Tag Archives: Tom Clancy

Splinter Cell is Unrealistic

 How DARE you say that about Sam Fisher! It’s made clear in Pandora Tomorrow that he uses Subsonic Ammunition, and his FN2000 and FN5.7 Suppressors are custom made too!


I realize this was probably a joke, (and also that it’s now been several months since it was posted; I’m working on clearing out the draft pile), but it’s probably worth fleshing this out a little. Also, if it sounds like I’m being a little harsh on Splinter Cell here… there’s actually a reason.

Tom Clancy was an American novelist who died in 2013. He wrote thrillers focused on the US intelligence community, starting in the early 80s, and on through the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of terrorism. Politically, his material leaned hard conservative, with an almost fetishistic obsession on the American Military Industrial Complex.

I’m just going to say it; I don’t like Tom Clancy’s writing, on an aesthetic level. It’s not to my taste at all. However, if you’re writing about the US special forces (and can get past his politics), he is a fantastic place to start. Just, be careful, even before his death, his name was slapped on a lot of books he wasn’t involved with. This includes almost all of the tie in series like Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, Netforce, and a bunch of others I’ve forgotten.

The games? …not so much. The first game based on Clancy’s novels (that I’m aware of) was Red Storm Rising, a detailed strategic simulator of a potential Third World War between the US/NATO and the Soviet Union.

The second (again, that I’m aware of) was Rainbow Six, a first person shooter that focused on controlling an entire team of hostage rescue/counter terrorist operators, and featured combat with (in the context of contemporary games) very fragile combatants. (One or two shots was enough to down any combatant.)

Splinter Cell was probably the first game that really started wandering off the reservation, and the second that wasn’t based on one of Clancy’s novels (Ghost Recon was the first).

By 2002, Tom Clancy’s name had become a brand which expanded beyond just his novels. There were multiple video games, a TV movie that failed to launch a show, and multiple adaptations of the original novels to film.

Almost immediately, Splinter Cell gets into the exact kind of world building problems that Clancy’s work tried to avoid.

While I like Fisher as a character, he does not fit within the flavor of Clancy’s setting. His personality is right, having someone who engages in that kind of ghosting infiltration isn’t the problem (not really). It’s the skin-tight wetsuit, the thermal goggles, a pistol and rifle that weren’t available to civilian purchasers (at the time). All of this screams, “government sponsored,” which is the last thing you want when you’re sending a cyberninja into a foreign country.

As I’ve said before, the idea of sending someone in, to sneak around and hang from ceilings isn’t exactly how infiltration actually works. Being invisible 100% of the time is an unrealistic goal. Dressing up in a black bodysuit, with a massive array of high end hardware means that when someone does notice you, they’ll notice, and remember. Once spotted, there’s no option to escape, no way to blend into a crowd, no way to disappear. Aside from leaving a huge trail of bodies in your wake.

Also, the Five-Seven really is the wrong gun to give him. It’s a neat, high-tech pistol, but for what Fisher is doing, it’s the wrong tool for the job.

The FN Five-Seven is a modern semi-auto pistol. It entered production in 2000, and is one weird handgun. The strange part is the 5.7mm round that gives it its name. These were originally developed for the FN P90, and are much closer to a rifle round than something you’d usually consider loading into a pistol.

I’ve joked that the only reason for the Five-Seven to exist is to classify the P90 as a submachine gun instead of an assault rifle. Though, I’m honestly uncertain that’s not the real reason.

Unfortunately, the reality is, you really can’t silence a handgun by simply attaching a suppressor to it. The gunshot you hear is caused by ignited gasses expanding and escaping into the atmosphere. In order to fully silence a gunshot you need to capture all (or nearly all) of the escaping gas. With most semi-automatic pistols, one of the venues for that is when the slide cycles open. You can deaden the gasses venting down the barrel, but you’ll still hear a noticeable gunshot. A suppressed handgun will make, roughly, the same amount of noise as an airsoft pistol. Something you’ll hear if you’re in the room with it, but might not notice on the other side of the building. The gentle “fipping” noise from Sam’s Five-Seven… and most media, really, it’s a standard sound sample, just doesn’t occur. (If I remember correctly, the common sound sample comes from a .22 with a locked bolt.)

