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on April 30, 2002
About a decade into the future, the United Kingdom and much of the world struggles to recover from the Infowar that erased most computer records. Needing a sense of security people turn to extreme right-wing elements to run the government. Leaders vow to cleanse society of pornography and related violence. To succeed on their quest to destroy the obscene, the Autonomous Distributed Expert Surveillance System (ADESS), a network of security cameras controlled by an artificial intelligent computer, is developed.

Not everyone acquiesces to the new world order. For instance London student Sophie Booth provides live performances in her apartment almost daily for her loyal following via her webcams. However, in front of her camera, someone wearing a Thatcher mask enters her abode and kills Sophie. Detested and scorned by his peers for alleged cowardly acts during the Infowar, "exiled" Police Detective John investigates the murder. The case should be obvious, but every new clue leads to a zillion questions and several dead ends and detours.

The key element to WHOLE WIDE WORLD is the chilling reality that this type of surveillance is here today even without a growing AI presence. The story line smoothly blends science fiction that feels more like science into a strong, old fashioned who-done-it starring an anti-hero with a lot on his plate besides the inquiries. All this turns into a strong suspense filled novel while Paul McAuley furbishes a convincing "warning" that will delight fans of science fiction mystery.

Harriet Klausner
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on December 29, 2003
Rating: "A-". A stirring saga of science, Mars, and life, marred by a
weak ending, but well-worth your attention.
Paul McAuley's usual topics and tropisms are well-employed in
this new biotech SF-thriller. In 2026 a Martian microbe, secretly
brought back to Earth by a Chinese expedition, is accidentally
released into the Pacific during an attempt to steal a sample by
Cytex, a powerful but unscrupulous American biotech firm. The
Mars-bug thrives, and grows into strange floating islands, which
shed 'slicks' that kill terrestrial marine life. The descriptions of
this strange alien invader are reminiscent of Ian McDonald's
wonderful _Chaga_, with a nod to H.G. Wells' _War of the
Worlds_. I'm not fully-qualified to judge McCauley's biologic
premise (and MacGuffin), which it wouldn't be fair to reveal, but
he's done his homework -- I'm weaselling here because of a
research lapse I'll mention a bit later, but rest assured his premise
is just fine for fiction. Is there a biologist in the house?
The Americans send an expedition of their own to Mars, hoping
to duplicate the Chinese discovery. The expedition scientists
include Mariella Anders, our protagonist and a biological genius
on the level of a Feynman or an Einstein. Like most geniuses
(genii?), she is unconventional: Mariella's foibles include body-
piercing, soft drugs, and rough sex. This last is used for blackmail
by Penn Brown, an odious Cytex scientist also on the Mars
Mariella is a high point of the book, and McCauley's best
character yet, I think. The descriptions of her scientific education
and career are full of neat observations and insights -- McAuley is
himself a former research scientist -- and her portrayal as a
Feynman-level genius is wonderful. A gen-Z greenpunk
biogenius -- all right!
The Martian scenes -- about half of the book -- are very fine,
strongly reminescent of Kim Stanley Robinson's RGB Mars
trilogy: impeccable (I hope) research and extrapolation, poetic
descriptions of alien landscapes, palpable excitement in exploring
a new world -- and a sadly-realistic portrait of the techno-squalor
around the Martian settlements, comparable to Swanwick's gritty
(and great) "Griffins Egg".
When Mariella returns to Earth, on the run with stolen samples
of the 'Chi', the Martian superbug, the story becomes a more
conventional -- and less interesting -- pursuit-thriller. I lost track
of the cardboard villains and bit-players (I fell asleep), and I'm not
interested enough to go back and sort them out. The dramatic
'climax' is just silly -- Mariella the greenpunk genius as a
charismatic crowd-pleaser at a big bioscience conference -- well,
my dears, you've been warned, it ain't the high point of the book.
McAuley makes a few other stumbles, notably in his Southern
Arizona scenes, where he misplaces a mountain range by a
hundred miles [note 1]. And the authorities seem curiously
unconcerned about the rapidly-multiplying Martian 'slicks', even
as they're ruining fisheries and alarming voters.
The bottom line: _The Secret of Life_ tackles big, meaty issues,
it's well-written, and it's fun to read. Even though it's not
completely successful, I'd say it's pretty much a must-read for
hard-SF and McCauley fans.
