Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 326 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09958-2

In Look at the Evidence, master SF critic John Clute has written a fascinating essay on what he calls the “true age” of a SF work. Ineptly put, this mean that despite the stated year in which a Science-Fiction work takes place, it is almost always about another year. Most of the time, a book written in, say, 1995 will be about 1990 rather than 2361. Most of the SF written in the seventies is thus about the seventies: Overpopulation, environmental collapse and feminism all figure prominently in these works. (Clute then goes on to state that a lot of recent genre SF is about 1940-1960, which is a fascinating idea that deserves exploration… but not here.)

Clute’s theory isn’t universally applicable, but works quite well in the case of Bruce Sterling’s latest novel; Holy Fire.

Before venturing further in critical theory, though, a bit of plot:  Holy Fire takes place a century from now, in a future where life-extension treatments are getting increasingly commonplace and efficient. Not surprisingly, the power is now in the hand of those who live the longest, who can invest their money in decade-long financial enterprises and can afford to wait to reap the results. There’s now “real money” and the young don’t have any. Gerontocracy is a common word in this novel.

Mia Ziemann is a medical economist nearing ninety years of age, and it’s her job to know about these things. The novel opens as she visits an old lover but a few fortuitous encounters later, Mia decides that it’s time to cash in her life savings and to be rejuvenated. Once that is done, she escapes from her medical supervision and makes her way to Europe, where she spends the remainder of the novel hanging out with anarchists, calling herself Maya, sleeping with unattractive men and finding her true self, not necessarily in this order.

It doesn’t take a diploma in literary engineering or medical sociology to guess why Holy Fire is a novel of the nineties: In an age where the baby-boomers are hitting their fifties in greater numbers (and retiring younger and younger; this critic’s father being a case in point) it’s evident that Sterling is taking a unsettling tendency and pushing it in a farther, more “Comfortable” future. Mia’s world is becoming more friendly, less violent, but also more boring with less place for innovation and initiative. Parallels…?

A better, but less exciting work than Sterling’s previous Heavy Weather, Holy Fire uses the word “postmodernist” a lot.  It shouldn’t be too surprising then that most of the novel consists of aimless wandering through the anarchist cliques of Europe. Sometimes it’s interesting, other time it’s filler until something happens. The Maya/Mia dichotomy isn’t very well defined, or at least could have been used better. This novel consciously turn the traditionally SF “coming of age” novel on its head by starring a 90-year old woman rediscovering herself using a young body. (Is it a “going of age” or “re-coming of age” novel?)

Still, Holy Fire is very likely one of the best SF book you’re likely to read this year. Sterling, a leading proponent of the now-passé (really?) cyberpunk movement, has kept intact his love of gadgets so evident in all his works. Holy Fire features talking dogs (including a likable talk-show host), translating devices (sometime reminiscent of Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish), a believable rejuvenating process (probably the most mesmerizing sequence of the book) and some impressive home pages… er… palaces.

A mature, sometime meandering work, Holy Fire strengthens Sterling’s position as one of the surest talent of contemporary SF. Perhaps too consciously post-something to achieve wide success and recognition, but smart and speculative enough to be read anyway.

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