There’s also a second problem with the Five-Seven that most pistols don’t have to deal with, 5.7mm is a hypersonic round, though that’s something that Splinter Cell directly addresses, it does make Fisher’s weapon choice a little odd. Especially in a setting where .45s are easily available. (And, I want to say Conviction defaults to giving him a USP an H&K Mk23 fairly early in the campaign.)

Most rifles (and some pistols) fire rounds that are hypersonic. Meaning they have a velocity above 343 meters per second. When you hear a rifle from a significant distance, you’re not hearing the escaping gasses, the crack you hear is actually a sonic boom created by the bullet. For most applications, this isn’t really something anyone cares about. But, when you’re trying to suppress a gun, you will want to find a way to remove that sound. The only way (I’m aware of) to deal with this is by using what are called “subsonic rounds.”

These are low velocity cartridges designed to keep the speed of the round under 343m/s. The problem with this is that you’re now trading a whole lot of ballistic factors, including accuracy and flatness, to keep the gun quiet. On a pistol, there’s really no reason to do this.

The reason being all .45 ammo is subsonic. This stuff has a muzzle velocity of around 260 to 300 m/s.

When the first game came out, the Five-Seven was still new, the first game is set in 2004. It’s (from what I know) a fairly solid service pistol. But it is a bad gun to be giving to your NSA cyberninja. The Five-Seven is a Government and Law Enforcement only item. Fabrique Nationale doesn’t sell to private buyers or retailers. (There are a number of used guns on the market now, but that wasn’t true 13 years ago.) So, if you’re writing a character who’s supposed to be some kind of clandestine and deniable agent, giving them a gun that says they work for a government somewhere is probably a bad idea.

Also, the entire “custom suppressors” line bugs me. I can’t remember if that’s exactly what the games call them, but I think you’re remembering correctly. The problem is, commercially produced suppressors exist for both weapons. Again, a Five-Seven suppressor is going to be more traceable than an aftermarket .45 one. A high end 5.56mm suppressor can run you over a grand, but, it’s aftermarket, and easy enough to hide if you’re part of a clandestine operation.

Incidentally, factory produced Five-Seven threaded barrels are exceedingly rare on the secondary market. Not many of these were produced. Giving someone a Five-Seven today wouldn’t say nearly as much as it did back then, but giving them one designed to accept a suppressor would still be pretty suspicious. An aftermarket modded one, with a replacement barrel would raise fewer eyebrows (but that’s the kind of detail people wouldn’t catch until they were picking over your character’s corpse.)

That said, pointing out that you’d need to use subsonic ammo for his weapons is the kind of attention to detail that the Tom Clancy games (and Clancy’s books) really nail. This is also really important if your character wants to suppress a rifle. Arguably, if your character is a sniper, and intending to fire from long ranges, subsonic ammo is actually more important than sticking a suppressor on the gun. However, this isn’t a panacea, subsonic ammo suffers from severe drop, to the point that it’s noticeable at medium range. For a sniper, this is a really serious consideration. They need to decide between having far less range and power, or having the bullet produce a massive cracking noise when fired.

The entire Five-Seven thing probably bugs me more because this is a solved issue. Pistols designed for clandestine use exist, including some of the weapons that show up in the series. Hell, give Sam something like a Makarov PB while operating in Europe, and no one would suspect that he’s an American if he was caught and killed.

In contrast to the pistol, the FN F2000 is a much better pick. It’s a solid assault rifle that entered service in the 80s, though there’s not really that much special about it except the appearance. It has a rubber seal in the magazine well, which would help a little with suppressing it, but the benefit is basically trivial. What it’s actually there to do is keep dust and debris out of the action, but it also means that you might have issues loading aftermarket magazines in it. (This is all second hand, by the way. I’ve never handled a F2000 personally.) There may have been better choices available, but it’s a legitimate choice. Unfortunately, as with the Five-Seven, there were no civilian versions available, (a semi-auto only version hit the market in 2006), so we’ve still got that, “my cyberninja is government sponsored,“ problem.

