oly fire is the power of violent rebirth
and shocking chaotic brilliance
, the force of dramatic change
. Its avatars are the artist
s, and hacker
s of the world, ever making beautiful new things -- some immediately practical
and others hopelessly abstract
The world of Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire is one of stasis, the force opposite to that of the holy fire. Through decades of medical innovation, made necessary by plagues that swept the world, the process of aging has been slowed dramatically. People who can afford the cutting edge treatments needed to live virtually forever are also those who stand to benefit most from extra years of life. That is, they will accrue more interest, more political power, and more friends in diverse and powerful positions -- they will own the world, and hold it as steady as possible to protect their ownership.
Denied of their former hopes of becoming powerful and changing their reality, youth exists in a vacuum. Young people in the book's world can no longer hope for finding the singular innovation or change that will make them feel real, there are already people with six times as many years of experience and knowledge questing after the same things. Instead, the young largely content themselves with living through media, and hoping to one day outlive the so-called gerontocrats and take the world for themselves. To do that, they have to fit into the medical-industrial complex's regulations, and become part of the static reality that they want to inherit -- the tragedy being that once they have it, they'll be too permanently set in its ways to change anything. In wanting to own the world as it is, they too are part of its stasis.
Outside of this system lie the artificers and criminals, those who possess the holy fire for themselves. Meeting without organization in coffeehouses and over the network, they try to change the world; to make it, if not better, different. Denied the traditional means of change -- power, protest, money, violence -- they change the world by exposing it to new ideas and sensations, hoping they will shock others out of their thoughtless complacency.
Holy Fire itself follows the protagonist after her transformation from a 94 year old woman into one of, maybe, 20. Her change isn't only physical, but emotional and spiritual as well -- she becomes young in every way. Since leaving her place as a gerontocrat in society is a crime (due to medical laws, mostly), she has to go underground and play the part of the criminal. In her travels, she connects with a few groups of "vivid" people, some of whom have the holy fire and inspire her to quest for it herself. Her quest makes up most all of the book. While neither the plot nor pacing are perfect, Holy Fire renders a lifelike, crystal-clear portrait of a woman and her world that are compelling and make a powerful statement.