Walter Jon Williams
HarperPrism / 726 pages / 1st edition, 1 August 1999
Seven hundred twenty-six pages? I’ve got a stack of books waiting that threatens to topple with every breeze. There are only two things that could make me put everything on hold and take on this: the name “Walter J. Williams” on the cover and reading the first sentence. Trapped. Trapped like ants in rising water.
Get a chapter deep in The Rift and you will be helplessly drawn in until the very last word. Then you will do one of those sigh-and-clutch-the-book things as you realise it’s over. It’s an explosion, an experience, not a simple read, and it’s hard to let go.
The Mississippi Delta is a land that exists on sufferance of the big river. Only because the Mississippi stays behind its levees, follows its locks and spillways, and agrees to overflow onto its batture, is the area safe to live in. It’s a complex system, decades in the making, and perfectly adequate to corral the waters — unless something, I don’t know… catastrophic happens.
Something like an 8.9 earthquake?
A monster earthquake that shakes, breaks, and shatters everything in the Delta. The kind of earthquake that hasn’t happened since 1812. But, that long period was a gift, and the time has come to take that bit of grace back. The time of disaster is back.
To some, it’s an engineering problem; to others, a chance for profiteering. To most of the millions of people affected by the quake it’s a time to protect their families and homes. But, not everyone agrees just what the threat is or what they are protecting their loved ones from.
Some, like the Reverend Frankland, think that Armageddon has come at last. In that case, souls are more important to save than lives. To Sheriff Omar Paxton, it’s a chance to wipe out the threat of the “mud people,” for once and forever. To Major General J. C. Frazetta, it is the call of duty to ensure that the Army Corps of Engineers control system works as it’s designed to.
Because — despite the brilliant and terrifying depiction of nature gone berserk — The Rift is primarily the story of people. People dealing with the worst the land can throw at them. And, like all emergencies, the earthquakes will unveil the best and the worst in human beings. The best is heartbreaking, the worst is stomach-churning — just like real life, but in concentrate form.
Williams always turns in a mesmerizing creation, but The Rift is something beyond even his normal genius. The Rift is a double handful of fiction that you want to cram in with both fists, like movie theatre popcorn. “Stunning” seems a word inadequate to describe this compulsive read.
Yes, the science is there. The facts and terrifying balance of power. But, it’s never any question who will win. The unknown factor is the core of the people in the heart of the cataclysm.
The earth can shake and shudder and the floods can sweep everything in their path to the sea, but in the end we’ll always be at the mercy of humans. Maybe it shouldn’t be — but that is the truly terrifying part.