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Holy Fire

by Rob Friesel

There’s a scene–about halfway through the novel–when Paul says to Maya: “I want you to prove to me that you’re not human yet still an artist.” Right there? That’s basically your thematic thesis.

It has been my observation that a lot of folks get introduced to Bruce Sterling by way of the Mirrorshades anthology1 and so follow-up quickly with his other most-well-known werk, Schismatrix; and while both are great, if you pay much attention to Bruce Sterling (i.e., read his running commentary over on Beyond the Beyond), you know that this was the book he was born to write. Virtualities and posthumanism and art and quirky social stratification and European leftism and art and revolutionary politics and atavism-in-a-technological-world and art and the economics of celebrity and sex and art…

Sterling presents us with a central conflict that’s a classic one: the old vs. the new; the entrenched vs. the (would-be?) ascendant; preservation vs. creation. He toys with one of those fun little paradoxical science fiction utopias where everything is cheap and easy to make, where machinery is almost absurdly efficient, where science gives us nearly limitless lifespans, and where everyone is almost uniformly unhappy. They’re unhappy because they’re old and are essentially apathetic; or because they’re young and politically powerless; or because they’re decrepit and their frailties have caught up with them; or because they’re young and fearful that their creative wells could (or already have) run dry.

Which is where the title comes into play. Sterling works the phrase “holy fire” in there quite a few times, each time changing the meaning just a little bit, but each time linking it rather distinctly with some character’s intense feeling of creativity and expressiveness–that her actions are meaningful and lasting, that she is very much present in her existence and very much a part of the world’s continuity. Characters feel “the holy fire” when they make something–doesn’t matter if it’s a mural or a party dress or a child.

Enter Paul’s remark to Maya.

The scifi utopia that Sterling uses as his backdrop has also given us Mia/Maya–a nonagenarian woman who undergoes a radical experimental medical life-extension treatment that effectively re-makes her at the molecular level into a lithe, apparent-twentysomething. Mia (pre-treatment) is steady and regimented and predictable and safe and it would seem completely disconnected from everything–aloof, if you will. She reluctantly visits an old lover on his deathbed; she is divorced from her husband; she is estranged from her daughter; she has no lovers, and hasn’t had one in 30 (40?) years; even her running narrative seems to comment on places she never visited in her lifetime–sojourns she never took, business trips conducted via telepresence instead of physically. Mia has retreated into a world that she can control because she is “good” and because this will help keep her on a path to… what? Immortality2? Certainly she must believe so; and thus her vehicle to conquer mortality is this treatment. But after the treatment: we have Maya–who subsumes Mia, and is in some ways still Mia (some memories, some skills…)–but Maya is very much connected, or else wants very much to be connected. Maya flees her medical custodians to immerse herself in continental Europe (Stuttgart! Praha! Milano!); she seeks out sexual partners; she seeks out mental and spiritual and apparent-physical conspecifics; she seeks out new ways to express herself (clothing! modeling! photography!). Perhaps because she is 90-cum-20, perhaps because she is “reborn” into some new and fearlessly mortal ingénue–but Maya seems unconcerned with corporeal mortality. Instead, she seeks–immortality from? celebrity through? catharsis by?–art. She is after that “holy fire”, but (somewhat orthogonally to Emil’s artistic pursuits) she does not yet feel it, just the yearning for it.

“I want you to prove to me that you’re not human yet still an artist.”

Is Paul’s conundrum a legitimate, phenomenological challenge to Maya? Or is it some tongue-in-cheek taunt predicated on a metaphysical paradox? Would Paul have posed the same question to Plato or Aquinas? What would either of those dogs have said? And would Maya have chosen differently if she had been around for that conversation?


  1. Holy Fire was published in 1996, about the same time as William Gibson’s Idoru3 and not terribly long after Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Though the three are ultimately wrestling with some different under-lying themes and questions, there are also quite a few elements that draw them together: conflicts between the old and new generations4; ubiquitous virtualities that almost feel like invasive species; celebrity-as-currency. It would be interesting to take these three novels together, perhaps teach a class on them, or bang together a nice long dissertation on what I can only think to call “brinksmanship by futureshock”.
  2. As with any science fiction, it is both blessed and cursed by its time. If Holy Fire was written in 2006 instead of 1996, all that “telomeric extension” stuff would have been (or at least included) something about stem cells as well. But the text seems pretty damn aware of this sort of damning specificity and deals reasonably well with it.
  3. I wish Sterling had not played it so safely. Killing off billions of people with plagues in your back-story takes some of the extravagant self-indulgent flair out of “posthumanism” and life extension; where’s the ethical damnation there? And there’s an unfired Chekov’s gun with the Mia/Maya schizoidia; I expected more from that than the way it was invoked there for the climax. Also: there was a real lost opportunity with that translation necklace; 20 more pages and that thing could have gotten treacherous.
  1. After all these years, still one of my top five favorite collections. []
  2. Immortality in the Woody Allen sense of “not dying”? []
  3. Another favorite of mine; discussed here. []
  4. But what great literature doesn’t have that? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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