By this time, the essentials of a Tom Clancy megathriller have grown so familiar to his readers that extra supplies of The Sum of all Fears had better be laid in at bookstores near U.S. military bases. Whether dedicating his book to American soldiers ''because the noblest of ideas have always been protected by warriors,'' or evoking the ''manly scents of oil and leather in the cockpit'' of a fighter-bomber poised for combat, Clancy in his novels makes a powerful appeal to the heroic/sentimental side of the military personality. (As opposed, say, to the ideological/bureaucratic aspect.) Not for nothing has the former insurance man become a huge favorite at the Pentagon.
Of course, ordinary readers will also find themselves pulled into the vast, Dickensian plot of The Sum of All Fears. Exhaustively researched and cleverly narrated, like its predecessors, The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger, this one reintroduces Clancy's brilliant Irish-Catholic CIA man, Jack Ryan, and affords him yet another chance to save the world. Two chances, actually. In the novel's opening pages that is to say the first 250, or thereabouts Ryan conceives a plan to bring about a permanent Middle East peace settlement through the good offices of the Vatican, a sort of Pax Romana-Americana that satisfies Christian, Jew, and Muslim alike.
Together with the collapse of Eastern European communism, peace threatens to break out all over. But that, according to an embittered group of German, Arab, and Native American terrorists, will never do. (For one thing, even your major terrorist organizations have lousy retirement plans.) Having happened upon an Israeli nuclear device made of stolen U.S. plutonium, our villains hatch a diabolical plan to set the Americans and the Russians at one another's throats again. Readers who have seen the 1977 movie Black Sunday (as one of the terrorists has) will recognize some elements of the scheme, which involves an NFL Super Bowl game.
Luckily, one can't simply dig up an old H-bomb and set it off like a bottle rocket. Luckily, a terrific amount of high-tech engineering is necessary, which, in turn, allows Clancy to show off his prodigious expository skills, explaining in encyclopedic detail exactly how a cash-rich group of politically deranged fanatics might go about putting such a fiendish plot together. (All too plausible, alas.)
Meanwhile, as the NFL season winds down, a dozen or so subplots thicken. The most entertaining involves a love affair between the U.S. President and his national security adviser, an ambitious harpy who combines the worst traits of Henry Kissinger and Madonna. (They're both Democrats, of course.) As one would expect, the tramp detests CIA Deputy Director Ryan, who gets his values from the Boy Scout Handbook and his speeches from another planet. ''You just fell into the most dangerous trap in government service, ma'am,'' Ryan moralizes. ''You started to think that your wishes to make the world a better place supersede the principles under which our government is supposed to operate. I can't stop you from having such thoughts, but I can tell you that my agency will not be a party to it, not as long as I'm there.''
Yeah, right. As usual, the technology's far more convincing than the characters. But Clancy's readers have never minded that, and it won't trouble them this time either. B+