Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Holy Fire - Bruce Sterling

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Bruce Sterling's novels are smart. And, oh man, is Holy Fire smart. In recent years, billionaires have funded projects to get the whole telomere lifespan extension thing going. But Sterling was thinking about telomeres as a route to increasing the human lifespan in the mid '90s.

The main character of Holy Fire, Mia Ziemann, is a gerontocrat, which means that she's old and has a lot of money and power. With her means, she invests in an anti-aging process that works, sort of. She goes through a neo-telomeric process that is less a life-extension and more a rebirth. The process turns the 94-year-old Mia into a 20-year-old with 20-year-old desires. She wakes up as Maya--a name meaning illusion--and carries Mia's personality only as a ghost in the machine. Maya ditches Mia's life and heads for Stuttgart on a wanderjahr, sleeping her way around the Old World, and even trying her hand as a photographer and fashion influencer.

By the way, Sterling is a master of juxtaposing the brightness of futurity with dark pessimism. And for presenting the wonder of the future and then darkening and wrecking that vision, Holy Fire might be Sterling's apotheosis. Sterling's analysis of the future in this novel is ahead of the curve in the spheres of tech, psychology, human culture, and art. The novel takes place in 2090, a hundred years from when he wrote it, and going on 25 years later, it still reads as if it occurs in a future several decades out. But the real beauty of the work is the pessimism about what some of the early attempts at radical life extension could look like--namely, lost souls, people shadows of their former selves living a second youth, this time more reckless because they've already lived a century of making good decisions, so why not?

Back to telomeres. It's not that telomeres were unknown in the 20th century. Hermann Muller and Barbara McClintock discovered them in the 1930s. But Sterling was thinking about life extension in a way wholly different from how most people still think about life extension decades ago. His life extension is a radical break from the subject's previous lived reality. Going through a process and waking up with a different consciousness is about as weird as Ray Kurzweil's future for humanity, lodged in the digital ones and zeroes of computer hardware. Can somebody say, NEVER REBOOT!

Applying the singularity to life-extension is but one of the important novums in Holy Fire. What's the life extension singularity? It's the point at which life-extension techniques advance to the point that in the given space of a year, individual human lives can be extended by at least one year. In short--we're talking about genetically altered immortality. Is it possible? Probably. There's not much in our universe that isn't theoretically possible.

Though I'm sure we'll find a lot of roadblocks to immortality on the way. Here's one. Currently, the human system is really good at getting humans to the age of 30. Up until about 30,000 years ago, humans didn't get past 30 with all that much regularity. This means that for most of human history, our genetics haven't had the opportunity to try out advanced ages. Through the process of natural selection, most major genetic issues that humans have had that strike at a very young age have been weeded out. Those unfortunate carriers of weak genetics just haven't survived to pass on their dysfunctional genes. But for genetic problems that appear at, say, 150 years, we just have no clue. As lifespans increase, we'll no doubt find some rocky terrain that medicine and science will have to tackle.

But as of yet, people haven't lived long enough to run into genetic issues that come with advanced aging.

But, we also won't have to rely on natural selection to beat those problems. Natural selection is the old, low-tech solution for weeding out human weakness.  The way of the future is recoding genes, rewriting them whether through recombinant DNA, artificially created strands or copied strands from healthy humans.

Still, in Holy Fire, Maya turns out alright. She has a series of odd relationships, including one with an artist who comes to a belief that she is a golem come to haunt him. Maya has a grand night out on a soul-shattering drug that wells up all her sorrows--and for a person who's lived a century, that's a little dangerous. She travels the world, thinking only of the day she's in. 

She lives a little. And isn't that the whole point?


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