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The Secret of Life
Paul J. McAuley
excerpt courtesy of HarperCollins Voyager
The Secret of Life
Paul J. McAuley
Paul J. McAuley was born in England in 1955 and currently lives in Scotland. He worked as a researcher in biology at various universities before going to St. Andrew's University as a lecturer in botany for 6 years. He's chosen to move on to become a full-time writer.

His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award and several subsequent novels have been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, winning one for Fairyland which also won the 1997 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best SF Novel. His short story, "The Temptation of Dr. Stein," won the British Fantasy Award. Pasquale's Angel won the very first Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Long Form) in 1996. McAuley also produces a regular review column for Interzone and contributes reviews to Foundation.

In June 2001, Tor will publish The Secret of Life in the USA.

Paul J. McAuley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Reading List: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Interview: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Review: The Secret of Life
SF Site Review: Shrine of Stars
SF Site Review: Pasquale's Angel
SF Site Review: Ancients of Days
SF Site Review: The Invisible Country
SF Site Review: Child Of The River
SF Site Review: Fairyland
SF Archive: Paul J. McAuley
Star Makers - Paul J. McAuley
Mark/Space: Paul J.McAuley

Shanghai, Chinese Democratic Republic: March 2nd 2026

     All human life is here.
     It is almost midnight, yet dozens of barges still plough the black waters of the Huangpu Jiang, hazard lights winking red and green, passing either side of streamlined robot cargo clippers that swing at anchor in the midstream channel. The tall white cylinders of the clippers' rotary sails are fitfully illuminated by fireworks bursting above a rock concert in an amphitheatre on the Pudong shore, close to the minaret of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Nets of white laser light flex against the dark sky. The howl of massed guitars and the throaty roar of the audience carries over the river to Shanghai, where, along the waterfront avenue of the Bund, beneath tiers of neon, crowds swirl past stalled lines of traffic.
     Most of the old colonial department stores and banks have been torn down, replaced by skyscrapers with organic facings like muscle fibres or wood grain seen under a microscope's lens, or coralline skins fretted with porous knots and hollows and veins. The human crowds at their feet are like columns of ants scurrying around the buttress roots of forest giants. People stream out of the Cathay Theatre. Waiters in starched white shirts move amongst the crowded tables of terrace caf‚s where roaring gas heaters keep out the night's chill. Teenage police officers lounge sullenly at intersections, tugging at their white gloves as they watch opposing streams of vehicles inch past with blaring horns and glaring headlights. Huge signs are flooded with new advertisements every twenty seconds. Corporate logos burn sleeplessly inside glass-walled malls piled with electronics, silks, and exotic biotech.
     Behind the Bund and the commercial sector, the gridded streets are narrower but no less crowded. Traffic is jammed in a complex one-way system. Pedestrians and cyclists pour around little three-wheeled trucks, bubble cars, the limos of high-ranking government officials or entrepreneurs or gangsters. Electric scooters tow trailers piled high with flat TV sets or melons or cartons of cigarettes. Bars and clubs flaunt their wares in video loops cut to the hectic beat of slash funk. Hawkers thrust animated adsheets into the hands of passers-by. Stalls sell ramen or noodle soups, spices, tacky souvenirs, bootleg spikes, cages of live birds, exotic tweaks. Here's an old woman tipping a handful of fish heads into sesame oil smoking in a blackened wok. Here's a beggar with an extra head that lolls idiotically on his left shoulder. Here's a crowd of shopgirls tripping along under a bouquet of coloured paper umbrellas. Tucked away in narrow alleyways are chop-shops for stolen motorcycles, the offices of grey biosurgeons and baby farmers, workshops where customised chips are hand-etched, traditional medicine shops with dusty glass jars of bark or twigs or dried berries, a shop selling cloned tiger penis and vat-grown ivory.
     Anything that can be bought can be bought here, in Shanghai.
     Pan and scan the restless crowds.
     Here's a man ambling along with a slouch hat angled over his face. An American, a business man -- peacock blue suit, rouged cheeks, blue eye shadow. He plunges down reeking steps into a cellar bar and orders a beer he does not drink, watching the reflection of the bar's entrance in the mirror behind the pairs and trios of naked dancers who, in cones of smoky red laser light, mime fucking with the dazed compliance of sleepwalkers. After an hour, the American checks his discreet Patek-Philippe tattoo and moves on, anonymous in the crowds. There are many business people and tourists here, many gwailos. He passes a Cuban bar, a German bar, an Icelandic bar where customers are handed fur-lined parkas as they enter -- the inside's all ice. Another bar, this one a shack so small its half dozen customers sit side by side, serves only whisky; more than a hundred bottles are racked up behind the bamboo and rattan counter. The American waits until a stool is free and sits and orders a Braveheart on the rocks -- despite the name, it is made in Kenya. He doesn't drink but turns the tumbler around and around in his long, manicured fingers. Three drunken salarymen are watching a postcard-sized TV that shows baseball live from Tokyo, betting on each pitch in a flurry of fingers and coins.
     The bar squats under a sign advertising the Peking Disneyland.
     This is the American century.
     A young, skinny Chinese man sits beside the American and orders a Rob Roy. They don't talk, but when the American stands up and leaves the other man gulps down his shot of whisky and follows him into an alley, where the American suddenly turns and embraces and kisses him.
     The Chinese man is startled and angry and tries to push away, but the American holds him tight. "They might be watching, so make it real," he says, and kisses the man again, tasting the whisky on his breath.
     They hire a room in a short-time hotel and go up the rickety stairs, stepping between the sleeping bodies of an entire family, from shrunken grandmother to fretful baby.
     The room is tiny and overheated, smells of disinfectant, mould, and sex. It is almost entirely filled by a gel slab bed covered in purple, vat-grown fur.
