Walter Jon Williams’ The Rift is kind of a weird book. WJW has mostly written interesting and sophisticated SF and fantasy, but this was his attempt to write a bestseller disaster novel in the ‘90s, and it reads like… well, like a big dumb bestseller from the ‘90s.
It’s got the tons of characters—the President, a rollerblading teen (the ‘90s!), a stockbroker, a KKK sheriff, an end-times preacher, and a whole bunch more. It’s got the dumbed-down, easy-reader bestseller style. (Which is really weird when you know that’s not how he normally writes.) And of course, it’s got its big ol’ disaster.
The disaster is a little weird, too, because it’s not an apocalypse. Yes, there’s a giant earthquake; yes, bad things happen to the Mississippi; yes, our characters are caught in the midst of life-threatening crises… but at the end of the day, civilization isn’t destroyed; the US government is deploying its resources to get things back to normal and rescue people and all that.
Like, there’s one part where a character in deep shock is trying to get to their job, and it’s obviously absurd—the city they live in is levelled, there’s a disaster going on, of course “your job” isn’t a thing to be thinking about anymore. And yet, the company’s New York branch is totally fine and 100% unaffected, and the person’s coworkers are still working normal 9-5 shifts and the company’s still cutting them a paycheck and what-not.
It’s a little surreal, that combination of world-altering crises mixed with life-goes-on mundanity, but also more than a little relateable at this particular moment.
But also, the part where rescues keep happening but our protagonists need to always be in danger results in some semi-contrived plotting, as the characters keep finding almost-safe spots and then leaving them for one reason or another. In fact, because they’re always in motion, this ends up being something of a river novel, as they go down the Mississippi from Missouri to Louisiana. (And really, the part where the main characters of this river novel are a black man and a white boy has to to be a deliberate nod to Twain.)
Anyway, the book is fine, and if you want to read a big dumb disaster thriller period piece, hey, here it is. It’d be good airport reading, if airports are ever a thing again. But if you’re expecting a Walter Jon Williams novel, with the kind of style and verve that would normally imply, this isn’t what you’re looking for.