It is common evolutionary theory that life on Earth as we know it evolved over millions of years from bacteria. But what about Mars? The probes and landers we have sent have shown nothing thus far. Paul McAuley’s 2001 The Secret of Life examines this particular question. But to make matters exciting, he introduces the foreign life form to Earth, culminating in a sci-fi thriller with a pointedly pro-science stance. Not the most literary of books, it nevertheless packs a serious bang for the buck if microbiology is your game.
The Secret of Life is the story of Dr. Mariella Anders, biomathematician extraordinaire. Tops in her field worldwide, she’s also perhaps the most rebellious. A casual drug-using eco-hippy with facial piercings and a sexual life that can loosely be described as active, she balances her microbe research at a facility in Arizona in the day with alternate lifestyle fun in the evening. Her life takes a turn, however, when a strange organic slick is found growing, seemingly randomly, in the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly Cytex, one of the world’s leading corporate researchers, has narrowed down the source of the slick to being extra-terrestrial. The result of a bit of top secret espionage gone wrong, what the Chinese discovered on their expedition to Mars the preceding year has accidentally been unleashed on Earth. But that the Chinese are gearing up for a return to the red planet is the matter of the day. The race is on, and Cytex, needing scientists and astronauts of its own, offers Anders a position on the flight. A chance of a lifetime, the wild woman can’t refuse, and off into space she goes.
With heavy echoes of Michael Crichton, The Secret of Life is a thriller with strong scientific underpinning—or at least pseudo scientific. McAuley a trained biologist, he shows himself in his element, the science of the novel sounding more than convincing. Seeming to revel in the descriptions of how molecules multiply, the stages and aparati of experimentation, and the history of DNA and microbe discovery, the novel is chock full of info dumps. And, if the first third of the novel can be ignored, is likewise full of story. Flip-flopping between scientific exposition and bio-thriller, McAuley puts Dr. Anders through the ride of a life, leaving Earth for an adventure on Mars that none know the outcome of.
Witty, troubled, risky, and highly intelligent, Dr. Mariella Anders is the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before there was a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (“Want to fuck?” is a serious question she asks at one point in the story.) Regardless of reader reaction to such a character, it would seem McAuley was trying to subvert the images of a typical male scientist as presented by Asimov or Clarke. If that was his aim, he smashes the mould entirely. That being said, McAuley does not make Anders any more realistic a character than the legends of the genre did theirs. A classic parallel to the typical male hero, Anders is larger than life. She’s never wrong professionally, sleeps with who she wants, remains altruistic, and continually uses her wits to escape danger. At best, she’s two dimensional. This is better than being one-dimensional, but at no time does she come across as realistic despite McAuley’s best intentions. Moreover, it’s obvious on more than a few occasions that Anders is, in fact, the author, the denouement in particular preachy. Given the universal applicability of the message, however, it’s tough to fault McAuley.
Style-wise, McAuley shows his science roots go deeper than his literary. Written in occasionally clumsy, direct fashion with little subtlety, there is nothing prosaic or fluid about the text. The narrative so direct in fact, no effort is made to disguise the transitions to backstory or info dumps. Abruptly shifting gears to accommodate knowledge McAuley wants to pass along, it isn’t until the middle section that the noise is filtered out and the story settles into a comfortable groove. The book is also written in the present tense. Seeming to have no function, the choice appears merely experimental, and, if nothing else, can easily be gotten used to.
Thematically, McAuley holds no punches. The power of knowledge, the immaturity of corporate greed, and the negative effect of political competition take center stage. These aspects also represented by characters of limited believability, the underlying truths remain visible, and stereotypes aside, paint a relatively accurate picture of the current state of global economics. Knowledge is truly power, and McAuley tries to expose the real state of its discovery.
In the end, The Secret of Life is a solid bio-thriller that, once the reader gets over the hump of the first 200 pages, becomes an interesting story of Mars, microbial life, and the world of competition between governments, corporations, and the pursuit of pure science. Written in a style similar to Alastair Reynolds but telling a story a la Michael Crichton, readers of either author may be interested in McAuley’s novel. The author seeming to bring his daytime career into his nighttime writing efforts, those interested in microbiology should be sure to pick it up.