Revisiting “Holy Fire” (Bruce Sterling, 1996)

Bruce Sterling in a famous scifi novelist. One of his most celebrated novels was written 20 years ago: Holy Fire. It is a near-future novel, set in the late XXIst century. Sterling set it about a century in the future from the time he wrote it.

Near-future novels provide a set of “predictions”. Of course, nobody expects scifi novels to “come true”. However, novelists try to paint worlds that are credible. It is necessary to achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.

Near-future novels often fail to pass the test of time because the future is never quite what we imagined. So how well did Sterling do in his 1996 novel Holy Fire? Not bad at all as far as technology is concerned. I give Sterling an A+ on his ability to project himself in the future in a way that remains relevant 20 years later.

Let recap briefly what technology was like in 1996. The Human Genome project was underway, but it was still a Moon shot. There was no such thing as a tablet or smartphone. Sony had introduced the Playstation. It was an innovative console because it used compact disks. Its processor ran at a fantastic 33 MHz (today’s PS4 runs at 1600 MHz). Though the web existed, blogging was unheard from. There was no search engine indexing a good fraction of the web, and the web was much smaller. Some human beings were still better than computers at Chess. Artificial intelligence was just an academic idea, we did not even have spam filters. Anybody who would have predicted that 20 years later, we would have self-driving cars would surely have been ridiculed.

Given this context, Sterling did not miss much.


  • Though the novel is set in 2096, it seems that nothing like the smartphone has been invented. For example, people still have cameras. You can travel to a foreign city and get lost, fail to find major touristic sites. So GPS and Internet maps are not ubiquitous.
  • The novel still has television and television shows. Television is already an old-people medium in 2016. It won’t survive to 2096.
  • There does not seem to be ubiquitous Internet access. This makes sense considering that the author missed the smartphone revolution.

Probable misses:

  • Though people wear smart glasses, wearable technology is bulky and inconvenient. Mostly, people systematically have to go to a clinic to get health checks. It seems a lot more likely that in the near future, say 20 years, we will be able to monitor people’s health at home using unobtrusive devices.

Possibly correct:

  • The novel alludes to a Moon colony. At the time that the novel was written, Earth did not have an international space station. It seems that if we are have been able to sustain a space station, we ought to be able to sustain a Moon colony in the coming decades.
  • In the novel, the main protagonist is in Europe while she only speaks English. Instantaneous translation devices allow her to communicate, somewhat, with people who only speak their native language. Though it does not work as well as it should, this technology is already broadly available in 2016.
  • The novel depicts post-canine dogs that have extended longevity (40 years) and the ability to speak (through a speaker). We have developed working brain-computer interfaces (e.g., the cochlear implant). People and monkeys are able to control robotic arms using their brains. Could we ever make it so that a dog can speak?I have no clue but 2096 is a long time away.
  • In the novel, corrective eyewear is seemingly a thing of the past, at least in young people. When the novel was written, Lasik was not yet approved in the US. Today, many people choose to have interventions to avoid having to wear glasses. It is unclear whether technology will ever get good enough so that we can do away entirely with corrective eyewear, but it seems that it might.
  • The main protagonist undergoes a rejuvenation therapy of “neotelomeric extension” to extend her telomeres. Telomeres are a piece of information-free DNA at the end of our chromosomes that is believed by some to act as a “genetic clock”. It grows ever shorter as you age. Resetting these telomeres could fool the cells into believing that they are young again and lead to robust rejuvenation. In 2015, one human being (Liz Parrish) underwent gene therapy with the goal of lengthening her telomeres. Harvard’s geneticist George Church has stated that his lab. will be able to reset such a clock within 5 years. It is hard to tell at this point whether resetting the genetic clock will do any good or whether it is even possible, but it could.

Surely correct:

  • In the novel, one can take 3D pictures. That is, you can scan an individual and print it using a 3D printer. I think we have been able to do just that for some time.
  • Virtual and augmented reality are widely available in the novel, with many people wearing augmented reality glasses. Given how fast this field is advancing, we will probably have the technology depicted in novel within 5 years, not 90 years.
  • Cars are self-driving. We shall get the kind of cars that are depicted in novel in less than 10 years. In many ways, they are already here.

Conclusion: On the whole, it seems that Sterling is a pessimistic regarding technology. His characters still debate the benefits of self-driving cars and they still watch television. He missed the ubiquitous availability of smartphones that make maps and cameras obsolete. His main protagonist appears impressed by 3D printing in 2096… whereas anyone can buy a 3D printer in 2016. But this is nitpicking: the novel still seems credible, even 20 years later. This is quite an accomplishment.

Credit: Thanks to Peter Turney for suggesting this novel to me.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting “Holy Fire” (Bruce Sterling, 1996)”

  1. Telomeres don’t necessarily shorten as you age, normally the enzyme telomerase compensates for the shortening. Only if you live unhealthy (smoking, eating bad food, …) the telomerase can’t function properly, and telomeres will shorten.
    See how Elizabeth Blackburn explains it: (part 3 of a lecture, but she starts with a summary of part 1 and 2 where she says what I said here).

    1. Telomeres tend to shorten as you age whether you live a good life or not. Nowhere does Blackburn claim that they do not shorten.

      However, she explains at length that stressors can accelerate their shortening. The point that she is hinting at is that telomere shortening might be a consequence, rather than a cause, of diseases.

      To put it differently, poor lifestyle can accelerate aging, as measured by telomere length. In these cases, the telomere length is a consequence of aging, and not the cause.


      The video is from 2012. There is has been quite a bit of research since then. Last year, in vitro, we were able to show that resetting the telomeres in stem cells effectively rejuvenate them.

      So, in vitro, for individual stem cells, telomere length is a powerful epigenetic clock.

      It does seem therefore that telomere length could act both as a cause and a consequence of aging. Maybe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *