Paul McAuley: “The Secret of Life” (c) 2001.

Paul  McAuley  is a British biologist  and science fiction author.  He has written a number of series, novels, novellas, and short stories.
His science fiction themes include far-future space travel and planetary colonies, alternate history, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.
His novels have received or been nominated for a number of SF awards, including the BSFA Award, the Philip K. Dick Award,  the Arthur C. Clarke Award,  and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
His  novel “Pasquale’s Angel” , set in an alternate Italian Renaissance, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History (1995).

Paul McAuley’s  novel “The Secret of Life”( 2001)  was nominated for the BSFA Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

“Some races are increased, others are reduced, and in a short while the generations of living creatures are changed, and like runners they relay the torch of life.”
– from the poem  “De Rerum Natura”   (“On the Nature of Things”)  by  the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC)  *.

“The Secret of Life”   is a biotech SF thriller set in the near future (2026 – 2028).

In 2026 an unknown microorganism appears in the Pacific ocean. It forms an enormous mass of long interconnected strands and the formations are called slicks. Preliminary research by US government scientists and Cytex, an American biotech company, shows that the microorganism feeds on phytoplankton. However, the microorganism’s fast and immense growth kills off the phytoplanton in the surrounding waters, and the impact spreads to all marine life.

Scientists suspect that the slick may be related to a microorganism, Chi,  that a Chinese expedition to Mars is reported to have discovered deep beneath the Martian icecap.

Dr. Mariella Anders, a biologist at the Arizona Biological Preserve, is recruited by NASA as a member of an expedition to Mars to search for microorganisms. Mariella is a brilliant biologist, with expertise and knowledge in molecular genetics, part of her quest into unraveling the molecular origins of life. She is extraordinarily creative in finding solutions to intractable and complex problems., with the ability to think in terms of the big picture and to think outside the box.

 The biotech company Cytex is underwriting the NASA expedition. The US government has given Cytex virtually exclusive rights to research and potential applications of the slick organism, and to any related microbiological findings on Mars. Cytex scientists have found that the slick organism in the Pacific uses the same molecular building blocks for its genome as all life on Earth. This means that microbial life on Earth and Mars must have arisen from the same ancestral microorganism.

The slick microorganism grows by combining its genetic code with that of the phytoplankton in the oceans. Its ability to modify its own genome and to adapt rapidly to changing conditions has far-reaching implications for commercial applications in genetic engineering.

Mariella and other scientists believe that all scientists should have access to the findings by Cytex. Mariella is very excited by the question of a common origin of life on Mars and Earth. But in order to go to Mars, she has to sign a confidentiality contract with Cytex.

On Mars, Mariella will work together with Penn Brown and Anchee Ye to search for microbial life.

Penn Brown is a scientist and one of the founders of the Cytex biotech company. He has built strong working relationships with key members of the White House Staff and NASA. Howard Smalls of the White House and Al Paley of NASA are in charge of organizing the Mars expedition, and provide key support from Earth.

Anchee Ye is a NASA scientist and astronaut. She has been to Mars on a previous expedition.

The story is about Mariella as a scientist, it is also about her courage and determination when she finds herself in life threatening situations. It is also a story about access to scientific research and applications, and about political struggles and conflicts between Cytex, NASA, the various US Government committees for science, space and technology, and individual research organizations and scientists.

The origins of the Slick microorganism in the Pacific

When a  Chinese expedition discovers microbial life deep beneath the Martian icecap,  the American company Cytex makes a covert arrangement to obtain a sample of the Mars microorganism, Chi, from a Chinese scientist in Shanghai. The plane with the sample on board blows up over the Pacific. The Chi is released into the Pacific, and grows into slicks.

The American Expedition on Mars

 The Lowell Base Station is NASA’s permanent base on Mars.
From Lowell Station, Mariella , Penn Brown and Anchee Ye leave in two rovers heading for the Martian Northern ice cap.  The icecap is believed to consist of water, rather than frozen carbon dioxide.

On the way to the icecap, the team receives news from Mission Control in Houston that a second Chinese expedition is already at the Northern ice cap, but something has gone wrong. The Chinese team was doing borehole work, and the Chinese government has warned of hazardous microorganism release into the environment near the camp. One crew member has been infected , and is at the camp. The fate of two others is unknown. A Chinese rover remains parked near their Mars spacecraft.

Penn Brown, impatient, to get to the Chinese camp,  drives his rover fast and recklessly and crash lands into a shallow crater. The rover is wrecked, Penn is alive, but may have unknown injuries. Anchee and Mariella work together to haul Penn out of his rover; they salvage equipment and supplies, and continue their journey in the second rover.

