The Sum of all Fears examines a topic that is all-too-familiar to Americans. Terrorist attack on their home soil. While the book came out exactly ten years before 9/11, the movie was scheduled to be released - ironically - shortly after the attack. The movie was obviously postponed due to "sensitivity issues". Now let's discuss the story.
It is the late 1990s, and the world is slowly emerging from the Cold War. Obviously a work of fiction--Jack Ryan is in the midst of negotiating a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As this region is no longer the hub of terrorist activity, what has become of the terrorists? Several Palestinians, radical East Germans--who no longer have a country, and even seemingly bored Americans seek to rekindle U.S. - U.S.S.R. animosity.
How do they go about doing this? [Spoiler Alert] After weeks of preparing a small nuclear device, it is detonated during the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, in Germany, American and Russian soldiers are tricked into firing on one another. The suspicion evolves from there and tensions increase to a post-Cold War high. Is war inevitable?
While the plot sounds exciting, the first 60-70% of the actual story is mostly (1) political maneuvering within the White House from the corrupt President Fowler, and (2) terrorists sneaking around trying to get parts to build a nuclear device. [We see this portion done--in detail. The Sum of all Fears could easily be renamed How to Build a Bomb.] Then there is the plot involving (3) the Israeli-Arab treaty which holds most of the interest thoughout the first half. While the political bickering in the White House does get tiresome, it does play a critical role in showing why there was such mistrust between the several characters in the end and a breakdown of communication--when the bomb does eventually detonate. [/End Spoiler Alert]
While not too many noteworthy characters are introduced, President Fowler--whom we saw campaigning for the job briefly in the prior Jack Ryan Novel Clear and Present Danger--was greatly developed here. In The Sum of all Fears, he along with his unlikable National Security Advisor, Elizabeth Elliot, make for an interesting dual. This book does not provide any memorable Jack Ryan scenes.
It is during these last 300 pages where all the plots seemingly come together--but unfortunately, the story is now drawn out to one long action-scene. At the very least, the action is exciting and easy to follow.
Tom Clancy does get very technical in this novel; so avoid it if you do not like that sort of thing. However, for those who decide to read this extraordinarily long novel--over 900 pages, paperback--the explosive ending covering the last 200 pages is well worth the wait.
Side note: The film adaptation and the novel are so far apart, it is not worth comparing. Ben Affleck is a horrible choice for Jack Ryan. They felt like they needed to start over and gives us a "fresh" new look with a younger Jack Ryan. As we know, in the novel, Ryan has a family and has progressed in his career. In the film, both are just at a start.