94-year-old Mia Ziemann has lived an impeccable existence, avoiding the myriad vices available throughout the 21st century. But even her pure lifestyle cannot prevent the ravages of time, and she suffers from health problems only radical medical procedures can cure. Because she can afford it, and because she has lived such a virtuous life, she is eligible for any number of experimental medical treatments to prolong it. The first risk she has to take, to join the post-human condition, makes Mia realize she never really lived.
While the theme of a life without risk not being worth living is foremost in Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, he also tackles such concerns as health care and control, the ethics of prolonging life in a democratic society, and what all this has to do with art. This seems like a lot to take on in 300 pages, but Sterling is nothing if not ambitious. This ambition often overpowered both story and character in the past (e.g., Schismatrix, where the Prigoginian treatise towered above a simple plot of warring factions). But Mia is fully realized, with truly interesting flaws (her fanatical obsession about protecting herself), and a desire, one that had lain hidden until renewed life brings it into the open. It is this desire, this flame that burns within us all, that Sterling showcases in Holy Fire: a desire to live, not just survive.
For long-time Sterling readers, Holy Fire continues to explore how humanity interacts with new technology. Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories followed the evolution of humans into two separate camps—the Shapers who modified themselves biologically, and the Mechanists who married themselves with technology. In these stories, Sterling assumed future humans would all be modified—all post-human. In Holy Fire, he again explores posthumanity, but instead of being set against each other, they are set apart from humanity. The struggle thus depicted is merely an exaggerated extension of current trends (the aged vs. the young).
Holy Fire is dense with ideas, but smooth in execution. Sterling has crafted a rich world that no other author, past or present, could have created, filled with the insights only Sterling can provide.
[Finished sometime 1996]