Secret of Life by Paul McAuley
Hardcover - 391 pages ( 2 January, 2001) Voyager; ISBN: 0002259044
Review by John Berlyne
Check out this book at: Amazon UK
Paul McAuley is working hard at the moment. His short stories are popping up all over the place in the genre magazines (particulary Interzone), in anthologies (take a look at his brilliant story "The Proxy" in the NEL Book of Internet Stories), in the small press (see PS publishing's limited edition of "Making History") and he has topped all this is a great new full length novel, "The Secret of Life" just published by HarperCollins/Voyager here in the UK.
With all this proliferation I do wonder why McAuley isn't more of a major name in the field. He certainly deserves to be. His writing is excellent. Sharp, often satirical and always appealing. Indeed McAuley seems to instinctively key into current genre fashions and "The Secret of Life" is a prime example of this talent.
This is a thriller - actually, it's a science fiction thriller. No hang on - it's more of a science fiction "eco"-thriller - or should that be "bio"? Let's just say it crosses a number of boundaries but however you chose to categorize it is jolly good read.
"The Secret of Life" opens with a potent scene of industrial espionage the results of which form the background to the novel. A 2026 mission to Mars by the Chinese has discovered a microbial life form beneath the red planet's polar ice caps. With the scientific community very much in bed with corporate sponsorship the Chinese government attempts to keep the discovery secret. Not to be outdone, a particularly sinister US bio-tech company attempts to steal the genetically altered life form but the plane carrying it back to the US crashes releasing the organism into the sea where is creates huge mutated slicks that threaten the ecological stability of the planet.
The rest of the novel is told in three segments. The first introduces our protagonist, Dr Mariella Anders. Mariella is an immensely likable character, a microbiologist famous for having found the cure to the "firstborn crisis", a genetic virus that decimated male fetuses. She's very much her own woman. Ballsy, uncompromising and unfailing in her pursuit of scientific truth, an attitude that has made her some enemies along the way. Fulfilling a life-long dream she finds herself part of a NASA mission to Mars charged with finding the truth behind the Chinese discovery. However from the start things are complicated by the involvement of Cytex, the aforementioned shadowy US bio tech company with an agenda all of it's own (to sequence the genome of the Martian life from and thus monopolize any benefits it might bring to mankind). Realizing that Cytex might well be responsible for the slicks, Mariella finds herself in a situation rife with internal politics and a ruthless asphyxiation of the truth. The crux of the novel therefore follows Mariella's journey both to Mars (where not surprisingly things do not go according to plan) and through this maze of secrecy and betrayal.
"The Secret of Life" brings to mind many Mars related books, particularly those by Kim Stanley Robinson. McAuley even tips a wink to Ray Bradbury at one point. There are also shades of other recent eco-thriller novels. I was certainly reminded of Greg Bears'"Darwins Radio". If there are any criticisms to level here they remain incidental and did not spoil my enjoyment. I found the author occasionally guilty of "infodump" in his attempts to explain the finer points of the science of genetics. I also found the last segment of the book a little frustrating with Mariella's adventures whilst on the run from various sets of bad guys going on a little too long. All incidental as I say. This is great read.