In Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling imagines a post-pandemic gerontocracy

Disclaimer: This article was originally published on Tab UOL, in Portuguese.

In 1998, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling published the article “Cyberpunk in the Nineties” in the magazine INTERZONE. The essay pondered cyberpunk and its authors, arguing that the “visionary intensity” that was once center to the genre was forgotten as time went by and authors aged — back in the day, they were already 40 years old in average. After all, it’s been some time since “any cyberpunk wrote a truly mind-blowing story, something that writhed, heaved, howled, hallucinated and shattered the furniture.”

This was all concluded eight years after Lewis Shiner, one of the member of The Movement, the group which created cyberpunk as a genre, had already wrote “Confessions of an Ex-Cyberpunk” for The New York Times. In the essay, Shiner argued that cyberpunk made no sense any more, but, in any case, in 2020, several adaptations and new titles kept the subgenre alive (or at least parts of it). This is the case of series such as Black Mirror, Altered Carbon and the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077.

However, in 1996, Sterling published his novel Holy Fire, a fiction that materializes the reflections raised by the author in his aforementioned essay. Considered a cyberpunk book, Holy Fire ponders the genre and updates it with a more mature writing style if compared to the one that consecrated the subgenre back in the 1980s.

In Holy Fire, we follow the adventures of Mia Ziemann, a 94-year-old health economist that is living in a post-pandemic world by the end of the 21st century. Just like Sterling described in his article “The object of posterity’s scorn” for ARC magazine, here the author also recovers historical references to envision the future, which means he sees time in a more cyclical way. In the case of epidemics, it’s simply a question of “when” and not “if.”

Today, during the Covid-19 crisis, the typical anxiety of our metamodernist condition makes us anxious to know what is going to happen when all this is over — whenever that is. There’s always someone to opiniate, but it was interesting to see in Sterling’s fiction the idea that, after living through an epidemic that killed thousands of people, society has changed into a huge industrial-medic complex. In this context, hygiene and sterilization became the norm as well as life extension technologies were finally a thing, not just in terms of allowing people to live longer, but to extend youth. In spite of her age, Mia is not a debilitated woman. And this is something that we increasingly see in our real world: the concept of “youth” is always extending due to new techniques, being them medical or cosmetic.

When I asked Sterling about what he believed that would happen after the pandemic was over, if we would have a world closer to what he envisioned in Holy Fore, the author said that things cannot go back to normal: “These huge events will change many important aspects of our lives, but people quickly forget about disasters like epidemics.” For him, “epidemics make people feel scared, humiliated and helpless, and nobody likes to dwell on that trauma.”

What we find in the novel is the story of a woman who suffers an “almost centenarian crisis” when she realizes that, throughout her whole life, she was too conservative, too careful about everything. This argument becomes even more latent when Mia visits an ex-boyfriend a few days before he opts for euthanizing himself. Since he didn’t live his life too carefully as did Mia, he has inflicted too much irreversible damage to his body, even for a time with such advanced medical technology.

Despite her age, Mia is eligible for an experimental procedure of full rejuvenation. After spending months suspended in a chamber (described in a way that reminds too much of the iconic “Ghost in the Shell” opening sequence), Mia comes back to life as a 20-year-old woman who has no idea of her former self, and this is why she renames herself Maya after a mispronunciation of her actual name.

As I confirmed with Sterling, choosing this new name was not random: Maya is a hindu concept that is related to the idea of worldly illusion. “As you get older and more wise, you see through the sensual, colorful allure of ‘Maya’and you confront the spiritual reality of life. But in the novel, ‘Maya’ is an old woman who chooses to abandon her wisdom, because she wants to regain the vitality and vividness of youth. That’s perverse in her society, but she rebels and she does it anyway,” he explains.

In order to recover such vividness (by the way, the adjective “vivid” is quite often used in the novel as a means to express this new refreshing feeling of youth), Mia, now Maya, makes some impulsive decisions such as traveling to Europe with no money or documents. Although the continent by the end of the 21sct century is a place where food is provided for free by a generalized welfare state, the protagonist tends to rely on the good will of strangers, especially due to her beauty and youth. Curiously, one of the side effects caused by the rejuvenescent procedure was making Maya less prone to feel hunger, which is a very useful feature considered that the protagonist wishes to become a model.

