Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand

Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand (1997)
Review by Martin Lewis

This is not our world – not with roaming bands of fellahin and the Bronx a coyote haunted wasteland – but it is certainly something like the late-Nineties America we know. Then there is a true sundering: the glimmering.

In a brief two-page prologue (appropriately entitled ‘Rubic’), Hand lays out in dispassionate detail the steps that took us to this juncture. First, CFCs are replaced by seemingly benign bromotetrachlorides. Then an ocean floor avalanche releases huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. This coincides with a massive solar storm. The confluence of all three permanently alters the Earth’s magnetic field, producing the aurora borealis on steroids that gives the book its title and re-configures society. Hand then moves from the omniscient to the personal and allows us to see the epoch-changing events of 26 March 1997 through the eyes of John Chanvers Finnegan.

Jack Finnegan is the publisher of a literary magazine and both are slowly dying: Finnegan from HIV, the magazine from a lack of interest in the written word. His appearance marks the start of the first section of three which make up the novel proper and makes it unfortunately clear that ‘Rubic’ will be our first and last moment of concision. My paperback is 413 pages of small type and Hand is in no hurry to reach her conclusion.

Finnegan lives in an ancestral pile called Lazyland. It is an appropriate name for an indolent setting; Finnegan wanders around aimlessly, exchanges the odd pleasantry with his grandmother and generally does very little. After an interminable amount of this, we are then introduced to our second protagonist, the implausibly named Trip Marlowe, in a long chapter with the shape of a novella but none of the heft. As with Finnegan, Hand is solely focused on mood and internal monologue but neither captured my imagination and I found it immensely tedious. Again, very little happens, although there is a bizarre scene in which the adult Marlowe loses his virginity to a barely pubescent girl in a planetarium. If you were being charitable, you could perhaps call the pace of these rambles dreamy but you might equally call it dreary. And, of course, there is nothing so boring as other people’s dreams.

The world-building has a dream-like quality but that means it is muddled, confusing and unable to withstand the light of day. At the headquarters of Golden Family International – a huge corporation which features prominently in the novel – Trip remarks that people are wearing clothes of “the kind you bought in LL Bean once upon a time” (p.50) That once upon time being a mere two years previously. Or is it? So much has changed that perhaps even before the glimmering this was a very different world to ours. There are new technologies and drugs which couldn’t possibly have been developed in the time since the glimmering began and the social landscape is radically different.

For example, the US depicted is more Christian than the real US (right down to having a national Christian motel network). Despite the libertine tone of Hand’s novel, the country seems correspondingly more prudish. Marlowe is the singer in a middle of the road Christian rock band but he is treated as a moral hazard on the scale of Elvis. God knows what they would make of Britney.

At the same time, the glimmering also left the world strangely unchanged. Hand paints a picture of a world with only intermittent electricity but gives no indication of how it could survive, never mind remain stable enough for Marlowe to put out hit records, receive rave reviews, go on a national tour and then be signed by a major label. (The answer? “Solar panels, some kind of plasma grid. Windmills. A champagne-effect reflexive waterfall. Supposedly they’ve got their own nuclear reactor, too.” (p.313) For the character being told this, the response is simply facetious; for the reader, it is outright insulting.) Only rarely does lack of power become anything more than a minor inconvenience:

They were stranded for a week. Power was disrupted across the entire northern hemisphere, knocking out computer networks, satellite links, airports from Greenland to Norfolk. (p.98)

What is surprising here is not the disruption but the fact air travel is still common, that computer networks still exist. Similarly, the scarcity of food is only casually acknowledged:

The electric range was covered with ancient outdoor gear dredged up from Lazyland’s sub-basements: a blackened Coleman stove and tiny white gas-driven heater that boiled water and scorched rice. The refrigerator was unplugged, the occult pantry with its folding doors and lazy Susans sadly underutilized. (p.164)

If any society is only three square meals away from revolution then America – not a country noticed for its abstinence and restraint – has magically avoided this fate. Instead it hangs in limbo. There is no anarchy but there is also no state; any sign of the government is noticeable in its absence. Of all literature’s apocalypses this must be the mildest. Where are we? When are we?

