June 07, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

The actors who play CIA analyst Jack Ryan may come and go like ’80s-era Soviet leaders, but the real man behind the megaselling novels and blockbuster spin-off movies remains the same: the author Tom Clancy. So it’s fitting that the hardware-happy techno-fetishist has a devoted following on the Internet, where self-appointed Clancy scholars track the writer with the precision of AWACS surveillance aircraft. ”We know more about what’s fixin’ to happen in his next book than most people do,” says Steve Cosby, a Fayetteville, Ark., commercial appraiser who runs the Tom Clancy FAQ, a data clearinghouse that dares to broach the age-old question, Why does Hollywood mess with the plots so much?

And many of these sites provide a great service by deciphering the jargon that fills Clancy’s yarns. ”Not everyone knows what a JDAM is,” says Tom Clancy Information Center webmaster Aldo Calzolari, a Parisian who has the added burden of tackling references to such real-life American figures as Watergate reporter Bob Woodward. Says Calzolari, ”Sometimes it [takes] me two or three readings to fully understand the book.”

With Clancy’s new cinematic offering, The Sum of All Fears, sure to reel in even more fans, these sites stand ready to serve:

— TOM CLANCY FAQ (www.clancy faq.com) The most comprehensive of all the Clancy dossiers, Cosby’s site addresses the chronology of the Jack Ryan novels and movies. A helpful list identifies the hundreds of characters from the Ryanverse, while a catalog of military hardware explains the differences between a MiG-21 and a MiG-25. And visit the Tom Clancy newsgroups, where the author is known to post an occasional dispatch. A-

— TOM CLANCY INFORMATION CENTER (www.tcic.org) Calzolari offers maps that chart the Soviet sub Red October and pinpoint the Libyan terrorist training camps described in Patriot Games; he also provides chapter-by-chapter summaries that function as a CliffsNotes-style supplement. But newbies may be put off by the jargon: We had to consult the Air Force’s website to find out that a JDAM is a Joint Direct Attack Munition. B-

— BECOMING TOM CLANCY: LETTERS FROM TOM (geocities.com/ever wild7/clancy.html) Here you’ll find four letters written by Clancy during the mid-’80s that offer a remarkable look at the transformation of a Maryland insurance agent working on his first manuscript into a celebrated author who ends up dining at the White House. In one missive, Clancy talks about how his publisher briefly considered including an index and glossary for The Hunt for Red October. Little did they know… B+

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