The Rift, Walter J. Williams

Harper Torch, 1999, 932 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105794-0

Sooner or later, it happens to every good Science Fiction author who looks longingly at the stacks of Michael Crichton books nonchalantly plastered all over the the “Best-Selling” section of their local bookstore: I’ve got skills, they say to themselves, I can write as well as any of the morons on the best-seller lists. If I wasn’t stuck in a dead-end genre like SF, I could be a superstar. Then they go home and slap together a techno-thriller proposal. If their editor has any sense, they are reminded that SF may be a backwater ghetto, but it’s a faithful backwater ghetto packed with fans that can be cultivated over dozens of books.

But sometimes, the proposal is accepted and the author embarks on a long voyage outside the familiar terrain of SF. Real-world research ensues, along with feverish dreams of mainstream success. The novel is published under a slightly different name to fool the evil Chain Ordering Computers. Few SF fans are tempted by the offer. Time passes. Mainstream success fails to strike. The author comes back to SF, much wizened and downright eager to get back to business.

The Rift is Walter Jon Williams’ own trip in the mainstream wilderness, with typically mixed results. To be entirely fair, while Williams has enjoyed a steady amount of success in the SF field, he has never been totally comfortable within the genre: He started out writing historical naval adventures, then (following Ambassador of Progress, itself almost a medieval warfare novel) found the SF field far more receptive to his talents. His career has spanned several sub-genres of SF, from cyberpunk (Hardwired) to near-future thriller (Days of Atonement). His foray in disaster fiction shouldn’t be surprising. In the SF corral he’s always been the young buck sniffing at the gate.

The Rift, unfortunately, hasn’t done much to further his mainstream career, nor his SF one. You just have to look at the book to suspect why: At nearly one thousand pages, it doesn’t fulfil its epic promise or delivers on the demands it asks of the readers’ time. It it too long, too fluffy. Despite the deaths and the destruction, nothing happens for hundreds of pages.

Given the premise (An earthquake in the American Midwest, straight on top of the New Madrid fault), you already know the story. Plucky heroes with something to prove, faced with the evil born out of desperate situations. Heart-stopping (yawn-inducing) adventures. Lengthy exposition. Potential disasters even greater than earth-shattering quakes, narrowly averted. It’s all there. And yet we wish it wasn’t. Many part of the book are interesting… but many more of them just aren’t.

Reading this thousand-page book is an exercise in self-configuring reading skills. You will quickly figure out to skip the lengthy page-long excerpts. You will learn to recognize the meaningless mini-dramas that extend over three pages (Oh no! A snake! Will it bite???) and then how to gloss over them. You will figure out that the young protagonist’s main task is to run from one bad situation to another, bringing light and happiness down the river. The problem isn’t with Williams’ writing skills. The problem is in the lack of editing, letting a middle-of-the-river tale overflow its natural boundaries to flow shallowly over land it was never meant to cover. This is a book to read quickly, for fear of staying stuck as the flow of your interest will recede in its usual boundaries.

It’s not the first novel about the New Madrid fault, and it’s maybe the weakest one: Certainly, I had more fun reading Peter Hernon’s 8.4 (which clocks in at half the length and twice the excitement). It may not be Williams’ most ordinary novel, but it’s certainly his dullest. Hey, I can’t begrudge him the attempt at best-seller stardom… but it’ll be a good thing to have him back and firing on all cylinders.

The five years since The Rift‘s publication seems to have independently validated this assessment; after running wild for a while (even writing an -ack, ptui- Star Wars novel), he’s now back in the SF corral, producing fine short stories and working on a space opera trilogy. The young buck has stopped sniffing at the gates, at least for a while. Here’s hoping that his next escapade will be more satisfying for all.

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