Elizabeth Hand, Glimmering (HarperPrism, 1997)


One of science fiction's distinguishing marks has always been its facility for prediction. Extrapolating from current conditions, science fiction writers have displayed a sometimes uncanny ability to predict the future. However, since Willy Ley was four years off in predicting the first moon landing, veteran readers of the genre have learned not to set too much store by dates. Science and technology move faster sometimes than we can imagine, and tend to wander off in directions that no one could have guessed only a few years before.

Elizabeth Hand, in her apocalyptic novel Glimmering, sidestepped that problem neatly by positing a fluky disaster that pretty much trashed the remains of the ozone layer, moving us neatly into an alternate universe, described very succinctly and directly in a prologue to the story. The end result was that the sky became a permanent light show, seasons were drastically altered, and most of the mainstays of civilization -- gas, electricity, telephone service, and the like -- were at best sporadically available. And somehow life lurched on.

The story is mostly involved with Jack Finnegan, last scion of a once wealthy and influential family, living with his grandmother and their housekeeper at the family estate outside Yonkers. Jack is gay, HIV+, and bedeviled by periodic visits from his former lover, Leonard Thrope, an artist and film maker who specializes in images of death, destruction, and decay.

The other thread involves Trip Marlowe, a Christian rocker who meets and falls in love with Marz Candry, adopted daughter of Nellie, a VP and recruiter for a major record label who wants Trip and his band -- he's a star, after all, and still rising. Marz herself turns out to be a real piece of work who pushes Trip into having sex during a planetarium light show. And then Trip runs into Leonard Thrope, who creates a simulacrum of Trip using new technology -- and Trip has sex with the simulacrum. For a nice Christian boy, this is a bit much, and Trip goes home to Maine.

There is one other character who turns out to be important to Trip's thread, and who is another connection between Trip and Jack -- Martin Dionysos, an artist who was also a former lover of Jack's -- and also HIV+.

Hand is a frustrating writer: she's able to create haunting, scary milieus of a definitely dark cast and make them real. She can also come up with characters who should be able to engage us on several levels. And then she buries it all under words.

Full disclosure: I am not a reader who enjoys having everything laid out in excruciating detail. Aside from personal preference, I feel that's really a violation of the contract between creator and audience. We each bring something to the experience, but if the creator is exerting too much control, I can't do my part, and I lose the most valuable part of the experience.

That tendency to overwrite works very strongly against Glimmering. Hand is at such pains to describe the sky in its various manifestations that I can no longer see it in my mind -- it's not real any more. The same goes for Jack -- we are treated to such a detailed look at him, his thoughts, his emotional states, that the very attempt to make him real builds a wall between him and the reader, to the extent that one wonders just how engaged he is in his life. (He falls in love again, and is only beginning to realize that it's happening when it's ended, quite tragically. It doesn't really seem to affect him all that much, so why should I care?) Trip is a slightly different story: a fool to begin with, he becomes nothing more than an automaton, apparently to give Martin something to do. Martin is the one character I could connect with here, and the only one who took on any meaning. Leonard is a caricature when he should be a devil.

I suspect that the ending of this story was meant to be transcendent on some level. I'm afraid that by the time it finally happened, the only reaction I could summon up was, "Yeah? So?" Take away the pyrotechnics in the sky and this story could have come out the gay literary establishment in the 1980s: HIV+ protagonist, ex-lover who's the bane of his existence, straight best friend who commits suicide, pretty young boy who's unavailable, a couple of wild parties, lots of introspection on the meaning of it all. The one difference is that Jack has sex with Nellie instead of his new love. Couldn't see that one coming, could we?

This book is very likely a treat for that semi-mythical creature known as the "casual reader" -- they won't have to do anything but read. For those who do not consider reading a spectator sport, it's a disappointment.


[Robert M. Tilendis]

HarperPrism is a now-defunct imprint of HarperCollins.