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The Secret of Life (2001)

de Paul McAuley

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221491,510 (3.47)5
There is life on Mars. But could it end life on Earth? It's 2025 and the Earth is damaged. Irreparably.The quest for scientific solutions is hampered by commercial greed, political infighting and a mass fear that whatever we do, we can only make things worse. Then a miracle. Scientists at the Chinese Martian base have discovered the 'Chi' - an active micro-organism several kilometres below the surface. Very active. Left undisturbed for 2 billion years, it has super evolved and is able to swap DNA at will, maximising its survival whatever the environment. Against all protocol the 'Chi' is brought secretly back to Earth. Where it is stolen, and accidentally plunged into the pacific Ocean. Only a few weeks later, a giant slick of plankton is found growing at an exponential rate. It is sucking the seas dry of life. And the question must be asked. Who is colonizing whom? The wonder of Arthur C. Clarke. The claustrophobic tension of Alien. The science of Richard Dawkins. All taken to the extreme...… (més)
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Es mostren totes 4
A solid hard-SF novel, packaged as a near-term biothriller, set 25 years from publication (2001). This is the main flaw since it requires accepting advances by 2026 such as multiple trips by the US and China to Mars, and gangs who have self-modded themselves to look like werewolves. The biothriller part is a growing "slick" filling the oceans that is an escaped sample of Martian life. But the middle third is an extended trip to Mars and back, making this more classic SF. The actual theme of the book is the control of science by large corporations, abetted officially or unofficially (i.e., bribed) by the government and governmental science agencies, such as NASA.

There's a lot of running around and double dealing, and the extended ending is anticlimactic, but highly recommended. ( )
  ChrisRiesbeck | Jul 7, 2019 |
My reactions to reading this novel in 2004.

In some ways, the ending of this book reminded me of the end of Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination in that both novels feature a rather unrealistic optimism and faith in handling over vast technological power, unregulated by government, to the masses. In Bester's novel, it was the telepathically unleashed power of PyrE. Here it was the genetic sequence (albeit incomplete -- as noted you would have to sequence the DNA in every nanogram of it to get its complete genome) of the Martian superorganism, Chi. To be sure, PyrE's power can be accessed by anyone. Only trained biologists and "gene hackers" can use the power of Chi.

Still, as McAuley shows in his book, such gene hackers are relatively common. There are the designers of tailored gene therapies, smart drugs, and new varieties of illicit drugs as well as the large agribusinesses and biotech companies. If Cytex, in a bit of cyberpunk-like corporate espionage (and Chinese government retaliation), causes the slicks engendered by Chi and threatening the oceans' ecosystem (and, eventually, all life and climate modification), the Moses plague (a viral induced epidemic of spontaneous abortions of a very high percentage of male fetuses) may be the result of underground genetic manipulation.

To be fair, McAuley is aware of the counterarguments to the position his heroine, the genius of biology Mariella Anders, takes at the novel's end. That's why he makes references to the opposition positions. And the method of how Anders rallies public support to her by putting out the information the U.S. government and Cytex is pursuing her for was realistic. McAuely does such a good job detailing the world of science and coming up with a realistic future and giving us a hard sf novel that not only uses his training as a biologist but also has fascinating details on areology that the machinations of Cytex seem rather cyberpunkish. Cyberpunk is fun; practiced by a stylist like William Gibson, it's a delight to read, but you rarely feel like you're reading a really credible future world.

To be sure, McAuley does bring up some dangers about biotech research being turned completely over to the private sector: the delays in cures of diseases; the possible dangers of monoculture agricultural practices; the biowarfare targeted at agriculture crops and, maybe, racial groups (a conspiratorial possibility raised by some in the novel but not actually in the plot); the distortion in research efforts when, as Esterhauzy point out, it is somewhat dubious to develop a cure for Parkinson's when the Third World woman who has it may die of starvation. On the other hand, I think McAuley ignores potential spinoffs from for profit research that can help those who can't buy the target drug/treatment originally developed and the fact that Third World problems are largely social and cultural, not technological.

The other problem I had with this book is the rather muddled perspective of the greens. To be sure, even the ultra radical ones disagree on applications of genetic engineering. Clarice Bushor (actually, her sister who has taken her dead sister's name) represents a human hating, anti-genetic engineering extreme that thinks it wouldn't be a bad thing if the goddess Gaia got rid of humans. Then there are the weird wolfboys (and I can see a small minority of people willing doing this to themselves) who have somatically altered, via genetic engineering (though their germlines are not altered), to be wolf-like humans (elongated arms and musculature and elongated canines as wells as some metabolic alterations). They are ultra-green rads to, according to the book's nomenclature, but, while they reject almost all the accoutrements of civilization (they prey on animals and roam from place to place -- however, they do use the occasional high-tech weapon or mode of transportation), they certainly don't want genetic engineering. In fact, they want more so they can alter their germlines. The only thing that seems to unite the greens of this book is their dislike of genetic engineering for profit. I suspect that may be close to McAuley's position. He certainly seems in favor of biotech.

Still, there's a lot to like in this book. The science was very hard. The social and political background of a world suffering from greenhouse warming (and the dislocation of ecosystems due to changing climates and engineered organisms) was well done. I liked a cash-strapped U.S. government and NASA so heavily involved in making sponsorship deals with private companies. I liked the middle on Mars with the Old Woman of Mars parlaying her notoriety into wealth via media deals and her desire to be the first permanent inhabitant of Mars. I liked Dr. Wu's summation of the difference between British and American imperialism. (Americans want everyone to be like them. The British, incompetent as they were, respected differences.) I liked the fascistic portrayal of a future China which seemed realistic. I liked the surprising, if brief, interludes of violence and action.

The one rather jarring thing (besides the understandable, in a novel that appeared in June 2001, lack of references to terrorism) is, in a world dominated by Chinese and American rivalry (which seems realistic -- the European Union has taken itself out of the running by turning its back on genetic engineering and science in general due to the influence of greens), the complete lack of any mention of the future economic powerhouse of India. Again, however, I wanted this because the novel has such a realistic flavor. McAuley, like any other sf writers, can't expected to be a prophet. Still, it's surprising he omitted such references, even in 2001, in a near future sf novel.
( )
  RandyStafford | Mar 7, 2014 |
ZB5
  mcolpitts | Aug 1, 2009 |
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There is life on Mars. But could it end life on Earth? It's 2025 and the Earth is damaged. Irreparably.The quest for scientific solutions is hampered by commercial greed, political infighting and a mass fear that whatever we do, we can only make things worse. Then a miracle. Scientists at the Chinese Martian base have discovered the 'Chi' - an active micro-organism several kilometres below the surface. Very active. Left undisturbed for 2 billion years, it has super evolved and is able to swap DNA at will, maximising its survival whatever the environment. Against all protocol the 'Chi' is brought secretly back to Earth. Where it is stolen, and accidentally plunged into the pacific Ocean. Only a few weeks later, a giant slick of plankton is found growing at an exponential rate. It is sucking the seas dry of life. And the question must be asked. Who is colonizing whom? The wonder of Arthur C. Clarke. The claustrophobic tension of Alien. The science of Richard Dawkins. All taken to the extreme...

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