cover image The Rift

The Rift

Walter Jon Williams. Eos, $26 (726pp) ISBN 978-0-06-105294-1

Catastrophe strikes twice in the same place, or so it seems from the second thriller this year (after Peter Hernon's 8.4: Forecasts, Jan. 4) detailing the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in the Mississippi River Valley. Working on a smaller scale than in his world-building science fantasies (City on Fire, etc.), Williams imagines the chaos that would attend a tectonic shift registering 8.9 on the Richter scale (""the worst the geosphere can do to us"") along the New Madrid fault line, where a quake of similar intensity in 1811 radically altered the landscape. The result is a formulaic scenario straight out of--or destined for--a disaster film epic, replete with cinematic scenes of modern cities in ruins and a cast of clich d characters who represent the best and worst of humanity attempting to survive under harsh circumstances. Though the plot alternates wide-angle views of awesome natural destruction with intimate personal moments, it jells around the shared adventures of Nick Buford, a black engineer, and Jason Adams, a white teenager. Nick and Jason recapitulate the travels of Huck Finn and Jim as they raft down the Mississippi from Missouri to Louisiana, searching for Nick's displaced family and along the way encountering the requisite share of good guys (General Jessica Frazetta of the Army Corps of Engineers, self-sacrificing nuclear technician Larry Hallock) and bad guys (doom-spewing preacher Noble Falkland, racist sheriff Omar Paxton). Superficial exploration of ""the rift"" the quake opens between races, social castes and cultures serves as padding between the tale's climactic aftershocks. Williams has written more stimulating fiction, but this holds its own as beachside entertainment. (Aug.)