Living in an age where scientific life improvement is paramount and immortality is ideal, it seems as if the characters of Holy Fire would strive for all that is above and beyond simple human life. And this is the case for the early stages of both Mia and Maya. Mia, a slave to the polity way of thinking, clearly sees life extension and the highest levels of new science as infinitely superior to simple humanity devoid of such advantages. Maya on the other hand, starts out believing that impersonation and imitation rank more impressively then either non-modern life (for example that of the Gypsies she sees with Ulrich) or the gerontocratic ways of her former self, Mia. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that this Vivid crowd, including Maya, while desperately opposing the exclusively advantaged post-human elders, are organizing their own efforts to gain an upper hand in the very same system. However, both of these views are abandoned by Mia/Maya’s third persona. It is this final character who finds herself aimed away from scientific advancements in favor of natural humanity and simplicity, and in turn achieves all of the authenticity and inspiration that was out of reach of both former selves. Is it possible that we are in fact finding, within this futuristic and bio-technical novel, an argument for unembellished humanity?
The Holy Fire, for which the novel is named, is first mentioned by Mia as a sort of maternal love, a “profound joy in that one moment” (56) of connection to another human being. Given all of the book’s praise of technological improvement, I was surprised to find this highly-esteemed word to be representing something so pure and untouched by scientific engineering. As the story continues, the term “Holy Fire” evolves to encompass a wide variety of passions and powers. It is mentioned again once Mia has become Maya and the Holy Fire is the inspiration that all of the young Vivid people aspire to have. Her face is characterized as seeming to have the Holy Fire, but only when it is free of makeup, unconstructed. At one point, Emil is described as being “technically adept but lacking the holy fire” (160). This is the first time when the Holy Fire seems to represent the direct opposite of common skill. In this role it once again seems characteristic of something inherently human and organic, rather than learned or fabricated. This is why it seems so implicitly contradictory for the Vivid people to go on to create “software factories for the holy fire” (282). How would it be possible to roll out what is essentially uniqueness and authenticity on a conveyor belt? And so it hurts her. This engineered Holy Fire begins as wonderful and “intensely revelatory” (314), but finishes as painful, touching “an utterly intimate place where she hid when she closed her eyes… [making] it a different place… something new and not Maya” (315). This seems appropriate. When the irreproducible becomes manufactured and available for the masses, it indeed becomes hurtful, or at least unappealing.
Throughout the story there is an opposition of two privileged forces: science and art. They are frequently mentioned as the most appreciated aspects of life, seemingly highly-regarded in this future world. Perhaps this is why the ending is so startling. Tying up loose ends, Mia/Maya encounters many people from her past, but the final two are characters who had only been alluded to previously. Her daughter and husband both play into the final, all-defining scenes, along with a new and most powerful value, love. Scarcely a mention of it before, love is suddenly pivotal in Mia/Maya’s self-understanding. “It was funny to have lost so much, and yet lost so very little. The details were gone all sideways, somehow out of her mental reach now, but not the disorienting intensity of her love for her child” (347). Here love, the quintessential human emotion, is still, even in this alternate time and place, enough to be left with at the end of her life. It is also the thing that is finally powerful enough to leave her with her “first real picture… so real and beautiful” (358). This is enabled by pure and simple human connection. She is standing with her former husband, framing him in her camera lens, about to create her first really good picture, and she understands “the two of them and the world revolving, all whole and all at once” (358). Love’s sudden premiere and unrivaled status at first seems so off-topic, arbitrary, and inconsistent. But then you remember the seashells. They are rare and they are valuable and they dictate wealth. Why? Because they’re “something that’s not trash. The world is full of trash now… virtualities and fakes… diamonds and jewels are cheap. Coins, anyone can forge coins now. Stamps, they’re so easy to forge, it’s a laugh. Money is nothing but ones and zeros. But seashells! Nobody can forget seashells” (309). Despite all of the emphasis on science and art and artifice and immortality, true value is still defined, as it always has been, by rarity. And all that is rare in a world that is rich and intelligent beyond imagination is the original, the unique, and the authentic. True, this is a story filled with inventive technological advancements and lifetime improvements. However, it is also a story named for the only truly human emotion in the book, one where wealth is only inherent to natural phenomena, and where Love has the last word.