Part one starts with a flashback to Finnegan’s grandfather founding the family fortune with a canny investment a hundred years earlier in time when dreams were still lit by candles. It is a passage that initially seems to presage a move backwards into the pre-electric age. Instead Glimmering goes simultaneously backwards, forwards and sideways. It also sadly goes nowhere. Part one ends with Marlowe spending a whole chapter deciding whether or not to throw himself off a cliff. We are all relieved when he does.

By this point it has become clear that Glimmering isn’t really a science fiction novel, it is something more akin to slipstream. This is something that took a long time to dawn on me because, when the fantastic and the mimetic merge, it is rarely in a setting which purports to be the future.

When Marz, the mysterious girl who awakens Marlowe’s paedophile instincts at the beginning of the novel, improbably washes up at Lazyland, Finnegan’s grandmother greets her as a lunantishee. Is she literally a fairy? No, but at the same time she represents something very similar. Other figures start to appear; are they ghosts, holograms or hallucinations, literal or metaphorical? Whether this all makes you feel very strange or merely slightly bored is down to the reader. For me, it succumbs to the worse tendencies of slipstream, it becomes insubstantial and hence engenders ennui.

For the second section of the novel, not much (continues) to happen. For example, Hand spends pages 206 to 208 describing Finnegan opening a party invite. Marlowe washes up alive and is nursed back to health by another middle-aged recluse who is slowly succumbing to HIV and mental illness. This man, Martin Dionysos, not unreasonably wonders “if he had suffered brain damage in the wake of his accident, or even if he had been simpleminded to begin with.” (p.191) Marlowe may be intended to be a holy fool but he comes across as simply a fool. Nonetheless, Dionysos falls under his simpleton’s spell and they set sail for New York:

They saw strange things, journeying south… A creature like an immense brittle basket star, twice as large as the Wendameen, its central arms radiating outward like the sun before giving birth to an explosion of smaller arms, all writhing upon the surface of the sea as the omphalos turned slowly, counter-clockwise, and breathed forth a scent like apples. (p. 269)

We return to a blandly poetic sort of strangeness. Reading Hand’s ‘Cleopatra Brimston’, I suggested that “the prose splits between the acute and the purple”. Here the acute is crushed out by a weight of writing too bloodless to be purple. Hand has invented lilac prose.

In the third section, Hand finally realises that she is going to have to end the book at some point soon and therefore needs to come up with some plot sharpish. She does this by contriving to bring all the characters together in the same place for New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It almost seems that after so much whimpering, the end of the world will indeed end with a bang. But no, everyone returns to Lazyland and allows their malaise to carry them into the new millennium.

This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.

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The Winterlong trilogy, Elizabeth Hand

The Winterlong trilogy: Winterlong, Æstival Tide and Icarus Descending, Elizabeth Hand (1990 – 1993)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

It is not an easy thing to review the third part of a trilogy when you are fairly certain that most of your readers have never even heard of the first two volumes. However, I will not allow an Elizabeth Hand novel to go unmentioned, so I guess I’ll just have to skim quickly over the first two as well.

We open with Winterlong and find a far future decayed America that is post more holocausts than many people can remember. What government there is resides in the orbiting HORUS colonies, it being deemed better to have an entirely artificial environment than an entirely polluted one. The members of this new nobility are called Ascendants, because at some point or other they managed to get up there (probably massacring the previous inhabitants along the way) and what little law there is is enforced by their space pilot corps, the Aviators.

It soon becomes obvious that the “shinings” are not the only things to have devastated poor Mother Earth. Genetic engineering has also run riot, leading to abominations such as the dog-like Aardmen. The most obvious new lifeforms are called Geneslaves and are treated as such, but many people are not quite people any more either. And so we meet Wendy Wanders, a once autistic empath now on the run from the scientists of the Human Engineering Laboratory (HEL – geddit) in the company of Miss Scarlet, a talking chimpanzee. They end up in the City of Trees, the former Washington now given over mainly to pleasure parlours.

Meet also Margalis Tastanin, Aviator Imperator, the most ruthless of the Ascendants’ generals. He is searching for METATRON, an android AI programmed with the military knowledge of previous Ascendant hierarchies. It would be an invaluable weapon if found, and Washington seems like a good place to start.

Much blood and suffering follows. It is plain that Hand sees this world as ultimately corrupt, and she loses few opportunities to rub the message in. There is also a suggestion of developing mental powers in mankind and possibly a return of Ancient Gods, or at least Powers The Like of Which… Tastanin is killed, Wendy and Scarlet escape with the help of a zoologist called Jane (and there may be some sort of joke intended here).

