Secret of Life


2026: Something is growing in the Pacific Ocean, a strange fungus-like organism that may threaten our entire food chain. Christened "the slick," the bizarre phenomenon is quickly the subject of intense, top-secret analysis-which rapidly reveals that it contains DNA unlike that of any other life on the planet.

Where is it from? A Chinese mission to Mars is rumored to have discovered life beneath the Martian icecap, but the Chinese aren't talking. Dr. Mariella Anders is recruited ...

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2026: Something is growing in the Pacific Ocean, a strange fungus-like organism that may threaten our entire food chain. Christened "the slick," the bizarre phenomenon is quickly the subject of intense, top-secret analysis-which rapidly reveals that it contains DNA unlike that of any other life on the planet.

Where is it from? A Chinese mission to Mars is rumored to have discovered life beneath the Martian icecap, but the Chinese aren't talking. Dr. Mariella Anders is recruited by NASA to join an urgent mission to the Red Planet to find out. Brilliant and committed to science, Mariella wants only the truth, but others' motives are less noble. Faced with corporations, activist groups, and superpowers, each with their own secret agendas, Mariella is on a perilous quest for knowledge. . .and she's about the discover the high price of truth.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Any novel by McAuley is an event to be met with cheers. But even for McAuley, this is the big one. Fast, intense, and right on the edge of the headlines!" -Greg Bear

"An exhililrating, terrifying ride through tomorrow's zeitgeist... a telling page-turning." -Stephen Baxter

"Thsi could well be the McAukey novel that break throgh to a wider audience." -Starlog

Kirkus Reviews
Near-future biological thriller from the author of the dazzling far-future Confluence trilogy (completed with Shrine of Stars, 2000), etc. In 2026, a huge invasive biological growth, the Slick, floats in the Pacific Ocean. Proof against all attack, the Slick may contain DNA that originated on Mars. (Previously, a Chinese expedition to the red planet found life but denied having done so.) Now, NASA organizes a voyage to Mars to find more of the Martian organisms (probably in a reservoir of liquid water beneath the planet's north polar cap) and learn how to control or destroy the Slick. A second Chinese expedition, however, is already on Mars, drilling into the icecap. NASA's team includes genius microbiologist Mariella Anders, who believes science should not depend on profits, and her professional and personal nemesis, Penn Brown of Cytex, for whom the profit motive drives research. Brown soon blackmails Mariella into supporting his leadership and, therefore, Cytex's monopoly on knowledge garnered during the trip. But as Mariella and Brown approach the Martian icecap, the Chinese scientists blow up their bore-hole and flee, having been infected with a Martian organism from beneath the ice. Mariella grabs samples and tries to reach Earth in the Chinese ship, suspecting that the Martian organism has incalculable significance for future human development. But can she outwit both Cytex and NASA? Spectacular ideas, life-sized characters, credible and provocative politicking and maneuvering: a pity, then, about the present-tense narrative, which intrusively smothers any developing sense of drama.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765341938
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 5/19/2002
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 4.16 (w) x 6.60 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul McAuley was born in England on St George's Day 1955. He has worked as a research biologist in various universities, including Oxford and UCLA, and for six years was a lecturer in botany at St Andrews University. The first short story he ever finished was accepted by the American magazine Worlds of If, but the magazine folded before publishing it and he took this as a hint to concentrate on an academic career instead. He started writing again during a period as a resident alien in Los Angeles, and is now a full time writer.

His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and fifth, Fairyland, won the 1995 Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Awards. His other novels include Of the Fall, Eternal Light, Red Dust, Pasquale's Angel, the three books of Confluence, Child of the River, Ancients of Days, and Shrine of Stars, The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World, and the forthcoming White Devils. He has also published two collections of short stories, The King of the Hill, and The Invisible Country. A Doctor Who novella, the Eye of the Tyger, is due from Telos Books in November 2003, forty years after the author was scared behind the couch by the Daleks, and a third short story collection, Little Machines will be published by PS Publishing in 2004. He lives in North London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Shanghai, Chinese Democratic Union:
March 2, 2026

    All human life is here.

    It is almost midnight, yet dozens of barges still plough the black waters of the Huangpu Jiang, hazard lights winking red and green, passing either side of streamlined robot cargo clippers that swing at anchor in the midstream channel. The tall white cylinders of the clippers' rotary sails are fitfully illuminated by fireworks bursting above a rock concert in an amphitheater on the Pudong shore, close to the minaret of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Nets of white laser light flex against the dark sky. The howl of massed guitars and the throaty roar of the audience carries over the river to Shanghai, where, along the waterfront avenue of the Bund, beneath tiers of neon, crowds swirl past stalled lines of traffic.