Ironically, I know the game doesn’t get a lot of love, but Conviction’s approach to Sam’s loadout is probably more realistic. It’s (mostly) a mix of commercially available weapons and street clothes.

If you’re writing a character who’s supposed to be this kind of a sneak in, and hang from the ceiling kind of black ops agent. The best options are to put them in locally purchased clothes (this will help them blend in, even if they’re from a different ethnicity). Weapons that are readily available on the local market (or black market). Hardware that can be easily adapted from commercial products. If you absolutely need a PDA or something similar, use a smart phone. For a hands free unit, get a bluetooth headset. If the phone needs custom software, then that’s something your character’s agency can produce. (Preferably with some kind of remote kill switch, because forensic analysis of software can provide clues to its origin.) What you don’t want to do is gear them up with a lot of very specialized equipment that says, “hey, this guy worked for a foreign government.”


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What’s the difference in character between narrator Michael vs actual Michael (from Burn Notice)?

Well, the short answer is The Narrator isn’t Michael. Burn Notice used a third person omniscient narrator voiced by Jeffery Donovan (who also played Michael).

The basic reason to assume they’re not the same character is because The Narrator leads into things that the character does not know, far too frequently. And occasionally outright contradicts things Michael says.

Additionally, the narrator doesn’t leave when Michael isn’t present. This may seem like an odd thing to point out; but, let’s talk about what a narrator is for a moment.

Fundamentally, the narrator is the one telling you the story. This can be a character in the story, or it can simply be an impartial observer, relating information back. They can be honest, or not. They can inject their own editorializing, or not. They can be omniscient, meaning they know everything that is happening, and are privy to what characters are thinking, or not.

Even when your narrative is supposed to be impartial, you still have a non-personified narrator. And they need an internally consistent tone relaying the information back to the reader. As a writer, you get to make a lot of choices about how your narrator, functions, so let’s talk about some of those and how they work.

First and third person narrators are one of the most obvious cues as to who your narrator is. At a very basic level this is determined based on which set of pronouns your narrator uses.

First person suggests a narrator who is an active participant in the story. Often this is the protagonist, though that’s not, strictly, mandatory. Watson, for example, is the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, even though Holmes is the protagonist. Another example would be The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where Nick Carraway is telling the audience the story of Jay Gatsby via his own personal experiences. An example of the narrator being the protagonist is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield tells the audience his story. From Twilight to The Hunger Games many novels for the Young Adult sub-genre follow this format.

Third person puts more distance between the protagonist and the reader. It’s a barrier you can use when you want the reader to empathize with a character, but don’t want to endorse their behavior. Or when you want to create a layer of detachment between your characters and the audience.

Omniscient narrators are all-knowing. They have access to, and share information without being tied to any individual character. When this is first person, you usually end up with a narrator that’s editorializing or commenting on the events portrayed.

They can still be a character in the story. This is most common with narrators who are reflecting events in hindsight. In a memoir, for example.

Which is one legitimate read of Burn Notice; An omniscient narrator, who might be a future version of Michael Weston, recounting events that happened in the past, with access to information he didn’t have at the time.

Limited narrators are a character in the story. Strictly speaking their information is restricted to what one of the characters knows. It is possible to jump between different characters to create a larger mosaic of information for the reader. George R. R. Martin has a serious fondness for this specific approach, if you’re wanting an example.

Objective narrators are dispassionate about their characters. That is to say, they don’t care how the characters feel. They’re primarily concerned about what is happening.

Subjective narrators are more interested in what a character is experiencing. What they’re feeling and thinking.

To some extent, objective and subjective narrators are a sliding scale of what you’re priorities are. If you’re more interested in what your character is going through, you skew more towards subjective. If you’re more interested in a procedural, “just the facts ma’am,” Jack Webb approach, then you’re looking at objective.

With an objective narrator, you’re under no obligation to make them a part of the piece. They can literally simply function as an exposition dispenser, filling the audience in on relevant background context. It’s an aesthetic choice, but there’s no “in universe” justification. The narrator is there to make sure the audience understands the context of the situation. Tom Clancy, back when he was still alive and not just a brand perpetuated via editorial necromancy, was excessively fond of this approach.

