Fiction Reviews

The Secret of Life

(2001/2022) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, £12.99, xvi + 402pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60377-5


Both the cause and the solution to an oceanic ecological disaster threatening all life on Earth may lie on the surface of Mars, so a group of scientists are prepared for an expedition to the Red Planet to find out, but they are clearly not being told the whole truth about what is really going on.

The prologue shows the beginning of the potentially apocalyptic crisis. A Chinese mission to Mars has brought back some kind of fast breeding holistic viral organism, known as the Chi, which, thanks to sabotage during attempted theft of the materials, leaks into the ocean, spreading as a vast splintering slick that kills any marine life it encounters. Though the reader sees this event, the main characters only slowly piece together the events as the book progresses and it might have worked better if the reader learned of the plane crash when they do too.

With the Chinese seemingly saying nothing, NASA, and a mysterious mega-powerful corporation called Cytex assemble a team to send to Mars to see if they can find the secrets of the Chi for themselves, but do they want to destroy it, bring it under control or find some way to profit from it?

The book is divided into three equally length sections, with the Mars adventure sandwiched between before and after events on Earth. The first two thirds build up with great intrigue, mystery and danger but it all rather unravels in the final slice.

Central to the team is a genetics expert, Mariella, seen already as a great hero for her work in solving the Firstborn crisis, a genetic threat that was killing millions of first-born sons around the World. Mariella’s husband had been killed in riots during a field trip to Africa to study the disease but his grieving widow had completed his work. The trouble with Mariella is that she is quite a maverick, a radical Greenpeace/Friends Of The Earth eco-warrior with a clear disregard for authority, so she is needed for her expertise while also being in danger of going very public about anything controversial that she might find. Even before flight training, she breaks away from her security detail to go to drug-fuelled beach parties with her commune buddies of old, only to find one of her casual lovers threatened with arrest unless she signs agreements to toe the line in future.

Another problem, this time as much for the readers, is that Mariella is more concerned with tracing the origins of human life in the Chi’s DNA than dealing with it as an existential threat. She also has an arrogant vainglorious desire to keep information to herself and frequently gets accused of seeking personal fame and glory. Though she denies this tendency, her selfish streak makes her much more than just a flawed hero.

Penn Brown, who has had a reputation for heckling and challenging Mariella, seems to have an agenda of his own on the Martian expedition, frequently making dangerous decisions, driving expedition trucks recklessly on the Martian plains, and when it is apparent that the Chinese are also on Mars, Brown’s stance towards them puts everyone’s lives in enormous danger.

Anchee is the one member of the team who has been to Mars before, but her health seems to be deteriorating badly, which Mariella, gradually growing to respect her more and more, begins to realize is more serious than Anchee is willing to admit.

Another great character, and one sadly under-used is Barbara Lopez, the ‘Old Woman Of Mars’, a survivor of an earlier crashed mission who has chosen to live out her days on the planet, trading and providing supplies for the people coming and going there.

After uncovering some astonishing truths about the Chi, Mariella realizes that she dare not reveal her discoveries to Cytex as they might not share the knowledge with the rest of the World, so she has to figure out how to splashdown to Earth and then disappear until she can leak the truth for everyone. This is where everything goes rather pear-shaped. Mariella seeks refuge among her eco-commune friends, only to find CIA and Cytex agents in pursuit. Twice she is captured and escapes to join other allies, and much of the final act is a pillar to post road trip chase drama, with Mariella, no longer sure who she can trust, carrying containers of the Chi around until she is ready to go public.

The other credible, well fleshed out characters from the first sixty-six percent of the book are no longer involved as various people barely introduced offer Mariella lifts, or temporary accommodation, or arrest / abduct her before she is liberated again pages later. In one truly ridiculous episode, she is being taken captive by helicopter which a ground crew of would-be rescuers cause to crash to spring her free. How they could possibly know she would survive the wreck is never examined.

The Chinese are treated with suspicion throughout the book (their use of weather balloons for espionage in the book made for timely reading in early 2023 when America was shooting Chinese weather balloons out of the air amidst claims that they were being used for spying).

After two great portions, the over-dependence on high-octane chases and get-out-of-that peril undermines so much, and the final revelations of the closing chapters seem underwhelming but this is still a book well worth reading.

Arthur Chappell

See also Jonathan's review of The Secret of Life.


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