    Most of the old colonial department stores and banks have been torn down, replaced by skyscrapers with organic facings like muscle fibers or wood grain seen under a microscope's lens, or coralline skins fretted with porous knots and hollows and veins. The human crowds at their feet are like columns of ants scurrying around the buttress roots of forest giants. People stream out of the Cathay Theater. Waiters in starched white shirts move among the crowded tables of terrace cafés where roaring gas heaters keep out the night's chill. Teenage police officers lounge sullenly at intersections, tugging at their white gloves as they watch opposing streams of vehicles inch past with blaring horns and glaring headlights. Huge signs are flooded with new advertisements every twenty seconds. Corporate logos burn sleeplessly inside glass-walled malls piled with electronics, silks, and exotic biotech.

    Behind the Bund and the commercial sector, the gridded streets are narrower but no less crowded. Traffic is jammed in a complex one-way system. Pedestrians and cyclists pour around little three-wheeled trucks, bubble cars, the limos of high-ranking government officials or entrepreneurs or gangsters. Electric scooters tow trailers piled high with flat TV sets or melons or cartons of cigarettes. Bars and clubs flaunt their wares in video loops cut to the hectic beat of slash funk. Hawkers thrust animated adsheets into the hands of passersby. Stalls sell ramen or noodle soups, spices, tacky souvenirs, bootleg spikes, cages of live birds, exotic tweaks. Here's an old woman tipping a handful of fish heads into sesame oil smoking in a blackened wok. Here's a beggar with an extra head that lolls idiotically on his left shoulder. Here's a crowd of shopgirls tripping along under a bouquet of colored paper umbrellas. Tucked away in narrow alleyways are chop shops for stolen motorcycles, the offices of gray biosurgeons and baby farmers, workshops where customized chips are hand-etched, traditional medicine shops with dusty glass jars of bark or twigs or dried berries, a shop selling cloned tiger penis and vat-grown ivory.

    Anything that can be bought can be bought here, in Shanghai.

    Pan and scan the restless crowds.

    Here's a man ambling along with a slouch hat angled over his face. An American, a businessman—peacock blue suit, rouged cheeks, blue eye shadow. He plunges down reeking steps into a cellar bar and orders a beer he does not drink, watching the reflection of the bar's entrance in the mirror behind the pairs and trios of naked dancers who, in cones of smoky red laser light, mime fucking with the dazed compliance of sleepwalkers. After an hour, the American checks his discreet Patek-Philippe tattoo and moves on, anonymous in the crowds. There are many businesspeople and tourists here, many gwailos. He passes a Cuban bar, a German bar, an Icelandic bar where customers are handed fur-lined parkas as they enter—the inside's all ice. Another bar, this one a shack so small its half-dozen customers sit side by side, serves only whiskey; more than a hundred bottles are racked up behind the bamboo-and-rattan counter. The American waits until a stool is free and sits and orders a Braveheart on the rocks—despite the name, it is made in Kenya. He doesn't drink but turns the tumbler around and around in his long, manicured fingers. Three drunken salary-men are watching a postcard-size TV that shows baseball live from Tokyo, betting on each pitch in a flurry of fingers and coins.

    The bar squats under a sign advertising the Peking Disneyland.

    This is the American century.

    A young, skinny Chinese man sits beside the American and orders a Rob Roy. They don't talk, but when the American stands up and leaves the other man gulps down his shot of whiskey and follows him into an alley, where the American suddenly turns and embraces and kisses him.

    The Chinese man is startled and angry and tries to push away, but the American holds him tight. "They might be watching, so make it real," he says, and kisses the man again, tasting the whiskey on his breath.

    They hire a room in a short-time hotel and go up the rickety stairs, stepping between the sleeping bodies of an entire family, from shrunken grandmother to fretful baby.

    The room is tiny and overheated, smells of disinfectant, mold, and sex. It is almost entirely filled by a gel slab bed covered in purple, vat-grown fur.

    The young Chinese man sits down and strokes the coarse fur and says, "My company makes this." His long black hair is brushed back from his round face; his skin is sallow and shiny with sweat. The width of his smile is a precise index of his discomfort.

    The American tosses his hat onto the bed and says impatiently, "Let's do it."

    The Chinese man, his eyes fixed on the American, slowly pulls a pair of flat-ended tweezers from the inside pocket of his snakeskin jacket. He uses them to lift up the nail of his left thumb, picks a glass capillary tube from the pink bed of artificial flesh, and drops it into the American's palm.

    The American stares at the sliver of glass. "What's this shit?"

    "It is in there. Alive."

    "I wanted the code."

    "That is not possible. I tell you already it is not possible. This is the second generation, but it has the essential property of the Chi. It is alive. You can sequence it yourself. Your people can. I do not cheat you."

    "If you're fucking with me."

