Tom Clancy
another war

This time it's
the Chinese vs. the Russians;
guess which side the U.S. is on

''The Bear and the Dragon''
By Tom Clancy
Putnam; 1,028 pages; $28.95; $23.16 at

Reviewed by John Orr

The good news about Tom Clancy's new poli-techno-military novel, ''The Bear and the Dragon'' is that the last 500 pages or so are absolutely thrilling stuff, very tough to put down.

Among the bad news is that the first 500 pages or so are mostly sludge, and only the hardiest of readers will be able to wade through to the good stuff.

Also on the grim side of the equation: What Clancy has done to his long-time hero, Jack Ryan.

Ryan, of course, is the guy who changed Clancy from insurance broker to wealthy author, the hero of 1984's ''The Hunt for Red October,'' which was a stunning debut for Clancy and a terrific read.

A CIA analyst who helps steal a Soviet submarine, Ryan -- through a popular series of novels -- moved up the ladder through the CIA and into appointive politics. In an earlier novel he'd become, briefly, vice president by appointment, then president by succession after most of the federal elective government was killed.

In ''The Bear and the Dragon,'' he is president, by election. But now that he is there largely by his own will, he doesn't stop kvetching to himself and anyone else who will listen about what a crummy job it is.

The guy who brilliantly figured out what the Soviets were up to and who bravely faced murderous Irish terrorists, Middle Eastern criminal states and war-mongering Japanese doesn't even take charge of his own appointment schedule. He has no plan for his presidency and spends most of his time drinking expensive coffee and cadging cigarettes from his secretary.

Ryan grouses about women and other nations, demonstrating he is sexist and chauvinistic in every way. His being a Catholic is brought up again and again yet he regularly takes the Lord's name in vain and is otherwise frequently profane.

His only brave act in the book is completely meaningless, when he risks his life to do something that serves no one, and the only strong order he issues as commander in chief at that time is to allow smoking on a Navy vessel -- so he, himself can steal cigarettes from a sailor and light up.

In other words, Jack Ryan has become a moron.

Thankfully, both for the fictional world Clancy has developed, and for his readers, there are other characters in ''The Bear and the Dragon'' who are not morons, and many of them are fighting the good fight.

So, when the important decisions come, other people have already done pretty much everything that needs to be done, and Ryan just has to authorize the final action.

The big conflict this time is that the mainland Chinese economy is in the dumper and that the Russians have found lots of oil and gold in previously unexplored areas of Siberia. The Chinese want the oil and gold and are willing to make war to get it.

The Russians are in trouble. Their economy is still shaky and gangsters are a worrisome element, both legally and in terms of armed violence. The Russian military is severely weakened by lack of funds for training and maintenance.

This, of course, is standard Clancy doctrine: The military must be strong or bad guys who are more powerful will overcome them.

In this case, the good guys are the Russians and the bad guys are the Chinese; the Americans and their allies must come to help the Russkies, for the good of the planet.

There are many subplots, and -- surprisingly, for Clancy -- most of them do play in the eventual outcome.

Clancy is a sloppy fiction writer. My theory about him is that he was well-edited by the Naval Institute Press for his first novel, then went to publishers who would treat him like the god he apparently thinks he is once he had some popularity. Now, probably, his publishers are afraid of him and are willing to let him be sloppy just to keep him happy and to keep his novels making money.

Too bad, because his books would be much better with a little decent editing.

In an interview with Jeff Guinn of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Clancy said "I never use outlines. I just start writing. At some point in each book, I panic. How is all this ever going to work?"

Well, that's fine. Get it on paper, then edit it -- polish that rock till it's a gem. But, Clancy doesn't do that. He gets a rock, and leaves it a rock, moving on to the next project (in addition to his fiction, he has written a ton of non-fiction books about the military, some of which are well respected by military professionals).

If he'd done a better job editing "The Bear and the Dragon" -- or had let someone else edit it -- instead of 500 pages of sludge and 500 pages of good stuff, there would have been about 700 pages of a great thriller.