Hard, near-future science fiction is the most difficult to write because it demands that the writer extend scienctific and technological trends to fit with near-term political and economic realities. Unlike pieces which take the longer view, a short term piece can only succeed if both its characters and its structure are believable. Paul McAuley is a highly educated, erudite, disciplined bio-scientist whose writing credentials suggest that "The Secret of Life" ought to be both readable and entertaining.
No one is expert at everything. Faulkner was perhaps one of the world's best writers because he was able to consistently discriminate between the inclusion of information that is enriching and the addition of descriptive information that serves only as ballast. The scientist as writer labors under a more rigorous discipline - in order for science to be useful and informative, to sustain validity and rise to a wholly inclusive standard, the scientist is obliged to report everything, leaving out nothing, so that those who evaluate the data sets can see where the anomalies arise with respect to the mainstream.
In fiction, especially science fiction, the inability or unwillingness to suspend this all-inclusive approach produces not richness but tedium. And because McAuley is erudite, he is irresistibly compelled to throw in everything including the kitchen sink and all the plumbing that goes with it. The book begins with such a relentless barrage of descriptive materials that the reader is obliged to plow through ten pages before anything meaningful happens. Indeed, McAuley could take a lesson from Dick Francis and Elmore Leonard, whose character portrayals require the reader to fill in the blanks with their own visual images.
While I appreciate knowing that the writer truly understands the entire scope of all the relevant issues associated with his story line, I found it hard slogging to bushwhack my way through the jungle of page after page of gratuitous descriptive material to find the characters and the story line. This makes the book a difficult read for anyone except perhaps those who prefer to read an endless, essentially unrelated litany of facts, simply because they like to know the facts about such things. The problem with even this element of the book is that the vocabulary provided by the author is largely technical jargon understood only by those who possess PhD's in biotechnology, genetic engineering, paleo-geology and astro-physics. Pretty tough sledding for the average reader.
On the other hand, McAuley provides an occasionally resonating glimpse into the catastrophic results produced by political alliances between multi-national corporations with undeclared agendas and the agencies of government created to regulate them. The combination of ruthlessness, desperation, greed and power-mongering found in the corporate characters is more than matched by the parochial attitudes of the radical greens, the Chinese government, committees of the US Senate, academic tyrants, socialist revolutionaries and nut cases that populate the story line.
I found McAuley's depiction of the main character to be unbelievable - not because she was portrayed as being more than human but because the discipline required to rise to the vaunted standard of scientific rigor she is supposed to evoke cannot coexist with a set of personal values which utterly refuse to discriminate between responsible and inappropriate behaviors outside the lab. After working with scientists of all stripes for more than 40 years, I recall meeting none whose hard-won credentials were given such short shrift as Mariella's characteer exhibits. She is simply not believable.
Finally, the most difficult parts of this book are the repeated passages during which McAuley's characters pontificate endlessly about their point of view. The moral, ethical and practical aspects of the consequences arising from the introduction of Martian DNA to Earth's unprotected environment becomes a series of lectures rather than an exercise in mutual discovery. As a reader, I much prefer to participate in the discovery of the mystery rather than be lectured to about it.
The principle question forming the premise of this book is simply stated: If you had reason to believe that life exists on Mars, what lengths would you go to to find it? And if you are willing to operate as if the ends always justify the means, and if you succeeded in discovering a new form of life on Mars, what would you do with it? And what would happen if you did? If you could, would you? And then what?
I'd like to be invited to take the ride from start to finish with all the characters. For me, great science fiction writing is a contact sport. This book fails to rise to that standard.