     "I have no access to the sequence libraries. I tell you that already. Not the sequence libraries, not the Chi itself. I get you the second-generation lab prototype. I smuggle it past the sniffers. Very hard to do, very difficult. But I do it. I bring it to you."

    The American's hand closes over the capillary tube. "I can verify nucleotide sequences right here. I can't verify this."

    The Chinese man's smile is very wide now. "You sequence it. You see I do not lie. It is the essence of the Chi."

    "Second generation."


    "And also a prototype."

    "It is fully tested. It splices genes, self-selects at a very high rate. Evolution with a fast-forward button."

    The American stares hard into the Chinese man's fixed smile and says again, "If you're fucking with me."

    "No, sir. I do not. This is for my family—"

    "Yeah, yeah." The American knows the story—dissidents exiled to a mining village in Antarctica, a massive bribe needed to release them, blah blah blah. He says, "Before your family can wave bye-bye to penguin land, we'll have to check this out."

    Now the Chinese man allows a hardness to show in his face. "Perhaps you fuck with me."

    "Here, we shake on the deal. Okay? It's an American custom."

    The Chinese man doesn't look at the American's hand. He says, "No. No, I don't think so."

    The American scratches his nose. He's amused. "Suit yourself, Charlie. Maybe you want to fuck instead. We have the room another twenty minutes. Plenty of time for a quick in and out."

    The Chinese man stands. "You will sequence the organism and you will pay."

    "You've already been paid."

    "You will pay the rest."

    "Yeah, sure. We done here? Fuck off then."

    The American lies back on the fur-covered bed after the Chinese man has gone. The handshake doesn't matter because the kiss did it; his saliva contains a toxin derived from puffer-fish liver, a toxin to which he has been made immune. It will shut down his victim's nervous system in about twenty minutes: clonic seizures, suffocation, heart failure.

    The American leaves the room when the ayah taps on the door to indicate that the hour is up. He strolls through the crowded streets, brushing off touts and pimps and beggars, toward the Bund. He sits at a table in a terrace café and drinks a latte, watching the crowds from beneath the brim of his hat. Waiters begin to stack chairs on the empty tables around his, but he takes his time, and it is four in the morning when he takes a taxi several blocks, enters an infobooth in an all-night mall noisy with rock music, and sends a dozen ecards, all but one to random addresses. He spends an hour in a games arcade, moving restlessly from machine to machine; then, as the day's first measure of light pours into the sky, hails another taxi and goes to the airport.

    Shantytowns full of displaced peasants slope away on either side of the ten-lane freeway. Palms planted along the center divider have died from a viral infection. Under a floodlit advertisement for the floating pleasure palaces of the South China Seas, a ragged boy is beating a water buffalo with a stick.

    The American meets the government courier in the American Airlines first-class lounge. Two minutes, in and out. He's on the way back to Shanghai when the cherry lights of half a dozen police cruisers begin to flash behind his taxi and he realizes who has been fucking who.

    The government courier carries only a diplomatic pouch, its lock sealed with a roundel of security plastic embossed with the eagle and shield of the U.S. government. There's a slight delay after he has boarded the scramjet, something to do with a baggage count. In dawn light, on the wet concrete beneath the courier's oval window, men with white gloves sign each other's slates while a truck with a flashing amber light goes past.

    When it happens, the scramjet is climbing high above the Pacific. The courier has settled into his calf-hide first-class seat, is trying not to stare at the TV anchorwoman across the aisle. Stewards are taking back glasses in readiness for the interval of free fall at the top of the scramjet's suborbital arc.

    And in the hold, the device planted by one of the baggage inspectors fires a single microwave pulse that fries every processor in the scramjet's neural net. All power goes out. Cabin power, power to the fuel pumps of the air-breather motors, power to the control surfaces. The scramjet tumbles in an uncontrolled dive, the spine of its overstressed airframe shattering, the pressurized cabin exploding along welding seams, breaking up a kilometer above the Pacific.

    Over the next three days, U.S. Navy ships gather from the ocean's heaving skin luggage and life vests and seats and clothing, carbon fiber shards from the scramjet's wings and fragments of its titanium hull, and bodies and pieces of bodies.

    The tiny glass capillary tube, its seal broken, drifts more than twenty kilometers north before it finally sinks.

Oracle, Arizona:
October 12, 2026

    When she arrives home, Mariella pulls on her sheepskin-lined denim jacket, saddles her bay mare, Twink, and rides at a trot along the dry riverbed. A kilometer out, she turns the horse and urges her up a trail that climbs between scrub pines and junipers to the top of the ridge.

