Revised? Updated?

by wjw on February 5, 2013

As you all surely have noticed, not least because I keep nagging you about it, I’m reissuing my backlist in ebook form.  I have only two books left, one last privateer book and The Rift.  (Plus, of course, a whole lot of short fiction.)

The privateer book just awaits sufficient time to format it and fling it onto the electronic seas of the Internet, but The Rift is a special case.

For one thing, getting it in shape is going to take a while, because it’s my longest work.  310,000 words, more than 700 typeset pages in the hardback edition.  The manuscript itself was something like ten inches tall.

So simply copy-editing and formatting the scan is going to be a lot of work.  (Fortunately, Kathy is a very good copy-editor.)

But another, rather larger issue concerns whether I want to spend any time rewriting the manuscript.  Because the book first appeared in 1998, and it has been overtaken by history.

Not that there’s anything that’s would strike a contemporary reader as particularly obsolescent or wrong.  General Jessica would have a much easier time setting up a secure satellite network— we’ve got satphones now, and there’s MESA.

The problem is that so many of the events of The Rift have, um, actually happened.  Sort of.

No, there hasn’t been a series of massive earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault causing levee breaches, massive flooding, and serious social disruption.  But there have been a few other disasters that have made their mark on the Mississippi Valley.

Chief is Hurricane Katrina.  When Katrina happened I suffered from an intense  sense of déjà vu, made deeply, profoundly depressing by the authorities’ strategy for dealing with the crisis— “let’s have a whole bunch of black people die.”  In The Rift, the racial tragedy is largely the work of bad people— in Katrina, it was just the default tactic of everyone involved, including the New Orleans city administration, which of course was run by black people  and who could think of nothing better to do but enact the region’s cultural imperative.

The other major event prefigured by the novel was the Fukushima meltdowns following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake in Japan.  People in the novel spend a lot of time trying to rescue a nuclear power station from earthquake, flood, and errors of design.

When I watched Fukushima happening on CNN, I couldn’t help but think that I’d written the script.

There have been other events that have impacted the Mississippi Valley since 1998.  To mention only the obvious, the floods of 2002, 2008, and the huge catastrophe of the floods of 2011.

I’m trying to decide if I want to rewrite The Rift so that its characters are aware of this history.  Should I even attempt it?

The Rift is  disaster novel.  It may be that all disaster novels have a built-in sell-by date.  Take, for example, all those books that involved a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  No matter how good they were— and Alas, Babylon and On the Beach, for two, were very good— they’ve now subsided into irrelevance.

Or take a classic in the SF field, Lucifer’s Hammer.  A comet hitting the Earth is still a threat relevant to today’s audience, but the astronauts returning to Earth in their Apollo capsule might raise a few eyebrows, along with the book’s villains— who, you may remember, were an army of black nationalist cannibals led by Jerry Brown.  I’m thinking this is no longer on anyone’s Top Ten List of Things to Worry About, assuming of course that it ever was.

Even the best of the old disaster novels have grown twinkly and quaint.   I wonder if I should let The Rift age gracefully along with them.

Even more problematic is the question of a rewrite raising more problems than it solves.  If the characters display knowledge of such events as Katrina and Fukushima, would their actions remain the same?  Or would they behave completely differently, and with a different mindset?

I’m completely undecided, and have barely begun to grapple with the problem.  That means I’m open to influence— your influence.

Tell me what you think.

Matt February 5, 2013 at 6:10 am

I really enjoyed The Rift. I would rather you left it alone than spend time and energy overhauling it. Put that savings into yet another book on my myst buy list.

rushmc February 5, 2013 at 6:53 am

I say write new, rather than rewrite old. Say you successfully made all the changes you envision to The Rift. What would that give it, 5, 10 more years of salience before it once again is made dated by the progression of events in the world? Also, how many copies of the ebook do you envision selling? Enough to pay you for all the revision work?

Give us something new and glorious instead, to enjoy before IT drifts backward toward irrelevance…

James February 5, 2013 at 8:08 am

Don’t rewrite The Rift, too hard. The only thing you can do is add a preface to the book, much as you have in this blog entry, pointing out how prescient you were… 🙂

Once the audience recognize the date the book was written, they will be more accepting of the content.

TomB February 5, 2013 at 8:20 am

What I liked about The Rift was the way that, once our technology was smashed, the Mississippi became a wild river again, a river like the one in Mark Twain’s time where anything could happen when you floated around the bend. That and I like that it had a science-fictional attitude. The universe is a lot bigger than us.

If you want to leave The Rift as a period piece I think it would work. I find that Earth Abides and Shockwave Rider are still relevant even though the predictions turned out to be wrong on all the details; they were right on what mattered, which is the people. If you went that way I would recommend setting the date in early 2000. The characters may talk about how Y2K turned out to be a non-event, but they will be blissfully unaware of the oncoming dot-com bust, Bush v. Gore, and 9/11.

On the other hand, if you wanted to update the book, smashing tech is easy. Most of the surviving tech will be grabbed by the bad people, because they will be aware of it. And I think it’s okay if the story has bad people. They may be caricatures, but they are not that far removed from us and our regrettable history.

Iain Scott February 5, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Well said rushmc… keep what was written, and concentrate creative effort on new writing!

grs1961 February 5, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Unless you have some really good new ideas, just updating it would not really have any point, and most of what you would do is covered (as has been pointed out above) by your blog post.

And, if you had some really good new ideas, wouldn’t allowing them to roam freely in some new playground be better than restricting them to a book you’ve already written?

