Fiction Reviews

The Secret of Life

(2001) Paul McAuley, Voyager, 16.99, hrdbk, pp391, ISBN 0-00-225904-4


A Chinese mission to Mars discovers life deep under the Martian polar caps but keeps the discovery a secret. Their aim is to research this life form to see of there can be biotechnological products that can be developed. To this end they covertly bring a sample back to Earth. However, due to industrial espionage, there is an accident that releases the Martian bugs into the ocean where it starts gobbling everything up, and this is a bit of a give-away that the Chinese and biotech companies have been breaking biosafety protocols let alone industrial regulations. This Martian life form, now in the more life-friendly, warmer and wetter Earth environment, begins to mutate at an alarming rate. What is needed is a pristine sample of the life form. So the US mounts its own mission to Mars with the covert aim of getting its own sample and find out what the Chinese have really been up to. Meanwhile the Chinese are mounting their own second mission to the Red Planet.

Microbiologist Mariella Anders joins the NASA team despite (or because of) political machinations, and it is a race to Mars against the second Chinese mission. However the politics of industry, NASA, the US government and others results in internecine complications, as if the hassle of an interplanetary mission were not enough...

I have to say that I have previously had mixed views about some of McAuley's earlier work even though much of it showed promise: I think I had a bad reaction to Fairyland though that novel did win some awards that have favour with the litcrit crowd and who am I to argue.  However with The Secret of Life he has penned a solid work of hard and new wave SF that grabs your attention and holds on through to the novel's end: it is quite a ride. As far as I am concerned, this book surely marks Paul McAuley as a writer going places. Much of the hardness of the SF no doubt comes from McAuley being a former research biologist and he certainly handles the science well. The novel's themes are also appropriate given recent science developments, and here I am thinking of the twin, quasi-joint efforts by the Wellcome Trust and British tax-funded researchers on one hand, and a US private venture on the other, to sequence the human genome: the time we are currently in is surely the dawn of the genomic age. For me The Secret of Life is his best novel to date. The paperback is bound to be out in 2002 and I have no qualms about recommending it. If McAuley keeps up this standard then he may well end up rivalling the likes of Benford and Bear.

Jonathan Cowie

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

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