Everybody knows the story of Alice in Wonderland. A little girl playing in her yard one day discovers a little hole, falls in, and suddenly arrives in technicolor fairyland bizarro. Innumerable similarities posited by science fiction, Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical vision of a little girl’s adventures in a world far abstract from her own makes for something of an ur-text for the ‘sensibility’ of post-human fiction. I guess that would make Bruce Sterling’s superb Holy Fire (1996) a post-human rabbit hole.
Medical economist Mia Ziemann is out for a walk through the rolling streets of San Francisco one shining morning when she is invited to the home of a very old friend. Martin, like Mia, is chock full of medical enhancements that have pushed his lifespan well-beyond the natural. But he has reached his limit: he knows he will die the following day. Martin having bequeathed his memory palazzo to her, on the way home Mia ponders what to do with the lifetime of digital memories. While having a drink at a café, she encounters a teenager learning how to design her own clothes. Inspired, Mia decides the next day to have a controversial new treatment that will restore her body to its twenty-year old form. Awakening from the procedure with the vim, vigor, and rashness only the young possesses is too late: she’s fallen down her own rabbit hole.
Young, rebellious, and beautiful, Mia goes on to have many an adventure. Mostly in Europe, she meets people from all stations in late 21st century society—the ideological pickpocket, the couture fashion designer, the centurian photographer, the artifice professor, and others are all as memorable and sharp-tongued as a Jack Vance character yet finely tuned to a Bruce Sterling semi-satirical, cuttingly realistic near-future vision of what humanity may become.
Ideas—big ideas—lurk beneath Mia’s romp through Sterling’s delightfully imagined newly post-human Earth. Art, artifice, the pursuit of immortality, and youth and ageing bounce around the story, the characters, and their conversations in imaginative, engaging fashion. While the bibliophile Terry Dowling has drawn the conclusion the novel represents “A realised version of the old people are boring meme”, I would say reducing the novel to such is rather simplistic. Mia’s rejuvenated youth makes her the object of artists and artificers (more later), and as such, Sterling seems more to be commenting upon the consumer society we live and its pursuit of aesthetic perfection (i.e. we rarely see the elderly advertizing anything save the latest pharmaceutical) in contrast to the imperfections of nature and and grit of reality. Beyond just a ‘young is best’ approach, Mia’s arc, from geriatric to newly-20-something, transcends the age barriers. Not in fantasy fashion, rather in a personally meaningful fashion, the novel’s conclusion is an interesting moment few readers can predict that bridges the gap between Alice and a new definition of sainthood.
While immortality and aging are sure to get the spotlight in most reviews, it would be remiss not to mention Holy Fire’s perspective on art and artifice, whether or not a line exists between the two, and the hand-in-hand (hand-in-glove?) relationship with age and immortality the subjects have. Starting simply, modern art (in the general sense) has become less natural (also in the general sense). With machines and computers having a significant effect on music, graphic media, film, etc., the casual observer no longer is certain what they see is real (in the general sense) or an imitation—an artifice. From something as simple as women’s makeup to something as complex as film special effects, contemporary Western life is as far from ‘natural’ as it ever has been. Mia’s post-human society taking up the baton of this discussion, her rejuvenated body represents a paradox of the natural and unnatural. The art crowd she ends up running with for a short time in Stuttgart and Prague looking at the issue from more interesting sides and with more informed opinion than I can conjure for this review, suffice to say Sterling’s inclusion and usage of artifice to examine and discuss Mia’s life and environment is stellar—and for this reader a more interesting discussion than just pure immortality.
While the pursuit of medical techniques that effectively keep a person alive indefinitely (save ‘misadventure’) are an obvious indicator of novel’s desire to examine immortality, it does not do so from only the technological perspective. Another wonderful layer to Holy Fire is Martin’s memory palazzo. The subjectivity of memory and the meaning of legacy cropping up alongside effectively rendered techno-jargon describing rejuvenation tech, Martin’s memory palazzo plays a key role toward examining the human side of the particular brand of post-humanism Sterling is digging into.
In the end, Holy Fire is one of the most interesting, imaginative, and subtly humorous—and relevant for it—novels the cyberpunk/post-human era has produced. Sterling’s roving imagination covering immortality to art, European culture to aging, memory to near-future sub-culture, he tells an engaging tale of a girl falling down the rabbit hole of her own desire into a 20-something version of herself, and the resultant struggle to regain perspective in a world inundated with the ‘unnatural.’ Sterling also lexically on point from page one, Holy Fire may very well be his best work.