     The young Chinese man sits down and strokes the coarse fur and says, "My company makes this." His long black hair is brushed back from his round face; his skin is sallow and shiny with sweat. The width of his smile is a precise index of his discomfort.
     The American tosses his hat on to the bed and says impatiently, "Let's do it."
     The Chinese man, his eyes fixed on the American, slowly pulls a pair of flat-ended tweezers from the inside pocket of his snakeskin jacket. He uses them to lift up the nail of his left thumb, picks a glass capillary tube from the pink bed of artificial flesh, and drops it into the American's palm.
     The American stares at the sliver of glass. "What's this shit?"
     "It is in there. Alive."
     "I wanted the code."
     "That is not possible. I tell you already it is not possible. This is the second generation, but it has the essential property of the Chi. It is alive. You can sequence it yourself. Your people can. I do not cheat you."
     "If you're fucking with me."
     "I have no access to the sequence libraries. I tell you that already. Not the sequence libraries, not the Chi itself. I get you the second generation lab prototype. I smuggle it past the sniffers. Very hard to do, very difficult. But I do it. I bring it to you."
     The American's hand closes over the capillary tube. "I can verify nucleotide sequences right here. I can't verify this."
     The Chinese man's smile is very wide now. "You sequence it. You see I do not lie. It is the essence of the Chi."
     "Second generation."
     "And also a prototype."
     "It is fully tested. It splices genes, self-selects at a very high rate. Evolution with a fast-forward button."
     The American stares hard into the Chinese man's fixed smile and says again, "If you're fucking with me."
     "No, sir. I do not. This is for my family -- "
     "Yeah, yeah." The American knows the story -- dissidents exiled to a mining village in Antarctica, a massive bribe needed to release them, blah blah blah. He says, "Before your family can wave bye-bye to penguin land, we'll have to check this out."
     Now the Chinese man allows a hardness to show in his face. "Perhaps you fuck with me."
     "Here, we shake on the deal. Okay? It's an American custom."
     The Chinese man doesn't look at the American's hand. He says, "No. No, I don't think so."
     The American scratches his nose. He's amused. "Suit yourself, Charlie. Maybe you want to fuck instead. We have the room another twenty minutes. Plenty of time for a quick in and out."
     The Chinese man stands. "You will sequence the organism and you will pay."
     "You've already been paid."
     "You will pay the rest."
     "Yeah, sure. We done here? Fuck off then."
     The American lies back on the fur-covered bed after the Chinese man has gone. The handshake doesn't matter because the kiss did it; his saliva contains a toxin derived from puffer fish liver, a toxin to which he has been made immune. It will shut down his victim's nervous system in about twenty minutes: clonic seizures, suffocation, heart failure.
     The American leaves the room when the ayah taps on the door to indicate that the hour is up. He strolls through the crowded streets, brushing off touts and pimps and beggars, towards the Bund. He sits at a table in a terrace caf‚ and drinks a latte, watching the crowds from beneath the brim of his hat. Waiters begin to stack chairs on the empty tables around his, but he takes his time, and it is four in the morning when he takes a taxi several blocks, enters an infobooth in an all-night mall noisy with rock music, and sends a dozen ecards, all but one to random addresses. He spends an hour in a games arcade, moving restlessly from machine to machine, then, as the day's first measure of light pours into the sky, hails another taxi and goes to the airport.
     Shanty towns full of displaced peasants slope away on either side of the ten-lane freeway. Palms planted along the centre divider have died from a viral infection. Under a floodlit advertisement for the floating pleasure palaces of the South China Seas, a ragged boy is beating a water buffalo with a stick.
     The American meets the government courier in the American Airlines first class lounge. Two minutes, in and out. He's on the way back to Shanghai when the cherry lights of half a dozen police cruisers begin to flash behind his taxi and he realizes who has been fucking who.
     The government courier carries only a diplomatic pouch, its lock sealed with a roundel of security plastic embossed with the eagle and shield of the US government. There's a slight delay after he has boarded the scramjet, something to do with a baggage count. In dawn light, on the wet concrete beneath the courier's oval window, men with white gloves sign each other's slates while a truck with a flashing amber light goes past.
     When it happens, the scramjet is climbing high above the Pacific. The courier has settled into his calf-hide first class seat, is trying not to stare at the TV anchorwoman across the aisle. Stewards are taking back glasses in readiness for the interval of free fall at the top of the scramjet's sub-orbital arc.
     And in the hold, the device planted by one of the baggage inspectors fires a single microwave pulse that fries every processor in the scramjet's neural net. All power goes out. Cabin power, power to the fuel pumps of the air-breather motors, power to the control surfaces. The scramjet tumbles in an uncontrolled dive, the spine of its overstressed airframe shattering, the pressurised cabin exploding along welding seams, breaking up a kilometre above the Pacific.
     Over the next three days, US Navy ships gather from the ocean's heaving skin luggage and life-vests and seats and clothing, carbon fibre shards from the scramjet's wings and fragments of its titanium hull, and bodies and pieces of bodies.
     The tiny glass capillary tube, its seal broken, drifts more than twenty kilometres north before it finally sinks.

Copyright © 2001 Paul J. McAuley

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. This excerpt has been provided by HarperCollins Voyager and printed with their permission.

The winners have been chosen. All were sent a copy of The Secret of Life, courtesy of HarperCollins Voyager.

The questions are:
What's the name of Shanghai's TV tower? A: The Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
What generation of Chi is involved in the deal? A: Second generation
What brand of whisky does the American drink? A: Braveheart

Small Print:
In order to win a copy of The Secret of Life, you must send an email to stating the correct answers to the above questions. Please send only one email; duplicates will be ignored. Winners will be chosen from those with correct answers and notified by email. Books will be mailed out post-paid once all winners have been notified.

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