“After the Rift” would be a nice place for the new ideas, if they related to “The Rift”.

Clyde February 5, 2013 at 12:28 pm

I think you should leave it as is and provide a nice preface as James suggested. I would prefer that you put your time into a new Dread Empire’s Fall or Dagmar Shaw book (or whatever you choose to do).
Ultimately your choice of course. If you do a complete rewrite, I reckon I’ll do a complete reread.

DorjePismo February 5, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Agree with everyone else: writing something new would be better. There aren’t that many really good and/or non-formula books coming out, and ebooks mean we can read in a lot more times and places conveniently. There’s a serious need for original, thoughtful, out-of-the box stuff written with an underlying ethical curiosity. New stuff would be really great.

Barbara J. Webb February 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I’m with the crowd here. A brush-up editing pass is one thing, but it doesn’t seem the best use of the writing time and energy to go back and fundamentally change a book that’s already done. Plus, it goes against Heinlein’s rules.

TJIC February 5, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I was thinking of The Rift just the other day, specifically the scene where one character is on a tug boat and thinks “I’ve got it made”, before realizing why everyone else abandoned ship.

I vote with the others: don’t spend your time updating it. Life is short; we fans would rather have something new.

James R. Strickland February 5, 2013 at 5:07 pm

I vote let it be and add a preface. IMHO once you ship a book, other than fixing typos, it’s cast in stone. It has to be, otherwise at least some writers (me, for instance) can tweak forever.


Not Todd February 5, 2013 at 11:24 pm

You’re talking about a major time sink with little potential return, even from your fans. While it’s a good book, it’s not one I think that anybody has fallen in love with and if it was, that would be even more reason to leave it alone. Skip the rewrite.

Don Meyer February 6, 2013 at 1:04 am

I’ll add my voice to those that have already said “Don’t update”. Perhaps it’s because I originally read many of them in my youth, but reading “dated” SF doesn’t bother me as long as I’m aware of the point in time in which it was written.
Plus, you’d be giving up the points you get for being prescient!

mdhughes February 6, 2013 at 9:16 am

I’ve lately been reading John Shirley’s Eclipse trilogy, of which I’d previously read the snippet in Mirrorshades and the third book. It was a very 1980s future. The new edition was updated to early 2000s tech and political and historical events, and it’s jarring and weird to see Facebook and cell phones mentioned instead of fax, when so many little details and media psychology shout ’80s.

Better to just say when it was written, provide a little context for historically-impaired Kids These Days(TM), and reprint as it was.

Mark J McGarry February 6, 2013 at 11:13 am

I’ll add my voice to the chorus: write new stuff instead. “War of the Worlds” has been overtaken by events, but that doesn’t lesson one’s enjoyment of the book. And if you update “The Rift” now, you’ll just have to do it again when we’re hit by an asteroid in 2018.

John Appel February 6, 2013 at 12:13 pm

I think The Rift is now the only one of your SF works that I don’t already own, so I can’t comment on what’s in it now. But I’m with the crowd; don’t rewrite, but do include a preface.

Put that writing energy into the third Aiah-and-Constantine book. 🙂

Kelly Robson February 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

The Rift is a really enjoyable book, and I don’t think it would be improved by re-writing to update it.

Bruce Arthurs February 6, 2013 at 10:47 pm

One more voice in the chorus, saying new work should have priority.

I’ve been reading Subterranean Press’ collections of Silverberg’s early writing. A goodly number of them are more outdated than The Rift, but I enjoy Silverberg’s introductions explaining how they came to be written. (In some instances, more than the actual stories. Silverberg didn’t really reach his maturity as an SF writer until the 60’s.)

Ralf The Dog. February 6, 2013 at 11:25 pm

I am going to go against the crowd and say, don’t rewrite the book. The foundations may be a bit shaky, however, I think the old book will stand on it’s own.

Spend the time on Metropolitan III or even better, write a book where I win the lottery. Even better than better, write a book where I win the lottery many times over. If your prediction comes true, like they always do, I will pay you a percentage.

Eben Olemaun February 6, 2013 at 11:38 pm

How about you choose the famous Third Option and make it alternate history with a few rewrites here and there?

And yes, I agree with the above. Heaven in Flames next, pwetty pweeeaaasse! :3

Mike February 7, 2013 at 1:25 am

I’d say leave it as it was and let future generations call you a predictive genius like Morgan Robertson and ‘The Wreck of the Titan’.

Besides, could you really guarantee finding every single bit of the novel that would need revision? I doubt it, even if you spent the next year or two obsessively combing the text there’d be some know-it-all who’d find something wrong.

And if that’s not enough reason to leave your earlier works alone, here’s two words that should clinch the argument: George Lucas.

Geoff February 7, 2013 at 1:35 am

Just put the year after the title, like Airport ’77.

AndrewBW February 7, 2013 at 3:09 am

Don’t rewrite it. Use what you just wrote as the forward to the new edition.

Nils February 7, 2013 at 10:32 pm

I Can’t Believe I never read The Rift but it’s going on my list now! I say don’t “bring it up to date”. George R. Stewart’s “Fire” and “Storm” though not full-scale disaster novels like “Earth Abides” wear very well, and any disaster more ambitious than that is eventually going to have a dated look after a while. Try re-reading “The Poison Belt” by H.G. Wells, for goodness’ sake. The social commentary is what I’d read it for, and if your take on human nature is accurate, your disaster novel will wear well too.

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