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on December 31, 2001
STERLING does a great job of showing the pain of transition for his initial central character, Mia, as she struggles to become a real woman, Maya. The Mia/Maya schizoid personality sustained conflict throughout the story. It works to the last line where Maya finally proves she has the Holy Fire to click her first true picture. Ambiguity arises, however, as to whether her Holy Fire results from her longevity drug treatment or whether her own will power gave her a second chance to find her muse. The question is: what motivates the old Mia to become the young at heart Maya? What did Sterling create in Maya? Was she a drug sculptured android without a real soul? Perhaps this was Sterling's underlying question--does Mia need a soul?

The author's distinction between gerontocrats and the vivid, young generation is suspect because if the longevity treatments were actually working the older class would stay young at heart--not just young of skin. This doesn't happen. So all the treatments to keep the body clicking are, in the main, cosmetic. Something else is missing here, most old people want to stay alive to enjoy their grand kids and great grand kids. Here the old seem to grow into a narcissistic, power driven shell, abandoning their own kid's lives. However, the story works because it exposes the hidden disconnect between just living and the quality of life.
Sterling barely explains a lot of his jargon. His drug, lacrimogen, sounds like ecstasy. All it seems to do in the story is give the users a good cry! I'll bet no reader understood why Mia/Maya almost died in the immersion scene due to the interaction of the futuristic drugs inside her body with those in the pool. One must ask Sterling who he thinks his readers are--chemists?
Sterling's projected growth in the medico-pharmaceutical industry is very thought provoking. It gives Sterling an opportunity to investigate the divide between the cult favoring longevity and the young x'ers. His sharpest statement is made when he has the young would be artist girl take the swan dive off the building. "To hell with your longevity!" she sang as she splattered to the ground.
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on December 12, 2001
Imagine yourself, as a very old person, suddenly made very young again. Would you want your old desires and passions back, if they were forced upon you? Most would say yes, and Bruce Sterling writes a wonderful and enlightening tale centering around a woman named Mia and how human desires and values change as we grow older and how our basic drives can be turned upside down if we became young again. Older people sometimes get set in established behavioral patterns and Sterling gives thought to this in addition to possible societal views and monetary structures that may accompany vastly extended life spans.
Sterling writes of a world in the process of achieving the goal of extending human life spans indefinitely, set late in the 21st century. Sterling uses the term 'posthuman' often in this novel, I believe he should have used the term 'transhuman' as this term more accurately describes the characters in this novel. As I understand it, a posthuman is one who has access to very advanced medical care and his/her body is effectively immortal, or as much as is practical or theoretically possible, and yes, I am probably splitting hairs here. But in fact, one could argue we have transhuman medical care in existence already, with the advent of artificial hearts, etc..
This novel is wrote in an easy to read, flowing style, a pleasure to read, much of the plot had the character Mia living a wandering and aimless lifestyle, but the story was well executed. I found it a cute story, much human interest, with humor mixed in. It's premise of a society transformed by long life spans could be a portent of things to come, and how ultimately we may be able to use our science to bootstrap ourselves out of our own mortality.
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on October 23, 2001
I thought that Sterling's world was one of the more well-thought out extrapolations of the future that I've read in a while. Too many sci-fi tales seem to use Blade Runner for a template, so it's refreshing to see a world where technology and people have evolved without some cataclysmic event forced into the narrative (although long-over plagues are alluded to). The book takes place in a future when most of the terrible woes of the 20th century have been fixed, and people now occupy themselves with trying to find purpose, or at least amusement, in a world that's become a little too safe and dull.
Sterling keeps it going with breezy wit that half admires and half mocks his characters, and a satirical vision of technologies like genetic manipulation and virtual reality becoming toys for a wired leisure class. Sometimes it gets a little too breezy, and you get the feeling that Sterling's more interested in sly commentary than a sensical plot or realistic characters, but as it was, I enjoyed the humor.
The characters, though they could have been better explored, were futuristic sketches of people we actually know. The ruling class that Maya leaves behind seems like a committee of fretting, but permissive grandparents. The young bohemian society that she hooks up with after her transformation comes across as a literary blend of the roaring 20's, the superficial 80's, and the 90's, whose profound soul-searching is actually also quite narcissistic. Yeah, I could see a future like that. Maybe we should hope for Blade Runner.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon August 7, 2001
