Paul McAuley,
The Secret of Life
(Tor, 2001)

The Secret of Life is a science-fiction thriller containing at its heart a credible threat to the survival of humankind. The year is 2025 and the world, as ever, is not a well-ordered place. Despite evidence of the country being beset by formidable problems both ecological (some of the Florida coast is permanently below sea level) and political (attack helicopters in the night skies of Washington give suppressing fire across the Potomac), a permanent base has nevertheless been established on Mars. America, however, is not the only nation to reach the red planet; China is also there. What everyone wants to exploit is the unique life that Mars may harbour -- or, more correctly, the unique sequences of DNA that code for that life.

Reading this novel gains you an understanding of how such strands of DNA could be worth a fortune to industrialists, but also of how such foreign material could pose a threat to all life on Earth. The main protagonist is eminent scientist Dr. Mariella Anders, and the society in which she lives is well realised. There are three main players in the political system of the world -- governments, multinational corporations and scientists. A fourth player is also present, a loose collection of people living alternative, eco-friendly lifestyles who are distrustful of science and industry. When the Chinese discover life deep beneath the frozen surface of Mars, events unfold that result in Mariella being caught in the middle of all these forces, between the alternative life-stylers, for whom she has great sympathy, and the U.S. government and big business, as embodied by NASA and Cytex Corp. respectively.

Part of the action takes place on Mars itself and, although by this time hundreds of people have landed, the journey is by no means routine, with preparation and training taking up to a year. As we watch Mariella struggle to live on Mars and to complete her mission we appreciate just how uniquely suited humankind and the planet Earth are to each other. This in turn makes the impending ecological disaster on Earth all the more tragic, fueled as it is by individuals who have lost sight of humanity's only home and see the world (literally) only in abstract terms such as "national destiny" or "economic growth."

For much of the late 20th century the greatest "big science" threat to humanity lay with nuclear technology. After-images from the dropping of the atomic bombs that ended WWII left in the minds of science fiction readers a mystique for anything atomic -- the technology itself, the scientists who understood it or the leaders who controlled its use. However, with the ending of the Cold War and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, humankind could be said to have crossed a threshold in that we have squared up to the monster, looked it in the eye ... and lived. Paul McAuley has now grabbed a comparable monster from the headlines, managing to invest the relatively new science of biotechnology with sufficient menace that his story, with the help of the redoubtable Dr. Mariella Anders, holds the attention throughout.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002

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