a book so we can make a lot of money." Then when he handed them the book they said "OK, we don't have time get you an editor, but add a sex scene somewhere and we'll shove it through the presses." I have no proof that sort of thing happened, of course, but it feels like it did.

One of the more amusing things appears in the acknowledgments section. It says, in part: "Some may think, as they read this volume, that they see themselves or others portrayed. They do not. This is a work of fiction, in which all characters are fictional." If I hadn't read those lines I might not have seen various Bush administration people in these roles. But having read that blurb first, it was impossible not to see at least one or two of them represented here. I suspect that was deliberate. An review suggests that the book is allegory for the US invasion of Iraq. Perhaps, but that may be a bit deep for Clarke given what I see here.

Overall I think the book is far from great. Clarke's got a newer novel out in 2007, but based on this I have no desire to read it. Perhaps his time in the national spotlight is coming to an end. I don't see his career as a fiction writer taking off all that well, but I have the predictive powers of a gnat, so even I don't give that thought much credence.