For the most part, this is what Burn Notice does. The Narrator exists to explain tradecraft to the audience. It’s not a part of the story. Ultimately, there is no metafiction context, of a future Michael teaching a class on espionage. It’s just there to ensure that the show is watchable, and understandable. And when you stick Burn Notice next to something like The Sandbaggers, the reasoning becomes clear. Intelligence is a very obtuse business. People act in counter intuitive ways because it is about subverting expectations, and being a step ahead of what someone’s natural reactions would be.

When you’re writing, you pick your narrative tone, to control how your story feels, and how “close” they are to the characters. First person, subjective, will stick you inside a character’s head. However, it is you placing all your eggs on your narrator being interesting enough to carry the entire narrative on their shoulders. Third Person Limited is the middle ground between the two, and may give you opportunity to open up to other characters as narrators to provide alternate viewpoints on events. Third Person Objective can be downright clinical. Picking the right one is an important part of choosing the story you want to tell.


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Re: your post on spies: You should probably note that you are talking specifically about covert HUMINT operatives. There are a lot of other types of spies out there, most of whom don’t fit your profile.

If I seem overly harsh here, I apologize. My doctor just cut a piece of my foot off, and it hurts like you wouldn’t believe.

We used a very strict definition of spy, for a couple simple reasons: one, we’re a writing blog, so this is intended for people who are, well, writing Spies, and second, because anyone can fit the definition of a spy, depending on who’s making the accusation.

A spy is an opportunistic title. When you’re looking at literature, and media in general, a spy is going to be either a HUMINT operator or a James Bond super-ninja. Thing is HUMINT are an extreme minority of the intelligence community.

Intelligence gathering gets split under two large banners, SIGINT and HUMINT.

HUMINT is short for Human Intelligence, if you’re thinking of writing a spy, then you’re probably thinking of a HUMINT operator. These are the characters that Michi detailed in the psychological outlook. It’s the kind of spy that John Le Carre actually was. In broad strokes, it’s where 95% of the espionage genre exists, or where it tries to exist.

HUMINT can refer to deep cover agents, but more often, it refers to officers that recruit and use others to do their spying for them. This is part of why they end up with the incredibly cold outlook they do. Burn Notice’s Michael Westen and Le Carre’s George Smiley are both examples of HUMINT Officers.

SIGINT is Signals Intelligence. This includes anyone that gathers intelligence through electronic means without involving real people. These are surveillance techs, radio operators, sat techs, computer programers, IT guys. Anyone who sits in an office, and collects intelligence via the internet, sat feeds, or wire taps. This is the kind of spy that Ian Flemming was in real life, and you can start to see why James Bond split off from reality so egregiously.

There are circumstances where you’ll need to stick a SIGINT officer in the field, but, even then, defining them as a spy would be a bit tenuous.

After this you have Analysts, who take the data that’s been collected and use it to generate a coherent picture, and figure out what the intelligence means. Jack Ryan in the early Tom Clancy novels is one of these. Analysts are people who have to have a fairly deep understanding of their field, and they’ll look more like academics than spies.

There’s also a lot of support personnel, military intelligence and special forces, who all have intelligence roles.

As I mentioned earlier, the problem with the term “spy” is it can apply to anyone.

Is Edward Snowden a spy or a whistle blower? Uncomfortable as it is, the difference is just who’s making the accusation.

There’s also a long tradition of charging foreign visitors as spies because “reasons.”

There were the programers from Bohemia Interactive who were arrested in Greece for being spies. Their crime was they had cameras and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Iraq and Iran had a long history of arresting any foreign national they found near their shared border and labeling them a spy. Sometimes even crossing over the border and hauling them back. This included fishermen, farmers, and of course a trio of American hikers.

North Korea has also been known to cross the Chinese border in search of “spies” that never set foot in North Korea.

And, of course, Iran is now going to execute an American programmer because of some tenuous connections between his employer and the DoD.

Welcome to the wonderful world of espionage, one execution at a time. If you’re setting out to actually write a spy, it’s probably going to be a HUMINT Officer.