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The Secret of Life

Paul McAuley

Tor / Tom Doherty Associates

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-765-30080-X

Publication Date: June 2001

413 Pages; $25.95

Date Reviewed: 06-04-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002



Science Fiction


Science fiction thrillers tend to fall into one of two categories. In the first, the science fiction is merely a McGuffin to propel the thriller plot. Just about any Michael Crichton novel will serve as an example, though I'd prefer Ray Garton's 'Biofire'. In the other bucket, we have novels where the science fiction really takes over the setting, but the plot could be traced to just about any mystery novel set in the 20th century. An excellent and enjoyable example of that style of novel is Richard Morgan's recent 'Altered Carbon'. Paul McAuley likes his science fiction thrillers to have equal amounts of science fiction and thrills. 'Whole Wide World', his most recent novel is a science fiction mystery where both the SF and the mystery play important parts. 'The Secret of Life', his previous novel, is a save-the-world thriller that features the usual bullet train plot, but compliments that plot with some intriguing science fictional speculation. The science in this novel is no mere McGuffin. It's the real deal, thought provoking in the way that the best Arthur C. Clarke books are. McAuley has gene-spiced his hard science with big thrills in an experiment that is rather a success. It all depends on how you get on with his characters.

Mariella Anders is the woman who almost single-handedly cured the Firstborn Virus in the early part of the 21st century. Now she lives a quiet life, ensconced in a ranch in Arizona, turning her back on the celebrity she could have claimed. There are reasons for this beyond a liking of the quiet life. But when the Chi, a living mat of fungi growing in the Pacific Ocean begins to threaten all the ecosystems of earth, there's no way for her to turn her back. Analysis shows the slick has DNA unlike any earth life form. Suspicions point to a Chinese mission that had recently returned to earth. The world must be saved.

Unfortunately, Mariella is the woman upon whose shoulders this tasks rests. Her own sexual proclivities result in blackmail. For the mission to Mars, she's forced to remain in the employ of Cytex, the company that may have created the Chi.

Some readers will have problems with Mariella's character. She's not particularly likable in the sense of the ordinary thriller heroine. A woman who likes rough, anonymous sex is not going to be a natural hit with most women readers either. None of this bothered me, frankly. McAuley is pro enough to play down these elements. He's also very, very smart. The political and social changes he foresees across a short span of time seem particularly believable, even if his heroine doesn't. Moreover, his scientific speculation is consistently fascinating, and covers a wide range of subjects, from space flight to exobiology to terrestrial evolution and genetic engineering. In each and every bit of science that McAuley treats, he excels in making the complex comprehensible, in excavating the big questions beneath the telling details. For hard science fiction, 'The Secret of Life' is both readable and fascinating, without a hint of the blow-hard that brings down so much of this sub-genre.

Where McAuley does falter a bit is in the bad-guy/good-guy duality. You never actually get to the "Our plan, Mr. Bond was simple..." scene. But you sense it lurking in the background. Fortunately, the foreground is filled with gritty, flawed characters, thrilling plot twists and truly whiz-bang science. If there's a cheering crowd scene in there, you want to cheer with the crowd. 'The Secret of Life' succeeds at the nexus of science, personality, the near future -- it thrills conclusively and interestingly. A new McAuley novel should be around the corner, where I'll be hanging out, waiting to pick it up.