August 22nd, 2002

The Thursday Morning "Science!" Review: The Secret Of Life

My plan of (amongst all the other books) to read the 2002 Clarke Award shortlist continues apace, reaching Paul McAuley's The Secret Of Life. Paul McAuley was, until recently, a research biologist. It's probably why he's written one of the best novels about science I've ever read.

The Secret Of Life is a biological mystery story, that takes us from the Arizona desert to the polar icecap of Mars and back again, while navigating the politics and factions of modern science, and at the same time giving us a view of a world just around the corner. A Chinese Mars mission has brought something back, and big business has stolen it. Unfortunately, this has lead to its escape. The Chi is a natural genetic engineer, and it's co-opting zooplankton genes and starting to cover the oceans. A NASA mission is put together to find out just what the Chi is, and how it can be stopped. Mariella Anders, a whizzkid scientist now in the middle of her career, seizes on the chance to go to Mars, and to make new discoveries. Unfortunately she's not good at the politics of science, and the compromises she makes put her in the pockets of the genetic industry, who want to Chi for their own purposes. And it turns out that one of her biggest scientific rivals is going to lead the expedition...

It's a refreshing read, with engaging characters, and a set of twists and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat. McAuley's recently been refining his writing in his Quiet War series of short stories and novellas, and it's clear that he's using a new set of tools to tell his story. Characters grow as we learn their back stories, and we see that even the road to big business is paved with good intentions. Sure, one could point out that his Mars is quite definitely influenced by Kim Stanley Robinson, but that's only to be expected, with Robinson using the isolated scientific communities of Antarctica as his source material. This is the raw stuff of scientific research, after all.

An excellent book, and one well worth reading. You'll come out with a much better idea of how science works,
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Miyazaki: The Pixar Connection

I've enjoyed Hiyao Miyazaki's wonderful animated fantasies for some time, but his latest film looks as though it takes his work in a new direction, while still exploring the deep myths of the Japanese spirit world. The involvement of John Lasseter on the English adaptation is interesting, and I'd like to compare his dubbed version with the Japanese original.

Still, the Disney work on Princess Mononoke was superb, so I'm going to have to keep an eye out for a UK cinematic release and pre-order myself the DVD...
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More Pixar: The Shorts

Doing a link check for the last entry I found that Pixar's classic short films are now online (you'll need Quicktime to watch them). Check out the classic "Luxo Junior" (and isn't it the inspiration for the new iMac?) and the wonderful "Knicknack" (with the Bobby McFerrin soundtrack).

Now if only they'd take their old promo reel video and turn it into a DVD. Our copy is starting to wear out...
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The Tursday Luchtime "Two Reviews In One Day?" Review: Antarctica

If we ever go to Mars, Antarctica is going to be a likely training ground. It's cold, inhospitable and dangerous - but still beautiful and alluring. The author of the Mars trilogy Kim Stanley Robinson had the opportunity to go down south, as part of the US Antarctic presence's writers and artists programme. The result (along with some of the work on the Mars books) was Antarctica.

Antarctica is a continent given over to science, but in the early part of the 21st century the treaty that governs its development is due to expire. Robinson's novel is set just after its expiry, when politics in the rich North have given the poor South a foothold on the frozen continent, and a chance to extract its riches. A lovesick worker, a freelance tour adventure tour guide and a US Congress staffer are about to find their lives changed completely by the frozen continent. And at the end of their story we may find a new way of living with the Earth...

Perhaps it is the Mars trilogy writ small, but Antarctica is a story of a culture on the verge of becoming something new, of a world trying to find its way outside the trap of its history, and of people just trying to live thee lives, but finding themselves driven to make a difference. Yes, this is the engine of history, of government. It makes Antarctica an intensely political novel, but one that remains true to its roots as story, and so one that is hard to put down. It's also a novel about science, on a par with Paul McAuley's The Secret Of Life in its true life depiction of real, working scientists.

This is Stan at his best, angry at the way we treat the world, hopeful that we can find a way to solve our problems. Antarctica may well prove to be his Stand On Zanzibar, as he begins to inherit the mantle of John Brunner.
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