Maya therefore sees herself inserted into a bohemian collective of artists that transit between Munich, Stuttgart, Prague, and Rome. Unlike 1980s-cyberpunk and its neologisms, here Sterling combines foreign words and translated conversations in German, Italian, and French — all supported by translating technologies that may include ear plugs and smart wigs. What is more, all these technologies, scenarios and characters created by Sterling are extremely fashionable, some of them even embodying the art world stereotype — Holy Fire is, above all things, a novel about the future of the art world. “ I’m a cyberpunk, but I got involved in art after writing that novel. I’m now the Art Director of Share Festival in Turin in Italy, and my Turinese friends understand that novel rather well,” Sterling told me.

Among junkie artists (entheogen are the drugs of this future envisioned by Sterling), programmer-artists (Sterling calls this combination between art and technology “artifice,” for instance), consecrated photographers and overvalued scholars, Holy Fire’s cultural scene addresses the very problem of the end of the 21st century. As life extension technologies are developed, the world population ages even more and those who were previously able to kickstart their own business are now in the top rank of economy. In other words, Holy Fire’s world is a gerontocracy where there is almost no social mobility for the youth, and this is what feeds a generational conflict. In the long term, this could actually become a problem in our real world, as stated by Sterling: “Society now is much older demographically than it was 24 years ago. Coronavirus preferentially kills old people, but it certainly won’t kill all of them, and it might well radicalize the surviving old people. Old people vote.”

Additionally, we have seen that, since 1996, many projects that seek the end of death and radical life extension have been created. “ I pay quite a lot of attention to gerontology researchers. I have met Aubrey de Grey — I ate dinner with him once, although he didn’t want to eat what I was eating. He’s certainly an unusual man, but he’s serious. He is a genuine, committed, and methodical life-extension evangelist, and he has means, motive and opportunity to sway public opinion to suit his ambitions,” says Sterling.

In our real world, besides people such as De Grey (who is 57) or even Peter Diamandis, Max More, and Ray Kurzweil (58, 56 and 72 respectively), there are younger people such as Elon Musk (48) and Mark Zuckerberg (35) who are investing in life extension technologies. By the way, these names prove that our society (or at least, for now) is not a too rigid gerontocracy as of yet, since there are 30-year-old people making fortunes and becoming billionaires. Still, this doesn’t mean these younger entrepreneurs don’t have the same ambitions, as Sterling says: “If you’re a technology mogul and you have billions of dollars and the command of research and development, it must feel embarrassing to simply drop dead of old age like some mere employee, or worse yet, a mere, humble user.” Even in Holy Fire, young artists also aim to achieve immortality, but rather through transgression.

In the novel, being young is almost inextricably associated to a more rebellious behavior, also because the gerontocratic rigidity doesn’t allow younger people to assume positions of power and thus responsibility. Some dialogues between Maya and Brett, a girl who dreamed about traveling to Stuttgart to become a fashion designer, show the real generational problem in the fiction: the character is not able to find economic stability because she is too young and unexperienced. She’s not even able to take part of the bohemian artistic scene because this is a too exclusive niche. Holy Fire, in this way, sounds more like the anticipation of millennial’s dilemma on the avocado toast.

Maya thus begins to assimilate her new profane existence, since now she looks like a 20-year-old girl, but her mind is of a nearly centenarian woman. Despite the fact that her beauty made it easier for her to achieve some things, many other issues (such as drugs) could have caused her to collapse if she wasn’t mature enough. Similarly to Benjamin Button, we are here confronted by the possibility of reverting life’s mechanics, being it through the death of death or the recover of youth.

In the end, Sterling raises this very dilemma of living a healthy life to age well or enjoying youth since old age will bring limitations. But if we really develop such kind of rejuvenating technology, maybe one day we will be able to do the things we may answer to the question on what other choices would you make in comparison to your younger self?

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.