Bruce Sterling,
Holy Fire
(Bantam, 1997)

The process of rebirth is often employed as a metaphor for personal and spiritual renewal. One of the themes in Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire is the consequence of rebirth, but because the novel is science fiction the rebirth of its main character, Mia Zimmerman, is never a metaphor, it is an actuality.

Thus Mia, living at the end of the 21st century and in her ninth decade, undergoes an "upgrade," choosing one of the many life-prolongation procedures developed by the medical-industrial complex. This pervasive complex (obviously reminiscent of the military-industrial complex of our own time) is nurtured and maintained by a ruling gerontocracy made up of the aged, who took power at the beginning of the century in the aftermath of plague pandemics. This benevolent dictatorship allows youth (in their 40s!) freedom but no power, even to the extent that they are denied access to money (in the sense that they can never accumulate even an insignificant amount of capital).

The society, with its inevitable tensions and seething discontents, is well drawn in the novel, with small detail skillfully implying the bigger picture. Through Mia's transformation from an old woman into a young one of 20 we experience things from both sides of the great divide which bisects the culture. Of course along the way we glimpse future technology such as mag-lev trains, biocybernetic animals, robots, artificial life and, of course (this being a Bruce Sterling novel), virtual reality. In addition, forming a (sometimes weak) plot line is the existence of a mystery to be solved and something hidden which has to be found, but what engages the reader is the fascinating weavework of character and setting through which this thread is followed.

Mia is member of the gerontocracy which allows only those who act responsibly towards both themselves and society to prolong their lives through extraordinary medical means, and so to enter the realm of the post-human. However, while recovering from her upgrade Mia detaches her numerous monitors and tubes, evades her minders and runs away, acting irresponsibly, with in fact the recklessness of youth. As a runaway she meets a variety of people, and this part of the novel is quite episodic in nature, but the author manages (if only just) to bring it all together. The binding force with which this convergence is achieved is the "Holy Fire" of the title. This is an attribute which is alluded to often throughout but never explicitly defined, but clearly it encompasses that which any gerontocratic culture must lack -- innovative, original thought, and joie de vivre.

The youthful alienated revolutionaries whom Mia meets wish to incite rebellion in their society -- not because it doesn't work, but because it works too well. Their fervent hope as expressed by one of them is that "life will always be too short." They plan to realize this aspiration by inducing radical cognitive transforms using illegal virtuality protocols. By these means they hope to ensure a periodic reinvention of human culture and so prevent its ossification. What makes their task urgent is that the rate of medical progress is fast approaching the singularity, that point at which immortality is assured for those alive at the time.

However, this novel is not about whether such a rebellion succeeds or not. Its subject is Mia Zimmerman, someone we meet as an old lady visiting a dying friend, and whom we follow as she blossoms again, takes lovers and eventuality comes to terms with that mantle of the gods, immortality, which is soon to be placed on her kind.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]



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