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Finding the missing link: Thinking about Walter Jon Williams’ “The Rift”

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on August 22, 2006

I’ve been reading a lot of Walter Jon Williams recently, going back to his early novels to trace my way through his writing from the lost colony epic (with a twist in the tale) of Ambassador of Progress to the dark space opera of Dread Empire’s Fall.

Most of Williams’ writing is tightly focussed on one or two characters – Cowboy and Sarah in Hardwired, Ubu Roy and Beautiful Maria in Angel Station, Drake Majistraal in the Divertimenti. It’s a pattern that continues on until we get to his later works, where the screen opens out, and more characters take the stage, owning more of the story. But there was a discontinuity in my reading, a rift between the structures of Metropolitan and The Praxis.

The answer had been sat on my to-be-read bookcase for nearly seven years.

It’s in 1999’s The Rift where we see Willliams’ take his first steps onto a new path, using the classic wide angle of a disaster novel, with a rebounding, spiralling cast of victims and survivors. We get the usual Williams’ duality in the main viewpoint voices, two characters trying to survive in a world that’s suddenly become hostile, as a boy with a telescope joins forces with an unemployed engineer struggling to find his estranged family. Meanwhile the world falls apart, ripped into shreds by a massive earthquake under the Mississippi valley, the New Madrid fault shrugging itself after nearly two centuries of sleep.

Other storylines ebb and flow in the aftershocks, a stock trader who loses everything, a klansman who rediscovers the concentration camp, an apocalyptic preacher suddenly delivered the answer to his prayers, and a military engineer trying to put it all back together again. Everything spirals round, an eddy in the wild river, while Williams moves to explore the real rift – man’s inability to see the other as truly human.

There’s a sense of experimentation here, as Williams steps outside his usual genre, and his usual structures, and tries to do something different. Perhaps it’s even freedom – an opening out from tight structures and reader expectations. Whatever it is, it’s a brave effort, and a powerful novel that sets the scene for a new direction in Williams’ career. Ignore the trappings of the airport disaster novel and see it for what it is: a writer experimenting and delighting in the results of his experiments.

Perhaps the world of SF should be grateful that it wasn’t a huge hit, as the lessons learnt went to help with the construction of one of the more considered of the recent re-workings of space opera.

Recommended, for more than just the Walter Jon Williams completists out there.


One Response to 'Finding the missing link: Thinking about Walter Jon Williams’ “The Rift”'

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  1. nerdware said,

    While I agree with all of that, I recall something about WJW writing historical fiction under another name. Perhaps you should discover that name and start reading those books!

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