So to book two, Æstival Tide, where we find Tastanin rescued by some of his Ascendant masters and resurrected as a Rasa (cyborg). It is unclear what role this episode plays in the overall story except to make Tastanin less than human and to reinforce the message of the debased evil of the Ascendants. In particular we are introduced to the practice of Harrowing, the ritual consumption of the brains of victims who were at least living when you started. Yuk! Note also that the scientist in charge of Wendy’s case in HEL was called Emma Harrow.

The action takes place in the domed city of Araboth, one of the few places on Earth deemed fit (thanks to its environmental control) for Ascendants to live in. By the end, of course, it is destroyed, with only Tastanin and a few companions escaping. It was a strange book, but I still loved it if only for the party scene in which we learn that the band are playing a well-loved traditional folk song called Court of the Crimson King.

And so to the final volume, Icarus Descending, which was never published in the UK and has taken me a couple of years to track down.

As we might expect, Wendy and Tastanin are re-united eventually, and both become embroiled in a Geneslave rebellion lead by the resurrected clone of a leading geneticist, Luther Burdock, and the miscreant METATRON. Burdock, whose mind is distinctly flaky, seems genuinely concerned about his “children” (he did, after all, make many of them from his own daughter). METATRON, on the other hand, has an entirely different agenda. And I must admit that choosing an military AI as your embodiment of ultimate evil has a certain elegance to it. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide just what awful denouement Hand manages this time. It is appropriately awful, promise.

There’s a lot of heavy irony in the book. For example, Jane, who was so devoted to her animals, is least able to accept the Geneslaves as fellow humans. And Tastanin, whom we have been lead to think of as the ultimate evil, is slowly transformed into the only possible saviour of humanity, more a victim of the Ascendants than their ally.

These were not easy books to read (unless you like having your stomach churned), nor do they have a hopeful message. The Hand line seems to be that we have done badly by Mother Earth, are likely to continue to do so exponentially, and eventually we will reap our just rewards. In many ways it reminds me of John Brunner’s eco-disaster novel, The Sheep Look Up. You keep reading it, expecting things to get better, and they just get worse. But these things need saying, and if they are going to be said I would prefer them to be set down by a writer of Hand’s elegance and intensity than by some lesser hack. If a book is painful to read, but you keep at it anyway because of the quality of the writing, that speaks volumes for the author.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

See also this SF Mistressworks review of Winterlong.

Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand

Winterlong, Elizabeth Hand (1990)
Review by Ian Sales

It has always been my impression that I would enjoy Hand’s writing. I’ve read some of her short stories, and around this time last year I read her novella Illyria, and I’ve always thought her writing very good. She writes with a very literary style, closer perhaps to fantasy than science fiction, low on rigour, but with lovely prose – much like a writer I admire very much, Paul Park. So I had expected to like her debut novel Winterlong

Sadly, I didn’t. There is lush prose – and I like lush prose; I’m a fan of Lawrence Durrell’s writing, after all. But often it seems to tip into florid prose, and, unfortunately, in Winterlong it’s florid prose which dominates. As I read the novel, I couldn’t help thinking that if Hand had applied the writer’s phrase “kill your darlings”, the book would have been half its 440 pages in length. I mean, a sentence like “The black domino of a Persian malefeants with her whip pied the pastel train of a score of moth-winged children trying very hard to perform the steps of a salacious maxixe” (p 171) shouldn’t have made it through the editing process. Which is not say that Winterlong is a bad book or doesn’t have anything interesting to say. It simply reads like a first novel written by someone whose reach exceeded their grasp, who had yet to gain control over their style, whose focus lay too much on the individual word-choices and not enough on the cumulative effect of those choices.

Wendy Wanders is a subject at the Human Engineering Laboratory, a “neurologically augmented empath approved for emotive engram therapy”. She can “tap” patients’ memories and emotional states, ostensibly for therapeutic reasons. But she was autistic as a child, and though her neurological augmentations have “fixed” her – as well as making her empathic – she is still not entirely cured. The HEL is located just outside the City of Trees, which was destroyed hundreds of years in the past, left for nature to run riot over, and is now inhabited by remnant peoples unrelated to the mainstream Ascendant population of the country. From hints and clues in the text, I’m guessing the City is Washington DC.

