by Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra


326pp/$22.95/October 1996

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the future as outlined in Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire is that he requires his characters to take responsibility for their actions. Even if individuals have not learned this lesson, Sterling's twenty-first century society has relearned it and makes its citizens, members of the polity, accept the consequences of their actions.

Just because society holds people responsible for their actions, of course, doesn't mean that people always act responsibly. To ensure that people are living the way they should, there is a complex system of civil servants whose task it is to spy on people in the guise of being maids, aides, etc. Although this sounds akin to the situation in Nazi Germany, Sterling does not include any of the Fascist overtones of that period. Sterling spends only a short time at the beginning of the novel established the society which evolves over the next century, although he does drop hints of events between now and then. Most of what we learn about society comes gradually as Mia learns that she can, and perhaps should, show some recklessness in life.

Once Sterling's novel gets under way, Mia goes in for experimental surgery which, if it works, will pay her gigantic dividends. If it fails, Mia won't be around to know what has happened. During her recovery from the surgery, which has practically reset her biological clock so she is twenty again instead of ninety-four, Mia flees to Europe, appropriating the dreams and desires of a twenty-year old designer she befriended on a bus shortly before she went in for surgery.

Arriving in Munchen, Mia must learn how to be a twenty-year-old again. More than simply a physiological alteration, one of the side effects of the change seems to be the nearly complete eradication of any knowledge Mia had acquired in the seventy years she lived since she was twenty the first time. On her first day, she links up with a young thief named Ulrich who eventually helps her land a job in fashion working as a living model for Therese.

Perhaps the most interesting, most real character in Holy Fire is the angst-ridden Emil, who sold his memory in an effort to pursue his art. However, Sterling spends a mere handful of pages exploring Emil's sacrifice, all the while having a non-comprehending Maya, who has also sold her memory, belittling Emil's struggle.

The majority of the remaining characters have that strange mixture of depth and incoonsequentiality which often pervades novels which attempt to focus on Bohemian lifestyles. While affecting concern for social ills, the characters are as light-weight as the paper the novel is written on. These are young people living in a gerontology, yet Sterling never convincingly shows the elderly in control of anything throughout the novel.

In Holy Fire, Sterling has written a coming of age story in which the main character is a ninety-year-old woman living in a twenty-year-old's body and memories. His statements about old age and longevity get lost in the shallowness of the characters he portrays.

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