Note 1) -- illustrating the danger of using a setting the author
doesn't know well, when he encounters a reader/reviewer who
lives in that setting. This lapse will pass unnoticed by most
readers, but makes me uncomfortable about the quality of his
research in areas I don't know as well. Not that I read SF to learn
science (or geography), but McAuley has a reputation for playing
the hard-SF game with the net up.... And I do hope the many
mangled place-names are corrected in the US edition.
Happy reading!
Pete Tillman
(review written 4-01)
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on August 19, 2001
This near term hard science fiction novel covers a lot of territory, the politics of science being one of them, Paul McAuley is a scientist so he illuminates some of the in-fighting that occasionally occurs in scientific research. I thought the story was very well executed, and characterization was superb. The plot concerns a microorganism that is spreading in the Pacific ocean and threatening the food chain, and may have part or all of it's origin on the planet Mars. Dr. Mariella Anders, a microbiologist, does her part to investigate, and is also sent to Mars for further investigations, with a greedy corporation seeking to monopolize the research. Mariella is also a free spirit, delighting in the pleasures of living, well done, and not another puritanical novel here! Paul McAuley throws in some dead accurate social commentary in this novel also, and you can even learn a bit about biology in addition. But beware, this is not a shoot-em-up space opera, it is very cerebral and may cause a reader to actually think, but it still has it's share of action and suspense, and the trek across the surface of Mars is a masterpiece.
I found this novel to be very readable, it drew me in as I read more and more each day to get to the end to see what happens, and it is not far-out as some science fiction is today that lose touch with reality. This novel has as it's centerpiece a great biological mystery that I found fascinating, wrote in an easy to read, flowing style.
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on August 20, 2001
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick Awards, McAuley ("Confluence Trilogy") sets "The Secret of Life" in 2026, when global warming has submerged portions of the US coast, new viral infections menace humanity, and corporate greed reigns. The newest threat is a fast-growing slick in the Pacific, absorbing all nutrition in its path. Genetic examination suggests the slick is of Martian origin, probably brought back by the Chinese.
As life has never been found on Mars, this discovery excites scientists for numerous reasons, few of them altruistic. The protagonist, brilliant, bohemian, holistic biologist Mariella Anders, joins her nemesis, corporate-funded biologist Penn Brown and a NASA geologist, Anchee Ye, on an emergency Mars mission. Stalked by radical greens and shadowed by FBI, a rebellious impulse compromises Mariella's position, forcing her to leave for Mars under contract to Brown's employer, Cytex. Not wholly believable.
The Chinese have also mounted another mission and the tensions escalate as Brown, Mariella and Ye race across the desolate Mars landscape toward the pole and the rumor of life. Greed, accident and miscalculation leave the mission in perilous disarray and Mariella, trusting only herself, seizes the samples and flees.
There's plenty of action and speculative science on the origin of life but it's hard to believe even the most ruthless among us would risk sacrificing the entire human race for profit. If there's no people, where's the profit? An excellent writer, McAuley is at his best describing the eerie Martian terrain, truly evoking the strange, harsh, beauty of land without life.
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on October 28, 2002
I found McAuley's Secret of Life to be both a disappointing and difficult read. It's disappointing because the premise is excellent. A Martian organism with the ability to evolve rapidly by modifying its own DNA is released on Earth. Many exciting possibilities are immediately raised and the opening chapter is full of excitement and drama. The story follows our heroine as she attempts to retrieve a live sample of the organism from Mars and then her efforts to study the organism and release those results to the scientific community.
But the truth is the story fails to explore many of the scientific possibilities of this premise. The organism languishes passively in the ocean, while the story focuses on preaching for the virtue of open science versus the evilness of big corporations. As a scientist myself, this is something I certainly would agree with...but really didn't find anything very new added to this discussion. The science is so "good" and the corporation is so "bad" there's really no tension.
The other major complaint I had (you might not be as annoyed by this) is the writing style. This is my first time reading a book by McAuley and I felt it would have been much better at about 250 pages than the 400+ that it weighs in at. All too often extraneous paragraphs are tossed in on subjects utterly unrelated to the story. Here's a simple example (one of many). The heroine is discussing with someone how they should travel together. The other poor fool mentions something about horses and we then get a paragraph as our heroine internally recalls her childhood pony. What it's name was. How she loved it, etc. They then decide to take a car. In the right hands this could lead to greater character depth...but I found it mostly to be just filler and ended up skipping over many paragraphs like this.
