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The Secret of Life Hardcover – June, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Having completed the Books of Confluence, his much-praised trilogy set in the distant future, Clarke and Dick awards winner McAuley (Shrine of Stars) here tries his hand at a near-future, hard-science thriller. The year is 2026, and the world is still recovering from the Firstborn Crisis, a virus that threatened humanity's continued existence until it was stopped by a team led by the brilliant biologist Dr. Mariella Anders. Now, however, a new plague has appeared a strange growth in the waters of the Pacific containing genetic material that apparently originated on Mars. With two other crack scientists, Mariella is sent to the red planet, where she soon discovers that one of her colleagues, an employee of Cytex, the genetic engineering company that's partially funding the mission, knows considerably more about what's going on than she does and has motives that are far from altruistic. Indeed, it eventually becomes clear that a number of private companies, governments and radical green organizations all want a piece of the strange Martian lifeform called the Chi. The author's main targets are corporate greed and left-wing Luddism, both of which he sees as antithetical to good science. Mariella, a misfit who, despite her fame, lives in a trailer in the Arizona desert and has a passion for both piercings and rough sex, is a thorny but believable protagonist. Although not quite the equal of his Confluence novels, McAuley's latest should appeal to fans of thoughtful hard-science fiction.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

In 2026 Earth is troubled by the usual mixture of corruption, big business, and twisted technology, but life goes on for biologist Mariella Anders. Her holistic approach, piercings, and blue jeans alienate some of her peers, but her brilliant solution to a worldwide fertility crisis can't be denied. When tapped to go to Mars to investigate rumors that the Chinese have discovered life at its poles, she goes with an adversary, scientist Penn Brown, who represents the conglomerate Cytex. Brown is to make sure Mariella doesn't pass the discovery (and attendant profits) on to NASA. The mission is tense and politicized, but things really go awry when the Chinese on Mars send a distress call concerning a deadly virus. Penn and Mariella struggle over the U.S. response but must really run the gauntlet when they return to Earth with Martian ice samples. McAuley thumps the pulpit for science and reason but always leaves room for the shrewd, passionate, ultimately hopeful human face in this vital contribution to Martian sf. Roberta Johnson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 413 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books; 1st edition (June 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 076530080X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0765300805
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,473,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul McAuley's first novel won the Philip K. Dick Award, and he has gone on to win almost all of the major awards in the field. For many years a research biologist, he now writes full-time. McAuley's novel The Quiet War made several "best of the year" lists, including SF Site's Reader's Choice Top 10 SF and Fantasy Books of 2009. He lives in London. Visit him online at unlikelyworlds.blogspot.com .

Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By flying-monkey on November 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I am amazed at the short memory of many professional reviewers. Many seem to think that this is a major change of direction for McAuley, a deliberate turn to the more commercial. In fact it is a return to previous endeavours, and the hard political / bioscience near future timeline he created in the wonderful and hallucinatory 'Fairyland'. Mind you, you have to read this book carefully to get that point - I suspect that many 'pros' just don't bother.
So what's the deal? Well, it isn't really about life on Mars. That's just the background for what is effectively a debate about science and society, and quite a complex debate at that. Despite the fact that there are 'daring hero(ines)' and 'big villains' in the tradition of sci-fi political thrillers (think Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net as an near ancestor here), McAuley is actually more interested in the inbetweens and the contradictions. His heroine Mariella is a feminist scientist opposed to the corporatisation of research and the macho culture that promotes reductionism above holism. McAuley understands the range of green, environmental and left responses and even sympathises with parts of them - his portayal of the emerging diversity of post-environmentalist culture is remarkable compared with some of the more gung-ho 'ain't science grand' school of sci-fi writers. As a result he is actually far more effective at getting across his argument than some (see Greg Egan's Teranesia for a failed attempt). The various radical groups in this book understand that life should be enjoyable, sensual, a pleasure - however they don't always appreciate what could make that a possibility for everyone.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By David G. Yurth on January 7, 2007
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Hard, near-future science fiction is the most difficult to write because it demands that the writer extend scienctific and technological trends to fit with near-term political and economic realities. Unlike pieces which take the longer view, a short term piece can only succeed if both its characters and its structure are believable. Paul McAuley is a highly educated, erudite, disciplined bio-scientist whose writing credentials suggest that "The Secret of Life" ought to be both readable and entertaining.

No one is expert at everything. Faulkner was perhaps one of the world's best writers because he was able to consistently discriminate between the inclusion of information that is enriching and the addition of descriptive information that serves only as ballast. The scientist as writer labors under a more rigorous discipline - in order for science to be useful and informative, to sustain validity and rise to a wholly inclusive standard, the scientist is obliged to report everything, leaving out nothing, so that those who evaluate the data sets can see where the anomalies arise with respect to the mainstream.

In fiction, especially science fiction, the inability or unwillingness to suspend this all-inclusive approach produces not richness but tedium. And because McAuley is erudite, he is irresistibly compelled to throw in everything including the kitchen sink and all the plumbing that goes with it. The book begins with such a relentless barrage of descriptive materials that the reader is obliged to plow through ten pages before anything meaningful happens. Indeed, McAuley could take a lesson from Dick Francis and Elmore Leonard, whose character portrayals require the reader to fill in the blanks with their own visual images.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Jeremy B. Wait on April 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I have an amazing ability to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. My willingness seems to be inversely proportional to how seriously the book seems to take itself; the more it sets itself up as hard science fiction, the more believable I expect it to be. The Secret of Life takes itself very seriously.

The premise is that a foiled act of industrial espionage releases a Martian microbe into the ocean. With no natural enemies, the organism multiplies rapidly, making growing stretches of water uninhabitable for terrestrial life.

The American government gives a powerful corporation exclusive access and patent rights to the organism. The corporation's proprietary attitude toward the organism and general lack of cooperation ends up hobbling the government's ability to effectively counter its threat. Other forces in the government decide to make an end-run around this obstacle by sending Mariella to Mars to find the source organism - which is not covered by the patent.

I really had trouble buying that a corporation would risk the public relations disaster of being seen as endangering life on earth. It also seemed unlikely that the government would hold the preservation of earth's life as lesser value than a group of patents. It seemed supremely naive to propose a scenario in which other governments (many of which have less than stellar track records on patent protection, anyway) would also honor these patents. So the entire premise of the book was on pretty shaky ground for me. Mariella wasn't a strong enough character to win me over.

I was planning on giving this book 3 stars when I came in here, but reading other reviews reminded me of other things that bugged me about the book.
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