Sunday, April 9, 2017

Classic Sci-Fi- Holy Fire

For the April meeting of Classic Sci-Fi, we read Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling.

Coming out of the cyberpunk tradition, Holy Fire is a near-future tale in which medical technology and questions of posthumanism loom large. Our protagonist, a woman in her nineties, undergoes an experimental rejuvenation technique and promptly starts wandering around Europe, spending time with an odd assortment of young anarchists & theorists, fashionistas and artists.

Brief notes and possible spoilers below:

We began by talking a bit about Sterling, his influence and position in the genre. Sterling more or less created (or at least midwived) the genre of cyberpunk—editing the Mirrorshades anthology, spreading ideology via Cheap Truth (a newsletter that's since been copied online).

Part of the reason we selected Holy Fire was to continue a vague theme of "drugs" Classic Sci-Fi had noticed in works like Dune, A Scanner Darkly, and Brave New World; here, of course, the drugs are primarily medical and carefully-engineered. We noted the early, excellent (though fairly casual) mention of "entheogens" to artificially create feelings of religious ecstasy, and liked the use of "lacrimogens" in a few scenes (the fact that psychoactive drugs have natural analogs in the human brain brought the Radiolab episode "Placebo" to mind). We thought the "gangster burial", which featured lacrimogens, one of the best scenes in the novel.

One of the things that scene brought home to use is Mia's matter-of-factness about issues of health and mortality, which point to general societal trends here. Some debate as to what extent this world is actually post-apocalyptic, but there's no doubt that the survivors of these catastrophic plagues have a different outlook on life & death. The gerontocracy and its faults are major themes here—lack of empathy, for one—and we talked about gerontocratic trends in real life as well as in SF—KSR's Mars trilogy, for instance. We talked for a bit about the ethics of (and personal preferences for) life extension technologies, and also the difference between actual life-prolonging and the reduction of early deaths in the general population (i.e. how much medical technology is making our lives absolutely longer as opposed to making the average life much longer by preventing many infant deaths, etc.)

Talked for a bit about the use of fashion in Holy Fire—a few chapters kind of jump sideways into the world of high fashion, in a way that some suggested was a very '90s kind of way—that decade being a kind of short-lived high point of a certain kind of pop/high fashion. The fashion, the aesthetic discussions, the kind of media-theory-infused scenes that brought Marshal McLuhan or Jean Baudrillard to mind—some of us really liked that, and it definitely embodies some of the less hardware-obsessed angles of cyberpunk and its descendants. However, a few of our readers were not much impressed, comparing it to a series of "3am discussions".

We noted that the book has a lot of ideas that it doesn't flesh out very much—the talking dogs and the memory palace being two particularly lamented points: we would have enjoyed more exploration. The things that the youth ("The People Who Take Paul Seriously" is my favorite of the group names they suggest but shoot down) build in Mia/Maya's palace, the immersion experience, and the whole concept of "the holy fire" were a little hazy. The virtual holy fire engines reminded me a bit of the dream technologies at the end of Beggars in Spain, which we read a bit ago.

For instance.
For me, the plotlessness of this book is one of its charms, although not everybody dug that; it's got a Beat influence even more on its sleeve than many other cyberpunk works. Mia just kind of traipses around with a variety of altered mindstates, meeting interesting people in strange places, and then moves on to the next thing. The whole youth culture of making "vivid" a virtue, seeking liveliness in a culture they see as increasingly static and moribund, is a cool sentiment, and in the novel's fixation on artistic creation I see an anticipation of things like "maker culture"; the role of artistry in the midst of global capital is certainly a theme that a lot of cyperpunk works try to engage with.

I really adore the way this book is written; it's got a really lyrical quality and a way of embracing complex, sometimes scientific, sometimes theoretical ideas in this jubilant way that I rarely see outside of a certain kind of science fiction. To be fair, however, many at group really didn't like this novel—possibly moved into the "worst we've yet read" category for one or two people.

Next time, Classic Sci-Fi is reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov; learn more about that as well as future book clubs on the Meetup page.

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