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Glimmering Elizabeth Hand (HarperCollins Voyager, 5.99, 413 pages, paperback. Published November 1997.)

The millennium approaches. Jack Finnegan, the world's last literary publisher, views the decline of the world from the sanctuary of his family's dilapidated Yonkers mansion -- a decline echoed by his own physical descent into AIDS.

This tells us a lot about Elizabeth Hand's Glimmering: this claustrophobic novel doesn't play by the conventional rules of science fiction and ultimately fails because of this. The world is changing dramatically, the apocalypse is happening, yet for a lot of the book we're stuck with Jack in his mansion. In joining him in his seclusion (his best friend tells him he's become an agoraphobic), we're missing all the action -- too much happens off-stage.

Another of the basics of science fiction is to get it right, or at least to fudge convincingly. The Author's Notes at the end of the book make it clear that Glimmering is supposed to be based on current science, yet Hand repeatedly makes basic mistakes, like confusing ozone depletion with the greenhouse effect: referring, for example to '...the fossil fuels that had helped cause the rapid degradation of the ozone layer...' (page xiii).

We're in an alternate near-future (Hand cleverly side-steps the short shelf-life of such near-future fiction by extrapolating her millennium from a subtly changed mid-1990s) which has rapidly degenerated as we approach environmental apocalypse. In March 1997 'a massive series of ocean floor avalanches' occur (huh?) causing an accident which releases enormous quantities of the CFC-substitute BRITE into the atmosphere. As BRITE is a potent greenhouse gas, this triggers a massive and sudden global warming. Meanwhile, a solar storm alters the Earth's magnetic field, leading to the worldwide auroral effect of the title -- this 'glimmering' contributes to the decline by disrupting communications and power supplies; a multinational's attempts to halt the phenomenon (by means of satellites towed into place by dirigibles...!) provide the flimsy corporate-thriller plot skeleton Hand tries to hang the whole thing on, but the glimmering itself is never satisfactorily rationalised -- it just is. It's little more than an attractive backdrop, something to set the mood.

Science fiction doesn't have to be about science. But when it is, it should at least be convincing...

And yet, somewhat perversely, because Glimmering is trying so hard to be sf its fantastical elements are ultimately abandoned. Throughout, a subplot is built up around visions of the dead -- such themes have particular relevance in millennial fiction, yet in this novel they are pushed aside in favour of the main, and far weaker, corporate thriller plot-line. It's as if there are two novels struggling for space here, and unfortunately the wrong one wins.

I wanted so much to enjoy this book! It has all the elements of a fine apocalyptic novel: extremist religious cults, shady multinationals, the rich and the street kids partying as the world unravels around them. At times, Glimmering offers a powerful evocation of the end, and the new beginnings implicit in the end. It's told in sumptuous, yearning prose, with characters that are intensely human (Hand has an ear for dialogue many writers would exchange body parts for).

But that really isn't enough. In Glimmering, Hand writes sf with a disdain for the conventional requirements of the genre. It is, at times, stunning and moving, and at others merely frustrating. And it's a novel I feel reluctant to criticise in such strong terms, because the parts that were good were so good. It's a novel of redemption and personal resolutions and in these terms it is a very good one. But in every other respect it just didn't convince me.

Reviewed by Nick Gifford.

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© Nick Gifford 18 December 1997