Holy Fire
by Bruce Sterling
Review by James Walton

Dull and boring old women seem to be in vogue this year.

Sometime in our future, Life Extension treatments become the largest industry in the world. Choose the right series of treatments and become virtually immortal. Choose the wrong treatments and find yourself shut out of society. (Sort of like picking the wrong computer operating system.) These treatments work best on people who don't abuse their bodies or place themselves at risk. Such people are a bad investment. So naturally the Life Extension industry lobbies for laws making Risky People uninsurable. Eventually all the governments in the world are run by aging bureaucrats intent on keeping the world as dull as possible.

Mia Zeimann is one such bureaucrat. At 95 years of age she has spent her life avoiding anything and anyone that might jeopardize her life extension treatments. She alienated her husband and daughter when they became too emotionally taxing. Her sole enjoyment is collecting boxes from ancient computer games. (Not the games themselves, just the boxes. Space Invaders causes high blood pressure.)

Early on in the book Sterling takes us aside and tells us "This is a very dull person." He takes great care in showing us that this is a dull old woman who rejected every chance she had for some excitement. She may live a very long time, but who cares?

(Allow me to stress here that the character is boring. The book is quite enjoyable.)

Her sterile existence makes Mia a prime candidate for an experimental Life Extension treatment. If successful, Mia will be young and beautiful again, a 20 year old body with the money and experience of a 95 year old.

Another variation on the wishfulfillment tale. Starting life over, young, without worries or responsibilities.

Fortunately, for us, while recovering from the procedure, Mia suffers from one of the possible side effects, schizophrenia. The new personality, Maya, hates being watched and studied and on a very un-Mia like whim, escapes to Europe.

Unfortunately, the young woman is rather boring too. She knows absolutely nothing of the world she now inhabits. The gap between the gerontocracy and the young disenfranchised is enormous and very little of Mia's experience prepares Maya for her new life.

It is the society she moves through that is the most interesting character in the book. We experience it via the people who befriend/befuddle Maya during her wanderjahr through Europe. Maya is so hopelessly inexperienced and naive that criminals stop her to give advice. Each character has his own take on why society is the way it is and where it is going. Most of the people Maya meets are obviously as confused in their own way as Maya is, but that is part of the fun. One character is horrified to discover that some young people actually buy and read books.

I admit to being perplexed at how very benign Maya's world is. She never seems to be in any danger, except possibly from herself. Will a ruling class of immortals chance human nature that much?

I think Sterling means Holy Fire to be a Cautionary Tale. (Of course, all good Science Fiction is cautionary in nature.) The Holy Fire in question is the will to live, the creative spark, that which separates humans from horses and computers. He is asking us what good is a long life if we cannot enjoy it, as well as showing his disdain for our rules laden society.

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