"Holy Fire" is unquestionably Sterling's finest novel to date. Not only is it a fine novel of ideas percolating on virtually every page, it is also a powerful, extremely well written mediation on aging and the role of the elderly in a post-modern society. Mia Ziemann is one of Sterling's most intriguing creations, though admittedly, as one previous reviewer noted, her actions seem quite arbitrary, as though they were written just to move the plot along. And I was a bit dismayed with how Sterling reintroduces a major character towards the very end of "Holy Fire", after allowing her to vanish without a trace for most of the tale. Still, these criticisms are minor in stark comparison to the richly conceived future and intriguing characters Sterling has wrought. His vision of an early 22nd Century Europe is among the most plausible I have yet read. Fans of Sterling's previous work won't be disappointed. Without a doubt, it is one of the most important science fiction novels published in the last decade of the 20th Century.
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on August 28, 2000
One of the best books I ever read.
In the long run, the author poses to the readers a question that cannot have an unique answer: Above all, who's right, the young or the elder? We can say: obviously none, and both, it depends of your point of view. So what's the final answer?
According to Sterling, the social role of the elder (the medically treated people, who live VERY long) is to mantain the status quo, to control the crazyness of the young, to *CONTROL* the society, by means of the fortunes and political strenght they accumulated. The young instead can 'follow the rules' or be repressed, and indeed the brighthest of them, the 'artists' (those who possess the 'Holy Fire', the capacity to *create* art and ideas) must hide and go in the underground. Here they try to add some new flesh to the human culture, and obviously the elder constantly try to stop them. But sometimes a new idea is good enough, and nothing can stop it, so it eventually becomes part of the status quo, along with their creators. Those same creators will then become elder with time, and will not allow any variation of this idea, acting effectively in the same way the elders of his young age did.
The book goes through all this gradually, showing the elder, the young geniuses, and also the not-so-brilliant wannabe-genius youngsters. As Maya travels across Europe, she matures from an elder, to a newborn young, to a prominent figure in a underground movement.
As always the reading is pure intellectual joy: Sterling's insights in the very nature of human culture, the differences between the old world and the new, the fantastic scenarios of future European cities and so much more.
If you are searching pure action and special effects, you will not find them here. But if you want to *think* when reading a book, this is definitely a good choice.
Worth every page.
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on August 10, 2000
Holy Fire, by Bruce Sterling is pretty impressive. Sterling really packs ideas onto the page! He furnishes his setting with detail after telling detail: there is a much greater sense, seems to me, that the future being depicted is really in the future, and not just now + a few changes, as in so many SF books. And the details are cleverly backgrounded: offhandedly mentioned here, revealed by a turn of phrase there, implied by a description...(Also, he does stop and lecture on occasion: but the lectures are interesting, not distracting, and important to his story.) Anyway, the way Sterling does this stuff is great fun (in his short fiction too), and he's pretty good at little jokes on the one hand, and telling aphorisms on the other hand.
Holy Fire is set 100 years in the future, and the main character is a woman born in 2001 (a symbolic date, I'm sure; as the fact that the book opens with the death of her former lover, born in 1999, is symbolic too). This woman, Mia Ziemann, after attending her lover's "funeral", and receiving a mysterious "gift" from him (the password to his questionably legal Memory Palace) (a MacGuffin if there ever was one!) undergoes a crisis of sorts and decides that it is time to cash in her chips, as it were, and undergo the radical life-extension treatment which she has been planning. She comes out of the treatment a young woman in appearance, and a different person in attitude, and with a different name (Maya). As a result, she runs off (illegally) to Europe, trying to live the life of the late-21st century young people (it seems). The rest of the book follows her somewhat rambling adventures with a variety of Europeans, young and old, as well as eventually getting around to the meaning of the MacGuff -- er, I mean, Memory Palace.
The book is very strong on the description and rationale for the culture and economics of a future dominated by medical treatment, life-extension methods, and (as a result of the previous two), old people. Sterling knows that if people live a long time, society will be very different, and he does a good job showing us one way it might be different. His views of both young (say, up to 60 or so) and old (up to 120 or more at the time of the book) people are very well done. Part of the book is an attempt to get at what the difference between a society of very-long-lived people (like up to 150 years or so), and a society of near-immortals (up to 1500 years or more) might be: and here he waves his hand at some neat ideas but kind of fails to really convince.
