The Rift, by Walter Jon Williams

the-rift-by-walter-jon-williams coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Morrow William and Co
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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Big, sprawling, end-of-the-world (EotW) novels happen to be a sub-genre I enjoy. Stephen King’s The Stand is one of my all-time favorites, as are others such as Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall, and Alas, Babylon just to name a few.

Although the geographic scope of The Rift is much more localized than your average EotW book, it fits well enough–it’s more like the end of the mid-western United States as opposed to all of civilization. Like most EotW books, this one has a large cast of characters and is filled with a variety of sub-plots that all narrow in for the climax. It also runs the requisite gazillion pages, ringing in about three times as long as the average book.

It’s modern day (late 1990s) when the largest earthquake in more than 150 years hits in Missouri and spreads devastation up and down the Mississippi River basin, from Chicago all the way to New Orleans. The heartland of America is pretty much in a shambles. The levies break, there’s mass flooding, fires, chemical spills, potential nuclear disasters and more. Mixed in among the chaos we’ve got our good guys and our bad guys. Nick is an out of work engineer, trying to get back to his family. He’s accompanied by Jason, a young teen who saw his house and mother washed away right after the initial quake. Omar is a white supremacist sheriff, who, when things get out of hand, begins to implement his own final solution. Jessica Frazetta is an Army Major General who’s been given authority by the president to try to keep things together. These are the main players, though several other minor (though well done) characters come and go as the book progresses.

Like other EotW books, this one is mainly concerned with survival, not only of oneself, but of those one loves as well. We are shown how some people rise to the occasion, while others see an opportunity to loot, pillage and murder while no one is around to enforce the rules. It raises a question many of us have probably considered: What would you do if all the rules were suspended? What if you faced a choice between the life of someone you love and that of a stranger? What would you do if you knew you could get away with it? EotW books show just how thin our veneer of civilization is. And that can be a scary thing.

Such questions have always provided fertile ground and while Williams grows a good crop, the harvest is familiar. No ground-breaking stuff here, but you’ll get drawn in and come to care for the characters. There are some throw-away minor characters could have probably been cut (along with their corresponding sub-plots) but they do serve the purpose of expanding the scope of the disaster beyond just those main ones we stay with the whole course. I would have liked to see a little more how the rest of the world, especially the rest of the United States, was affected by the disaster. Except for a few very brief political speculations, and even though the President is one of the minor characters, Williams doesn’t really touch on this at all.

While it was a good read, I didn’t find it to be compelling. I never felt that ‘one more chapter’ draw that some books have, the kind that pull me into the wee hours of the morning and make me a zombie at work the next day.

Still, it’s good, solid, enjoyable speculative fiction, with engaging heroes and villains. If you’re partial to EotW books, it’s a definite read. If you’re not, it’s still a worthwhile way to pass the time. Williams did his research; the event seems entirely too plausible–and that’s one of its main strengths. Definitely book that leaves you thinking ‘What if….’

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