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The Secret of Life
Paul J. McAuley
HarperCollins Voyager, 391 pages

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 Review: The Secret of Life
SF Site Interview: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Excerpt: 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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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After the extraordinary far-future hyperkineticism of his masterwork, the Confluence Trilogy (1997-99), Paul J. McAuley returns to Earth in The Secret of Life -- but not for long. This new novel is a very indirect sequel to McAuley's Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning biotechnological thriller Fairyland (1995), and expands on some of the concerns and speculations of that dense conflation of cyberpunk and myth; but its plotting and style are far more open than those of its predecessor, for The Secret of Life is fundamentally a quest tale, preoccupied with the acquisition and public use of scientific knowledge, and the quest soon leads the heroine and her nemesis on a voyage to Mars. Fairyland generated its eerie chimeras and buzzing socio-cultural landscapes by means of mundane (if recondite) knowledge, and extrapolations therefrom; in The Secret of Life, the transforming novum is alien. It is Martian. And the whole thrust of the book is that the novum must be known -- quite unlike the inherently inscrutable elven beings of Fairyland. The Secret of Life is a potent dramatization of the urge and duty to know, and to know with a conscience.

Thus this novel's mission. Its agent of revelation is (a little too traditionally) a spunky woman scientist, Dr. Mariella Anders, a Teutonically-tinged Scottish expatriate working in America, where she has already, well before the main action begins in 2026, helped achieve the breakthrough that defeated a plague engineered to abort male foetuses. She has thus already established, by word and deed, the necessity that biological understanding be kept in the public domain, not secretively and selfishly hoarded or patented by governments and corporations. But now the ante has been upped, for a Chinese expedition to the North Pole of Mars has discovered life -- hardy, assimilative, ultimately related to life on Earth and therefore capable of interacting with it; and the corporate organizations lurking behind the government in Beijing will allow no whisper of the find to emerge from the private laboratories where it is being manipulated to profitable ends. But the Americans get wind of it anyway; the opening section of The Secret of Life relates some of the murderous skullduggery that results, in a cloak-and-syringe mode that rather neatly sums up why the clandestine mentality is such a bad idea; and mysterious slicks in the Pacific Ocean indicate that the Chi, the Martian organism (or organisms), has got loose in the terrestrial biosphere. The slicks must be combated, but how? And to the public, or merely private, good?

So the quest begins. Mariella has an irksome rival, Penn Brown, who, ambitious and not particularly principled, wishes to harness the Chi to the service of his corporate employer, Cytex; NASA has its own bureaucratic interest in the matter; and the American team sent to Mars to locate the Chi is made up -- for good novelistic reasons -- of Mariella, Brown, and a NASA representative. Much well-depicted tension follows; the trek across Mars involves the best descriptions of that planet's topography since Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy; Mariella's return to Earth is unusual and exciting. And the remaining battle, to use the Chi wisely and generously, also makes for a compelling narrative...

As a novel, then, The Secret of Life succeeds rather well, even if elements of deus ex machina occasionally obtrude, and despite a perhaps not altogether satisfactory resolution of the precise nature and usefulness of the Chi. But the importance of this book probably lies more in its topical authenticity -- the vivid accuracy of its analysis of biotechnological ethics, grounded as it is in McAuley's own experience as a research biologist. The Secret of Life fairly exhaustively examines the scientific motivations and methodologies of corporations and governments, and finds them wanting; the glamour and altruism of pure science obtain a fresh gloss in McAuley's hands; and there's great conviction in the text's presentation of the benefits and dangers "unauthorized" biotech holds for the Third World. For a novel beginning with the hyped-up hugger-mugger of generic cyberpunk to end in so luminous a mood of cognitive engagement is exhilarating and instructive; perhaps secrets will cease to be secrets, and there's hope for the planet yet.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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