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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,