The exception is the section on Mars which is tightly written and full of interesting ideas and tense situations. Sadly for me that portion was drowned out by the meanderings on Earth and the overall lecturing tone of the book.
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on June 9, 2001
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.
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.
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.

Harriet Klausner
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on February 5, 2004
How could the guy who wrote the books of Confluence - Ancients of Days etc., have penned this stinker? Why do all English Caucasian male
SF authors write from a female heroine narrative? I swear that the last ten books I have read by English White male SF authors
could have been written from the same generic template.
McAuley goes one better - we actively dislike the STANDARD FEMALE
HERO. She takes drugs, sleeps around with darn near anything and her closest friends are a lesbian couple who have "their own"
daughter via implantation. How PC!!!The Flight Engineer of the crew to Mars is a college and state football hero, mandatory brown skin, who "habitually wears a baseball cap turned sideways" with a "PH.D in the esoteric
mathematics of eighteen dimensional space" -you know how relevant
rappers are in advanced math! When I read this I almost fell out
of bed laughing. Why do we always have this racist drivel pumped out by male caucasian SF writers? Ursula Leguinn can handle
a variety of skin tones and biological makeups that have
dignity and value and dimension -this seemingly escapes her male
If I wanted to read some standard politically correct,I am a modern kind of accepting-guy crap, I would venture to the new age section of the bookstore and not the Science Fiction section.
When the book is not offending you with two dimensional half-wit
characters, McAuley seems to be offering some mystical, cloudy,
objection to Dawkins et al, perspective on evolutionary genetics
without ever actually saying what the alternative might be, outside of some kind of 'holistic' approach. Please, Paul, stick to space operas -you really shine there, but lighten up on the Politically Correct crap - we are all getting very tired of cartoon characters.
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on November 21, 2001
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. McAuley is saying that that science, in the form of research to solve real social problems, is not the enemy of society but is an essential part of enabling life to be this good for all.
But don't let me make you think that this is a worthy lecture. McAuley is an excellent writer with an unintrusive style that moves the story along. The opening sequence would grace any top thriller movie. The scenes in space and on Mars are effectively tense and claustrophic, just as those in the deserts of Arizona are expanisive and full of post-millenial possibility. In terms of character, Mariella is quirky and far from the stereoypes of either sci-fi women or scientists, and other important characters are also complex and varied enough in their emotional and political baggage to be believable. The resolution is satisfying, uplifting and positive.
The Secret of Life works very well in many different ways. If you like your scienctific optimism spliced with strands of feminism, environmentalism and real-world politics, this will be just your cup of tea.
What more could you want?
(Just another 'Fairyland', please!)
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on July 24, 2001
Having read - and thoroughly enjoyed - the Confluence trilogy, I picked up Secret of Life without even scanning it. Had I peeked,I would have realized that it's the type of sci-fi I have particular trouble with - where the science and technology are the real protagonists, not the human characters (or alien/ artificial intelligences).
The characters are 2-dimensional and largely unpleasant. As a woman, I found the main character Mariella particularly unpalatable (the book reviewer above must have been a man) - a generally unpleasant arrogant individual who's a man's vision of a 'liberated' woman (she mechanically has sex with anyone she meets in a bar, in every other chapter). Ugh.
To enjoy a book, a reader must identify with someone in it. The science is interesting - but I find I just can't finish this one.
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on July 18, 2002
Ok, I'm not actually done with the book, but even as an avid reader, I found it hard to get started with this book. The most annoying thing is his style of writing everything in the present tense. (example: She SAYS, " How are you doing?", instead of She SAID, "How are you doing"? He WALKS to the curb, instead of He WALKED to the curb.) A fine point, to be sure, but YOU try reading like that for hundreds of pages. If it doesn't grab me in the next fifty, I'm done.
UPDATE: I actually did finish, but wish I'd given up like I said I would. The pacing stinks, the charaters are launched around from location to location seemingly at random intervals, and that lousy use of tenses continued to bug me. Unless you are a hardcore fan of this writer and his style, I would avoid it like grim death.
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