A few years before the 1912 South Polar expedition of Robert F. Scott met its doom in the Antarctic wastes, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton almost made it to the pole, coming within 97 miles of the goal before turning back for his life. But his retreat was not seen as a failure. Shackleton laid England and the world at his feet and became a celebrity hero for the age. Often, when one boldly attempts a great achievement, it's more impressive to fall short despite an awesome and heroic effort than it is to succeed with flying colors and do it too easily.
Rift is exactly that kind of valiant near-bullseye. Kay Kenyon's attempt at a Dune-scale epic SF adventure often slips and stumbles, with an overlong narrative that is wildly inconsistent in both tone and pacing. Her world building is dazzling, but her cultures raise a number of unanswered questions. Her characters are either richly drawn and multi-dimensional, or simple caricatures. But in the end, the cumulative effect of this novel is formidable and tremendous, its virtues far outweighing its vices.
At the novel's heart is a fairly traditional good-vs-evil quest adventure. Around this unspool absorbing speculations upon geology, xenophobia and anthropology. The setting is the distant colony world of Lithia. Its hostile environment was tamed a couple of centuries before the story begins by ambitious terraforming. But the terraforming didn't take, and many of the human settlers retreated to the orbital space station as the world's original ecosystem began to reassert itself. Some groups of humans were abandoned, however, and they have continued to eke out a precarious and dwindling existence on the changing Lithian landscape, many of them reverting to hunter-gatherer enclaves. What's more, into this mix have arrived the orthong, another species of alien colonizers about whom little is known.
Right away I was impressed by two things about Kenyon's thematic approach: a rather bleak assessment of the limits of scientific application and the scarcity of livable environments human colonization attempts are likely to find in the universe, coupled with a refusal to let go of the basic optimism that might lead to such attempts in the first place. We're a stubborn species, and that's our gift and curse rolled into one, I suppose.
Reeve Calder is the 24-year-old son of a research scientist aboard the station, where hostile factions have developed over the question of whether to try to re-terraform Lithia or move on and hope to find another world. (Interestingly, going back to Earth is not an option.) When sabotage forces the evacuation of the station, Reeve is one of the few who make it to the Lithian surface. But his escape vessel is separated from the others, all of which landed successfully in a vast rift valley where heavily active fault lines and volcanism could be useful in helping to restore the planet — or destroy it. But Reeve knows that the station's erstwhile captain, Gabriel Bonhert, has a sinister and even sociopathically self-serving agenda that the failure to terraform Lithia will serve.
Now Reeve is a man on a mission, to make it hundreds of miles across a hostile world to thwart Bonhert's plans. Driven also by a vague desire to avenge his father — an act that can be seen as Reeve's overcompensating for not having had a real relationship with him anyway — and accompanied by another station survivor and two primitive human "clavers," the curious quasi-feral girl Loon and her protector Spar, Reeve undertakes a journey frought with perils worthy of Frodo and Sam. He's abducted by pirates and captured by a gang of crazies who want to genetically re-engineer people to Lithia. All the while the increasingly hostile environment of Lithia takes its toll on his health. He naturally develops a peculiar attraction to Loon, whose strange primitivism (she even eats dirt!) makes him the Jane to her Tarzan. (He is the product of a purely artificial environment, having never experienced nature first hand; she is entirely a creature of the soil.) But even she has an incredible secret that could bear upon humanity's future on Lithia, if it has one at all.
The main narrative is interwoven with a subplot involving the claver woman Nerys, who, following a tragedy set in motion partly by Reeve himself, finds herself in the colony of the enigmatic orthong. The orthong have had better luck at making a go of colonizing Lithia, and as such consider humans vastly inferior. But in human women they have found a practical means of survival. In return for food, shelter, and safety they cannot know in their claves, human women allow themselves to be artifically implanted with orthong embryos. Nerys risks her very life to rise quickly among the ranks of the "breeders" to learn more about the orthong, and perhaps engender greater respect from them for humans as a whole.
A third story thread follows the 13-year-old Mitya. A stowaway among Bonhert's party, he quickly becomes the mad captain's confidant, only to be the first aware of the horrible truths Bonhert is hiding even from his most trusted people.
So there's lots of novel here, perhaps too much for unfettered greatness. Of the three storylines, I sadly found Nerys's the least compelling. While the material is certainly there for some terrific alien-encounter stuff, the truth is that every time her part of the story comes along, the book's forward momentum just crashes to a halt. Reeve's adventure is simply the more exciting one.
But even there, odd questions about Lithia pop up as the plot unfolds. The clavers have regressed, but not, it seems, consistently. Loon and Spar seem to have stepped out of the pages of a Jane Auel prehistoric epic. They are captured by a gang of river pirates right out of an 18th century swashbuckler, and the pirates themselves inhabit a huge waterborne geodesic dome (scrounged from the ruins of an old terraforming plant) that has an oddball Waterworld-meets-Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome quality. Why all this disparity? It's not that I didn't believe it, but it would have gone down much more smoothly with some stronger explanation as to why a group of colonists with common origins sank into primitivism and outright savagery in such an inconsistent fashion.
Some supporting characters, too, don't bear close scrutiny. The pirates are led by the stalwart captain Kalid, but the dome is ruled by Dante, a despot who can be intensely cruel but is ultimately an effete poseur. I could never understand why Kalid never just ran him through and took over. Another character, Brecca, who runs the clan of geneticists called Somaformers, is simply too camp to be believed.
But all of these nitpicks are ultimately bulldozed by the bigger story, that of Reeve's journey to save a world, a journey that parallels his own into manhood (though 24, he's never really grown up). His growing bond to Loon and Spar evokes genuine emotional involvement, and the climax — coming at the end of one of those stories that you feel has overtaken your life for nearly as long as that experienced by the characters — delivers breathless excitement, as well as a gentle and understated message that humanity's arrogance will certainly have to be the first thing to go if we hope to survive on this world or any other. You come away from Rift reminded of the old, but ever more relevant, adage that the earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.