Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sterling Characters:
Futures by the Dozen

HOLY FIRE
By Bruce Sterling
Bantam, 1996

Racing through the setup of the seventh novel by a scrivener who has earned his measure of renown from a subculture a step or two up the status ladder from the Trekkies, the English honors scholarship boy in me started hearing the old alarm bells. For the thousandth time, I wondered whether the thrill of a patently demotic work measured up. Was this what Clive Bell--dated now and a painting guy, I know, but such a hell of a stylist that his way of wording the truisms sticks with me--meant by "aesthetic emotion," "Significant Form"? As it happened, I'd just reread what I remembered as my favorite Faulkner novel--As I Lay Dying, not most people's number one but still Faulkner. I'd enjoyed it, too, sometimes very much. But for sure I didn't devour it in two days, and for sure its satisfactions, while perhaps subtler, were nowhere near as intense. Recollecting As I Lay Dying and Holy Fire in tranquility, I couldn't even say one book was "deeper" than the other--unless you still think depth is a function of what is called character.

Character is not Bruce Sterling's strength. Indeed, it's vestigial in most of the science fiction I've admired, although Sterling's close associate William Gibson shows a sub-Dickensian gift for caricature--see the toecutter Blackwell or the computer-mediated Zona Rosa in his just-published trifle Idoru. Sterling's previous novel, Heavy Weather, bravely attempts to address this absence by pinning its twister-tracker plot to two pairs of siblings, about whose interrelated psychologies it says nothing of any interest I could notice--although the main reason the book falls slighty flat is that, for all their imagined virtuality gear and well-researched meteorological nitty-grit, the tornado-chasing chapters are all work and no play. On the other hand, Heavy Weather's fictional environment--a functioning ecocatastrophe awash in private electronic currencies and "evacuation freaks" who live to share the "feeling of intense, slightly hallucinatory human community that always sprang up in the aftermath of a major natural disaster"--comprises a credible future, and this future is a compelling one.

Futures are Sterling's specialty. Faulkner makes up human beings he gets inside of; Sterling does the same with worlds. I like to imagine that on his hard drive he's catalogued dozens of them, each with its own distinct ecological, economic, biotechnical, communications, and, yes, psychological parameters and folkways, all laid out in telling outline and visionary detail. The stories collected in Crystal Express and Globalhead jump from possibility to possibility, most of them set not in the fantastic 4000 or 8000 A.D. of classic sci-fi but in cyberpunk's near future, or sometimes a recognizable present altered by some invented past event or discovery--or even an altered past, most audaciously in Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, which describes an 1855 England changed utterly by the successful development of steamcars and huge primitive computers. The worlds Sterling posits are as likely utopian as dystopian, livable at least. All cyberpunks share what he once called a "boredom with the Apocalypse" (and hence an aversion for "those everpresent space operas in which galactic empires slip conveniently back into barbarism"), but even by comparison he's an optimistic soul--as in the corporate counterculture of 2023's Rizome Industries Group, base locale of the novel that made his reputation, 1988's Islands in the Net, which reads like what Steve Jobs had in mind for Apple before he discovered the inexorability of capital.

In Holy Fire's 2095, Earth has righted itself. Its human population cut in half by the plagues of the '30s and '40s, it provides bland, nutritious, force-farmed food and carefully monitored medical care to all, at least in the European cities where most of the action unfolds. True, things have changed a great deal. The Indonesians, buffered against microbes by barriers of ocean, have purchased Indianapolis and rebuilt it as a cultural mecca that rivals Stuttgart itself. Individually concocted "tinctures" have replaced recreational drugs from vitamins to heroin. The world's biggest talk-show host is a dog. And the medical marvels that have always fascinated Sterling are the basis of a world economy whose blue-chip industry is life extension. So Earth's rulers constitute a "gerontocracy" born largely, all you losers out there, between 1980 and 2010--like Sterling's 94-year-old protagonist, Mia Ziemann, a vigorous if endemically cautious medical economist. In this world, caution is a prime virtue: "Careless people had become a declining interest group with a shrinking demographic share." But all goodness is rewarded: "The polity was a plague-panicked allocation society in which the whip hand of coercive power was held by smiling and stout-hearted medical rescue personnel. And by social workers. And by very nice old people."

Since one rap on Sterling is that his prose is utilitarian compared to that of his buddy Gibson, let me emphasize the purely linguistic pleasure generated by this book. Where Gibson's forte is the dreamy, druggy detail of his virtual landscapes and interiors, Sterling's descriptive coup here has Mia accessing a digital "memory palace" on antiquated equipment and watching the image deteriorate. But the social dimension is his bailiwick, and while Sterling has always had a sense of humor, particularly in his stories, he's never written anything with the satirical zing and laff relief of the first 70 or so pages. Indeed, not many have--this English honors boy will take it over any Nathanael West or Evelyn Waugh he knows. Put aside distracting considerations of aesthetic scale and try to conceive A.A. Milne whimsy cross-cut with Swiftian acerbity, except that the tone is democratic--more Twain than Swift. And since Holy Fire's plausible world doesn't exist and never will, the conundrum of exactly what the book is satirizing adds an extra layer of weirdness.

The main answer, I think, is generational culture--including by extension that of today's bulgy ruling caste of boomers, which Sterling and I flank at 42 and 54. One reason the fun is so delicious is that Sterling doesn't just mock their/our self-righteous self-regard, but the paranoid hostilities and expectations of the young people they/we keep down. Equally crucial is that the satire doesn't preclude "deeper" emotional resonances--epitomized by the unexpectedly touching deja vu at the close of chapter one in which Mia suddenly remembers looking in on her sleeping five-year-old with the husband she ended up divorcing after some 50 years. Because it calls up emotions she'd thought it best to let atrophy, this image, precipitated in part by the death of an imprudent boyfriend of 70 years before, inspires her to choose a risky mortality upgrade in which all her tissue is cleansed or regenerated. Renamed Maya, she scampers through the rest of the novel as a 95-year-old in a 21-year-old's body. You tell me how the novelist achieves "character" under these circumstances, which the characters themselves designate "posthuman." All I can do is swear that Maya's regrowth is credible and that her confused cocktail of impetuousness and sagacity feels uncannily familiar to this boomer. The exposition, which limns righteous plots against the gerontocracy by disenfranchised younguns dedicated to the "holy fire" of passion and artistic inspiration, isn't as flawless as the setup. But Sterling proves too smart to fall into the outlaw-youth trope that Gibson and the lesser cyberpunks have stretched past its limit--and also too smart not to admire the brilliant kids who fill his tale with incident and analysis.

This is a book about triumph, survival, and life-compromise. It's a book about the charms and cruelties of social stability, about the silly illusions and irreplaceable uses of bohemia. It's exceedingly sharp about aging, which Sterling is the perfect age to see from both sides now. And more effectively if less overtly than Heavy Weather, it also concerns human love. In all of this it's way too vulgar to be taken seriously by the appointed seriousness-takers of letters and academe, and even among the simpatico I've heard complaints that the rather rapid ending spoils the total effect. Me, I say the deja vu flash of the structure the ending imposes packs the revelatory power I expect of significant form. Leaving me no choice but to second that aesthetic emotion.

Village Voice, Oct. 29, 1996