The Secret of Life, Paul McAuley

Tor, 2001, 413 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-765-30080-X

Paul McAuley’s previous novels had all left me mostly indifferent. I’d sit there at the word processor after reading them, trying in vain to find something interesting to say about them. It never happened—hence the absence of McAauley reviews elsewhere on this site. I could recognize a certain level of quality in his work, but it never translated in a strong positive or negative reaction. Pasquale’s Angels had an interesting uchronic premise but an overly florid execution. Fairyland had a good grasp of biological hard-SF, but a plot that floundered in nothingness. I couldn’t muster any interest in checking out his other novels.

The Secret of Life is the kind of breakout book that makes me want to re-evaluate an author’s entire output. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, McAuley had to return to Mars in order to produce an accessible top-notch SF novel. (Like Robinson’s Icehenge, McAuley had set one previous story there, Red Dust)

As with many recent SF novels, The Secret of Life presents a future where corporations trump government regulations and are well on their way to become the dominant political power. In the opening pages, an espionage operation goes wrong and dangerous alien micro-organisms are spilled in the Pacific Ocean. Months later, the micro-organisms have grown into a dangerous slick that is posing a significant ecological danger. Though she doesn’t know it yet, our heroine Mariella Anders is going to be drafted in an expedition of essential importance.

Not that you’d want to entrust anything of importance to her; Mariella is a brainy but rebellious scientist, given to body piercing, casual sex and generally bad attitude. Her résumé is impressive but her asocial tendencies are worrisome. Still, some people think that she’s the best candidate for an emergency mission to Mars in order to spy on a recent Chinese discovery. Corralled in restrictive non-disclosure agreements, forced to work with her scientific nemesis, Mariella goes to Mars halfway screaming and kicking. Contrived? Well, yes, but not as much as what pleasantly follows. Her subsequent adventures will make her an interplanetary fugitive, hunted down by federal and corporate forces as she’s trying to piece together a fundamental scientific mystery.

Clocking in at more than 400 pages of finely-detailed hard-SF extrapolation, The Secret of Life is amply worth its paperback cover price for readers thirsting for authentic science-fiction. McAuley was a professional research biologist and his latest novel is packed with the kind of insider detail that contributes so much to convincing SF. As biology becomes the primary science of the twenty-first century, it’s about time that SF moves beyond physics as its intellectual field of choice.

What makes The Secret of Life so much fun is, in the end, how clearly it’s written. Despite the heavy dose of hard-science, it reads with the narrative power of a thriller. Granted, it’s a touch too leisurely to be entirely compelling (whole sections of the novel could have been condensed without too much impact), but it’s much more effective than McAuley’s previous novels. (Amusingly enough, there’s even a reference to Fairlyand‘s main character, though it’s unclear whether The Secret of Life is taking place in the same universe as the previous novel.)

An unexpected element of The Secret of Life is the political message against corporate science and for open research. As real-world research becomes more expensive and hence increasingly affected by monetary concerns, it’s about time that open science becomes a major thematic component of SF. The Secret of Life isn’t the first book to do so, but it’s one of the first to make it an integral part of the narrative. McAuley can now claim to write truly mature SF in a vein similar to the latest works by Bruce Sterling and Kim Stanley Robinson. (There’s also an extended “ultimate hack” sequence that is reminiscent of a similar awe-inspiring segment in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, though in molecular biology rather than computer science.)

The Secret of Life is not only one of the major SF novels of 2001, but it’s also a breakthrough for McAuley, who finally manages to combine his scientific expertise and writing talents with an accessible elegance that will win him many more readers. I should know; I’ll be one of them.

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