Throughout it is readable, interesting, and funny. The resolution is solid, though as I have suggested, he waves at a more "transcendental" ending, and doesn't really succeed there. But Maya's story is honest and convincing, though Maya as a character is a little harder to believe. She seems to be whatever the plot needs her to be at certain times: this is partly explainable by the very real physical and psychological changes she must be undergoing: but at times it seems rather arbitrary.
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on November 21, 1999
This book has a lot of the trappings of science fiction-- life extending technology, genetically engineered pets, virtual reality games-- but the center, in the end, is the search for emotional completion engaged upon by Mia Ziemann, the protagonist of the book. In this book, Ziemann goes through a radical life extesion procedure that pushes her through the life of the young and vivid and out the other side through to the Holy Fire. Many things impressed me about this book, and I found it very hard to put down, but one of the things I liked the most was the truthfulness of the search for this elusive quality. Mia isn't instantly a great artist. She doesn't discover amazing abilities she should have exploited earlier. All she uncovers (but that 'all' is everything) is the will to carry through and develop for herself. There were frequent loose ends in the book (I felt like the memory palace and the Plato sequences were never developed fully enough) but the book itself was strong enough to carry them. Definitely recommended.
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on January 22, 1999
In recent years Bruce Sterling has been trying too hard to be 'hip' and ahead of the game (one of the problems of cyberpunk and near-future sf in general). Globalhead was very unneven, some of the stories didn't work at all, Heavy Weather was entertaining but nothing more; Sterling seemed to be losing his political edge too. After this Holy Fire is something of a return to the form of Islands in the Net or Crystal Express. It drifts and meanders its way across a safe, comfortable and boring world dominated by the old and dotted witht the failed experiments of the past. Not a lot happens, except the gradual emotional and (rather faster) physical rebirth of the heroine. At the end you are left with a sense of greater understanding for having read the book; Sterling seems to be maturing into a thoughtful and challenging writer. The only reason I give this 4 rather than 5 stars that there are some weak sections, and also Maureen F. McHugh (China Mountain Zhang, Half the Day is Night) does this stuff a little better.
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on January 2, 1997
You know, there's really no GOOD reason why we should spend only 10% (or 12% or whatever, pace the latest political drumroll) of GDP on HEALTHCARE. Bruce Sterling writes about a future, not far off but far enough, in which we've just thrown up our hands and let it absorb as much as it will. Which, as he rightly extrapolates, is a LOT. HOLY FIRE is about the Health Care Budget That Ate America. It's also about "cosmetology," as in "College of Cosmetology" (as in, where beauticians go first)-- how to look younger than you are, and (maybe) feel better than you do or would. One of our HANGUPS in deciding how much we should spend on health care as a nation, is deciding what is "cosmetic" and what is "really medical." Sterling sees right through this: It's all the same. He writes a novel to show us. Maya Ziemann is a Medical Economist who starts out strolling about San Francisco but translocates quickly to Eastern Europe, where, unfortunately, she remains more or less thereafter, having experiences about getting older . Sterling is a chewy writer; not too crisp, especially here, but chewy. HOLY FIRE needs a bit of "holy fire" (as in action; a narrative "hot foot") to get itself going. It SOUNDS (reads) often enough as if it were WRITTEN by a 94-year-old woman. I ordered this book from AMAZON sight unseen and read it right through -- as I will Sterling's next effort, without a doubt. This isn't one of his best, but that still puts it well up, percentile-wise, on the competition. Sterling's an Idea Writer. And what the heck, you may LIKE Mia Ziemann as she either does or doesn't grow very old
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on December 3, 1996
Bruce Sterling's ("Aristoi", "Islands in the Net", "Mirrorshades" editor) new novel "Holy Fire" is very good.

The novel postulates a gerontocracy developing through the perfection of geriatric medicine. As old people live longer, they hold onto the positions of responsibility and power longer. Since old people are inherently conservative, innovation and societal evolution slows down. Resources are funneled into geriatrics medical technology. In addition, the young (under 60 years old) become an underclass.

The story is about an old women who becomes young. The fountain of youth responsible for this is a revolutionary, rejuvenating medical procedure. The conflict is between her new, "vivid" (novel slang for hip), hormonally driven, post-op self (Maya) and the asexual, "posthuman", pre-op, personae's (Mia's) memories and habits. Call her Gen-X with grandma lurking in the back of her mind.

The book was good, right down to the nuances of potential 2070 tech. Maybe he should have cranked back and set the novel a little closer to the present. About the only problem I have is "how well can a male author write a female main character?". It could be argued that a posthuman female is asexual, but Stirling's 20-something Maya had the fingerprints of a 40-something male on her.

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