    It is not quite six in the evening of this unseasonably chilly October day. Across the desert basin, beyond the Batamonte Mountains, the huge sky is laddered with red clouds. Twink is sweating with the exertion of climbing the trail, her flanks steaming gently in the cold, dry air. The pungent odors of saddle leather and horse sweat mix pleasantly. Mariella twitches the reins when Twink drops her head to investigate a patch of engineer grass. A scurf of snow clings to the shady side of rocks and ruts. The air pinches Mariella's face and ears and fingers; she wishes she'd thought to put on her hat and gloves. She can feel cold in the barbell through her left eyebrow, the copper wires sewn along the rims of her ears.

    The lights of Oracle are scattered below the ridge, trailer homes and the translucent bubbles and interlocked glass-and-steel cubes of newer houses. Lines of eucalyptus and acacia trees define unmade streets which generally follow the contours of the low hills over which the little town sprawls. To the south, Tucson twinkles like a pile of diamonds; in the middle distance, the perimeter lights of the Arizona Biological Reserve define three hundred square kilometers in the darkening desert. The long tented trench of Gaia Two is so brilliantly illuminated it seems more intensely real than anything around it, an interstellar ark floating in primeval darkness. Vapor from the tall steel chimney of the liquid-nitrogen plant catches its glow, a feather of white pinned against the darkening land. Beyond the northern end of Gaia Two are the lights of the commercial research laboratories, each separated from its neighbors by landscaping and concrete ditches and revetments and wire fences, and in a checkerboard pattern beyond the laboratories are the concrete blockhouses that cap the shafts, built to the same design as ICBM silos, where frozen biocores are stored. Constellations of red warning lights wink among the panels and cableways of the big solar energy field.

    Mariella sits on her horse and watches as the sky darkens and the first stars come out. Thinking about the phone call from Washington. Thinking, not for the first time, that she has come full circle and that it's time to break out, time to move on. She can't let this chance go.

    The sliver of the new Moon is setting in the west. And there, in Leo, close to the bright point of Jupiter, is what she has come to see.

    Mariella rises in the saddle, reaches out with her right hand as if to clasp the red star of Mars to herself.

    "Got you!" she shouts. "Got you at last, you bastard!"

Washington, D.C.:
October 13-October 14, 2026

    Before dawn, Mariella drives her battered pickup to Tucson International Airport, collects her tickets at the South Western desk, and moves from business class lounge to scramjet with a sense of huge wheels invisibly meshing around her. All she carries is her slate, a set of clean underwear tucked into one of the pockets of its sand-colored canvas case. She is wearing her best clothes, a magenta bias-cut suit and a yellow silk shirt with pearl clasps she bought in Paris last year at the UNESCO conference on sustainability.

    The flight is shorter than the wait at the airport, an arc that briefly takes the scramjet out of the atmosphere, half of the continent spread below, and then down, gliding in over the interlocked curves of the Potomac Barrier to Reagan National Airport, where it is already noon.

    A limo is waiting for Mariella at the airport, and takes her to a hotel overlooking the river: the Watergate. Where she discovers that her appearance before the special ad hoc subcommittee has been delayed until the next morning. She can't get through to the NASA guy, Al Paley, but fuck it, it's just some bureaucratic glitch, the old hurry-up-and-wait routine. That's what she tells herself. Don't make a scene, don't screw up. Be a good girl and maybe they'll let you go to Mars.

    She buys a toothbrush and makeup in the vending machines in the hotel lobby, showers and hangs her suit and blouse in the steamy bathroom to remove their wrinkles, chooses something from the room service menu and tries to do some work. There is always work. There are a couple of slash clubs she knows about in the central D.C. area—Studio 7, The Meatlocker—but she can hardly go tom-catting in her business suit, and she will need a clear head for the next day.

Excerpted from The Secret of Life by Paul McAuley. Copyright © 2001 by Paul McAuley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Exciting SF

    In 2026, humanity faces a new crisis. There is a humongous biological growth in the Pacific that threatens to destroy the food chain. NASA believes that the Slick is a result of a find by the Chinese on the Martian polar cap. Microbiologist Mariella Anders joins a team of scientists investigating the Martian northern icecap to determine what the Chinese actually uncovered. <P>However, the idealistic Mariella must contend with bottom line scientist Penn Brown of Cytex, who wants to monopolize whatever is discovered, especially the means to eradicate Slick. On Mars, the Chinese team working at the site where the organism was originally found flees the area as they are now contaminated. The NASA team finds samples of the original organism and Mariella makes a desperate effort to return them to earth, alienating Cytex, the Chinese, and NASA. <P> THE SECRET OF LIFE is an engaging science fiction novel that once again shows how talented Paul McAuley is in getting his message across within an entertaining plot. Mr. McAuley rips extremists on either side of scientific discovery through his intrepid lead character. The greed and the ban without debate types are skewered and ridiculed for their intolerance towards the common good. However, the secret to what enables Mr. McAuley¿s books (see his Confluence stories) so good is he rips skin, but does so inside a believable, terse futuristic tale. <P>Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2009

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