Things go horribly wrong at the HEL and, during an attack by those for whom the HEL scientists were working, Wendy escapes with the help of a lab assistant, Justice Saint-Alaban, an inhabitant of the City. Once in the City, she disguises herself as a man and joins a troupe of actors. This troupe mostly performs Shakespeare’s plays and Wendy, as Aidan Arent, takes the female roles – yes, that’s a woman pretending to be a man who plays women on stage who, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, disguise themselves as men… (Hand studied drama and anthropology at university.)

Meanwhile, Raphael Miramar, a male prostitute, and one of the most beautiful and desired in the City, has chosen to go and live with his lover, leader of the Natural Historians, hoping to trade commitment for an education. The City is run by the Curators, descendants of various museum staff – the Natural Historians, the Botanists, the Zoologists, etc. There are also Houses of prostitutes, both male and female, who cater to the Curators, and seem to do little else except arrange sumptuous balls.

Raphael’s lover, however, is not so committed to the relationship, now that Raphael no longer lives the pampered lifestyle of his House, and so is losing his looks. Raphael makes friends with a junior Natural Historian, but inadvertently kills her, and is forced to flee. He falls in with a group of lazars, children infected with diseases spread by viral rains dropped during “air raids” by Ascendant airships, is identified as their god, the Gaping One, and taken to meet their leader, the man who attacked the HEL – who has been resurrected after being tortured to death by the aardmen, genetically-engineered dog-humans, and is now quite mad.

Winterlong is structured as a series of nine parts, each written in the first-person from either Wendy’s or Raphael’s point of view. The opening part, ‘The Boy in the Tree’, was also published separately as a novella in Full Spectrum 2 a year before Winterlong‘s publication. Neither Wendy nor Raphael, it has to be admitted, are especially sympathetic characters. The novel hints at a greater world, with its references to “Ascensions” and a war with the “Balkhash Commonwealth”. However, the story is focused tightly on events within the City of Trees, which has something of the flavour of Delany’s Bellona, something of New Orleans, and something of a Shakespearean Venice or Forest of Arden.

In fact, it’s all very fin de siècle and decadent, perhaps even Gothic; which perhaps explains the prose style. It’s also strangely reluctant to engage too much with the world it describes. Everywhere is dirty, there is sex and death, but it all feels a little sanitised and innocent, perhaps because the prose focuses so much on the appearance and odours of things. It gives the environs of many of the scenes the feel of a set-dressing, rather than a vital, living place within which a story is occurring. When, for instance, Raphael rapes the assistant Curator he has just inadvertently murdered, it’s over and done with in a bland sentence: “Then I ravished her.”

Yet the City is unnatural. It’s not simply the life-style of those in the Houses. Much of the flora and fauna has also been altered – and are known by the term “geneslaves”. There are the aforementioned aardmen, but also willow trees which kill, and an intelligent talking chimpanzee (one of the Players in the troupe Wendy joins). It’s the sort of world which appeared quite often in science fiction during the late 1980s and early 1990s – I’m thinking of Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden (1989), or Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide (1991) – although Hand’s version is more dystopian and post-apocalyptic than most. The City is an interesting place, but the prose often works against the story, confusing what shouldn’t be difficult to parse.

In her review of the full trilogy in SF Eye #13 (reprinted in Deconstructing the Starships), Gwyneth Jones writes that Hand is “a writer who embraces gender difference – whether or not she notices where this embrace is leading her”. Certainly it’s true that there’s much that’s traditional in the gender roles played by the characters in Winterlong. Wendy becomes Aidan and discovers empowerment; Raphael stops being a sex toy and learns evil. The Shakespearean confusions and mistaken identities only work if you accept traditional gender roles. Given the world of Winterlong, it would not be unreasonable to expect some fluidity in this area – Wendy’s masquerade at least hints at the intent – but Hand fails to question the underlying assumptions with which she writes. And the opportunity is lost.

This review almost sounds as if I’m characterising Winterlong as a complete failure. Which is not the case. I thought it interesting, but overwritten. I have the sequel, but Winterlong has not really inspired me to read it. But perhaps one day I will get round to reading Æstival Tide and, perhaps also, if I spot a paperback copy of the third book in the trilogy, Icarus Descending, in a dealers’ room at a convention I might well buy it.

This review originally appeared on It Doesn’t Have To Be Right…