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Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling, Bantam Spectra, 1996, 326 pp.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase "the medical-industrial complex"? Perhaps some vast network of corporate giants, looking out for their own interests no matter the effect on society as a whole. In Holy Fire, Sterling convincingly posits just such a thing. A hundred years from now, the older segments of the demographic have all the money. They invest in promising medical technologies, which of course leads to an even longer life span for those with money. Sterling takes this simple premise and extrapolates all of the logical conclusions such that the reader is left wondering, well, how else could it be? Combine this with some particularly apt speculations about information technology, and the book has an extremely solid "what-if" underpinning.

But even the best bit of extrapolation into the future needs a story and some characters and things like that in order to keep the readers interested. I will say that I enjoyed the story of Holy Fire, but I know that some will find it too episodic. Mia Ziemann, at 94, is one of the most exemplary old people around -- she has lived a careful life, she has lots of money, and she decides to devote these two things (which are actually the same thing -- this society rewards healthy lifestyles) to a new life rejuvenation technology. But when this radical procedure gives her the body of a twenty year old, she doesn't think the same way any more either. Off she goes to Europe to have a few adventures, calling herself Maya. I won't say anything further about the plot, but I felt that Sterling moved Mia convincingly from one picaresque event to another. While the ending was somewhat too schmaltzy and predictable for me (take a glance at the final line of the book if you don't believe such a thing could happen in a Sterling novel), it did at least give closure to Mia's adventures.

Mia Ziemann is the main character and she is in every scene. However, our interest in her only grows over time -- she never pales in the reader's mind. She begins as a rather rational person, and we fall right into line with her reactions to the crazy things around her. But then she takes the new treatment, and everything changes dramatically (traumatically?). Her change is astonishingly well-portrayed -- here are a few self-analytical thoughts from the new Maya: "The Mia thing was meek and obliging and accommodating, and not very interesting. The Mia seemed to be really tired and didn't care very much about anything. The Mia was nothing but a bundle of habits" (70). Sterling illustrates quite a number of fascinating premises here, and addresses questions like: if biology dictates character, then what happens when we have control over our own biology?

The young people of Europe are mostly well-characterized, but the only one who stood out in my mind was Emil, the amnesiac artist with his own problems. I loved the scene where Mia tells Emil the truth, and Emil first misunderstands, then tells Mia: "That's a very, very odd story you have just told me. It's almost too odd to think about! To have heard such a story! In a very strange way, it makes me feel very proud to be Czech" (161). But the humour fades when Mia realizes a thing or two about Emil's motives at offering her the same amnesiac drug that he took years ago. The other standout among the large cast of other characters is the dog Plato, who I thought was a hilariously Dickian character.

Overall, Sterling's style is very smooth, but he does include a few clunky bits of exposition here and there. His speculation is always interesting, but the long passages of non-narrative belong in an essay about the future, not a novel. The first sign of this happens close to the beginning of the book: "Mia had lived through a long and difficult century. She had witnessed massive global plagues, and consequent convulsive advancements in medicine" (7). The beginning of Chapter Two, leading up to Mia's treatment, is especially dense with hard sf detail. And the odd narrative tone of these passages especially bothered me -- who was the narrator talking to? Certainly not anyone from the late 21st century, for whom any of this knowledge would be as familiar as breathing.

I mentioned information technology earlier. Like his insight into the nature of the medical-industrial complex, Sterling makes some similarly insightful observations about how the information age will develop. And anyone with a phonograph in their house (or worse, an eight-track player) will immediately see Sterling's wisdom in such statements as: "Obsolete hardware was so bafflingly out-of-date as to be basically unpoliceable" (24). The rate of progress is only increasing, and Sterling depicts the resulting consumer detritus very convincingly. Imagine eight-tracks for a whole century (metaphorically speaking), one after another. Mia has to go to a vaguely illegal warehouse of old information technology at several points, and these scenes were extremely convincing.

Holy Fire is a generally well-written, interesting novel, with a heroine that suits her era. Recommended to those who don't mind lumps of exposition. Personally, I enjoy being thrown headlong into the strange, without the smallest shred of explanation. But I may be a niche market.

Last modified: February 2, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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