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The Secret of Life by Paul McAuley
(HarperCollins Voyager, 16.99, 391 pages, hardback; 2 January 2001. Paperback 6.99, 518 pages, 3 September 2001. US edition: Tor, $25.95, 413 pages, hardback; March 2001.)

Rating: "A-". A stirring saga of science, Mars, and life, cover scanmarred by a weak ending, but well-worth your attention.

Paul McAuley's usual topics and tropisms are well-employed in this new biotech SF-thriller. In 2026 a Martian microbe, secretly brought back to Earth by a Chinese expedition, is accidentally released into the Pacific during an attempt to steal a sample by Cytex, a powerful but unscrupulous American biotech firm. The Mars-bug thrives, and grows into strange floating islands, which shed 'slicks' that kill terrestrial marine life. The descriptions of this strange alien invader are reminiscent of Ian McDonald's wonderful Chaga, with a nod to HG Wells' War of the Worlds. I'm not fully-qualified to judge McCauley's biologic premise (and MacGuffin), which it wouldn't be fair to reveal, but he's done his homework -- I'm weaselling here because of a research lapse I'll mention a bit later, but rest assured his premise is just fine for fiction. Is there a biologist in the house?

The Americans send an expedition of their own to Mars, hoping to duplicate the Chinese discovery. The expedition scientists include Mariella Anders, our protagonist and a biological genius on the level of a Feynman or an Einstein. Like most geniuses (genii?), she is unconventional: Mariella's foibles include body-piercing, soft drugs, and rough sex. This last is used for blackmail by Penn Brown, an odious Cytex scientist also on the Mars expedition.

Mariella is a high point of the book, and McCauley's best character yet, I think. The descriptions of her scientific education and career are full of neat observations and insights -- McAuley is himself a former research scientist -- and her portrayal as a Feynman-level genius is wonderful. A gen-Z greenpunk biogenius -- all right!

The Martian scenes -- about half of the book -- are very fine, strongly reminescent of Kim Stanley Robinson's RGB Mars trilogy: impeccable (I hope) research and extrapolation, poetic descriptions of alien landscapes, palpable excitement in exploring a new world -- and a sadly-realistic portrait of the techno-squalor around the Martian settlements, comparable to Swanwick's gritty (and great) Griffin's Egg.

When Mariella returns to Earth, on the run with stolen samples of the 'Chi', the Martian superbug, the story becomes a more conventional -- and less interesting -- pursuit-thriller. I lost track of the cardboard villains and bit-players (I fell asleep), and I'm not interested enough to go back and sort them out. The dramatic 'climax' is just silly -- Mariella the greenpunk genius as a charismatic crowd-pleaser at a big bioscience conference -- well, my dears, you've been warned, it ain't the high point of the book.

McAuley makes a few other stumbles, notably in his Southern Arizona scenes, where he misplaces a mountain range by a hundred miles [note 1]. And the authorities seem curiously unconcerned about the rapidly-multiplying Martian 'slicks', even as they're ruining fisheries and alarming voters.

The bottom line: The Secret of Life tackles big, meaty issues, it's well-written, and it's fun to read. Even though it's not completely successful, I'd say it's pretty much a must-read for hard-SF and McCauley fans.


Note 1)
...illustrating the danger of using a setting the author doesn't know well, when he encounters a reader/reviewer who lives in that setting. This lapse will pass unnoticed by most readers, but makes me uncomfortable about the quality of his research in areas I don't know as well. Not that I read SF to learn science (or geography), but McAuley has a reputation for playing the hard-SF game with the net up.... And I do hope the many mangled place-names are corrected in the US edition. [...back to main text]


Review by Peter D Tillman; More of Peter D Tillman's reviews can be found at: SF Site and Google "Peter D. Tillman" +review for many more!

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© Peter D Tillman 21 April 2001