In Glimmering – shortlisted for the 1998 Arthur C. Clarke Award – Elizabeth Hand offers a tricky millennial elegy for the human race and the world's biosphere. The trickiness interposes itself whenever the text seems capable of settling into that comforting simplicity and solvability of conventional hard sf. At the beginning, for example, there's a glib account (a little, in fact quite a lot, reminiscent of early exposition in John Barnes's Mother of Storms) of the physics and atmospheric chemistry leading to the permanent, poisoned auroral displays known as the Glimmering. Near the end, noises are made about a hard-sf cure for the world's pain, a sort of deus ex machina all too quickly threatened by diabolus ex humana. But the pages in between make it quietly clear – through much fading beauty, and without resorting to easy despair – that the Glimmering is the phosphorescent rotten-fish glow of a planet long past saving by a quick fix or even a slow one.
Central characters include Jack Finnegan, publisher of the world's last printed literary magazine, who is quietly succumbing to AIDS in a forgotten corner of Yonkers, NY; Leonard Thrope, an amoralist of sinister charm who appears to be presiding over the final days as self-appointed Lord of Misrule; Trip Marlowe, a startlingly naive and imperceptive young Christian rock-singer (that is, singer of Christian rock) whom Thrope makes a point of corrupting through a Dickian drug that makes the unreal real; Martin Dionysos, another dying altruist who rescues young Trip more or less literally from deep waters; and Marz, a strange girl who initiates Trip's fall from grace and is later given shelter by Finnegan.
That reality-bending drug provides another nice narrative sleight – the quickness of the Hand – as a soothing pop-science infodump about its precise and very tiny effects on neural paths is immediately followed by the actual subjective experience, pulsing with vividly guilty eroticism and the paralysed inevitability of an unwanted wet dream. Tiny changes, shattering consequences.
The storylines move in subtle curves under the influence of a final attractor, being the colossal millennium party to be held in New York on 31 December 1999. (We are running on an alternate timeline here: the Glimmering, for example, begins on 26 March 1997.) Immediately before this final jamboree comes an explanation of the dubious wonder drug Fusax which early in the novel was given to the reluctant Finnegan by Thrope. Fusax is not exactly the hoped AIDS cure or sf's frequently-encountered quick fix of transcendence, but does suggest the key to much in Glimmering that remains mysterious. There have been repeated hallucinations, seeming ghosts, the footfalls and spidery hand-touches of the dead. Like the hidden machineries of John Crowley's secret histories, the possibility of a Fusax-mediated posthumous Gaia is hinted only obliquely – larded with doubts – its most overt endorsement being coupled with denial and coming from the book's least reliable character as he dances in the century's ruins.
All of which sounds terribly glum and doom-laden. Glimmering is enjoyable to read, though – full of humanity and wit, lushly told, reeking with sensual hothouse odours of growth and decay. Even a lawn sodden with rainwater rises from the page with "a thick rank smell as of spoiled mushrooms". On first reading, the book's finale is bleak enough despite the traditional small concession to life and renewal (twins, even). It sticks in the head, though, and shifts emphasis as that spooky undertext seems to glow through the darkness like changing hypnagogic images, like the Glimmering itself.