Holy Fire, by Bruce Sterling

holy-fire-by-bruce-sterlingGenre: Cyberpunk
Publisher: Bantam
Published: 1997
Reviewer Rating: fourstars
Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan

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On the face of it, Holy Fire is about a woman’s quest for youth, for some small measure of immortality. But look deeper, and you’ll see that when Sterling’s 90 year-old protagonist, Mia, undergoes an extensive cellular remodeling, she’s really looking for the creative spark that she lost somewhere along the way. Emerging from a vat of regenerative soup like a fetus from a womb, Mia soon realizes that, although she’s regained the body of a twenty-year old, the same social expectations she’s lived with all her life still threaten to snuff whatever faint glimmer may remain of the Holy Fire.

And so she runs. She lands in Europe, amidst a troupe of renegade Bohemians and artists. Not realizing that she is really a part of the oppressive “gerontocracy”, they take her into their circle and immerse her in their own ideas of art. Here, surely, she’ll find kindling for the creative fire within?

Well, not quite. She does manage to take up a camera, and begins her search feebly, by photographing the work a mad potter. But these young, aimless Bohemians have mistaken artifice for art, and it is only when Mia is taken in by an ancient photographer that her Holy Fire truly begins to burn.

From there, it is a short trip for Sterling to make his point. Mia doesn’t regain her creative spark by remodeling her tired body, but by shedding her tired life. Her creative spark begins to brighten the moment she decides to run and take back her own existence. When she finally crosses the line from artisan to artist, it is in the presence of a man so ancient that he’s become almost a part of the earth. The shutter clicks, and we know Mia’s journey has just begun.

The book is short on action, and has a tendency to get just as bogged down as the endless, empty ramblings of those Bohemians. But as usual, Sterling’s characters are sharply drawn and quirky, his settings earthy and exotic at the same time, and his prose alternates between the quietly poetic and the technically dazzling–his description of Mia’s regeneration is a biomolecular tour-de-force. All in all, a most rewarding read. Hopefully Sterling’s fire will continue to burn for a long time to come..

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