As they near the Chinese camp site, they see a laser signal flash near the base of an ice cliff, near the camp. They stop to rest for the night. However, sometime in the very early morning, Penn leaves on foot for the Chinese camp. Anchee and Mariella drive in their rover towards the camp, following  Penn’s footprints. Not far from a green tent, the footprints become unclear, and there is no sign of Penn. Suddenly someone fires shots at the rover. Mariella and Anchee scramble out of the rover, and take cover near the rover. There is a gunman near the green tent.

Anchee knows Chinese and she uses the rover radio to communicate with the lone gunman. The gunman is Dr. Wu, and he is dying. He can speak English, and knows about Mariella ‘s scientific work. Wu says that his team was infected by liquid water from a blow-back pressure release from the borehole. The team had been working to contain the Martian microorganism with a viral infective agent from Earth.

Suddenly Penn Brown appears from behind the green tent, running straight towards the rover. He crashes into Anchee and Mariella and says he has found the borehole. He removes cartridges packed with charges from a crate in the rover, and runs back towards the green tent. Dr. Wu shoots him. There is a fiery flash of light near Wu. And both Penn and Wu are dead.

By now, satellites and communication balloon drones are in the Martian sky, over the North icecap. As Mariella and Anchee bury the two men, the comm sats and drones relay photos to Earth. Over four billion people are watching the events through remote sensing technology.

Mariella and Anchee work out a plan for survival in an environment contaminated with deadly microorganisms, until rescue comes from Lowell Station . Their Rover is shredded with gunfire. Motors and computers are damaged. They set up an environmental tent, salvage equipment, food supplies, and get permission from Mission Control to do some drilling and sampling at the borehole.

The next day,  Mariella opens the  borehole icecap with a proton drill.  A trickle of water spills out of the drilled hole.  She takes samples of the borehole water, and sealed samples from Dr. Wu’s collection of   the Chi microorganism.

It will be several days before Mariella and Anchee can be rescued. The Lowell Airship is currently at the Martian South pole . However, Barbara Lopez, who has been living on Mars since 2017, radios them that she is on her way to help them.

Some days later, Barbara Lopez arrives in her rover, and with her is Alex Dyachkov, a NASA photographer, who is documenting Barbara’s  unique research of an ancient Martian lake.   Alex prepares NASA videos and photographs & documentation for the public. He videos the Chinese camp, the boreholes, and the graveyard.

Mariella  gives Alex half of the Martian microbial samples to take back to Lowell Station, and to Earth. She keeps the other samples for Cytex as part of her contract.

With tech help from Earth, Mariella and Anchee prepare and launch the Chinese spacecraft for their return to Earth. There is email and other news from Earth; The Slick has spread to other oceans on Earth. Cytex keeps in touch with Mariella. The US National Security Agency informs Mariella that she will be arrested as soon as she arrives back on Earth, for national security violations.

Mariella reads through scientific journals to get some idea of how to culture the Martian microorganism in the lab; and she prepares small sealed glass tubes containing frozen Chi samples and packs them into a thermos.

On Earth:

The spacecraft lands in the Gulf of Mexico, and not in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida as arranged by NASA. Mariella and Anchee are rescued by green activists working with the Clarice Bushor Group. Clarice Bushor is a wealthy and very influential woman, and her organization supports many different groups,  including ecology & environment  activists.

With the help of the green activists and Mexican revolutionaries, Mariella and Anchee are taken inland to a safe enclave, for recovery from their space flight. Anchee dies within a few days from a weakened heart. When Mariella is well enough, she travels to an Agriculture Research Station in an area controlled by Mexican revolutionaries. Bushor sets up a lab at the Research Station.

Mariella still has her samples of sealed tubes containing Martian microbes. Following a hunch she is able to grow  the Martian microorganism  in sealed tubes containing slivers of  porous rock. She seals the slivered rock samples with the Martian microorganism  into very small glass tubes and places these into a small stainless steel tube. On a journey filled with perils, she returns to the US with help of green activists. Her journey ends in Texas at a desert ranch which has a  Conference Center. Her Friends and colleagues greet her warmly as she arrives at the Center.

Within a few days, the scientists gathered at the Center complete the extraction, purification,  and genetic analysis sequencing of  the Martian microbial samples that Mariella has brought with her.

 The microbial genome turns out to consist of  thousands of tiny linear molecules. The genome has  the same genetic code molecular building blocks (A, T, G, and C nucleotide) as Earth’s life.  Life on Mars and Earth  must have arisen from  the same ancestral microorganism, perhaps  3 or 4 billion years ago.

Then Mariella goes to Anaheim, California. She is the keynote speaker  at the Conference of the American Society of Cell and Molecular Biologists. She  is  also to meet with US Sen. Mae Thornton and Al Paley of NASA.   But she is arrested by Secret Service agents as a risk to the US national security.   Her arrest brings Green activists by the hundreds to  the Anaheim Center, and conference delegates, including Nobel laureates,  join the activists demanding that Mariella be allowed to speak.

Al Paley of NASA learns from Mariella thar she has evidence that the White House staff member Howard Smalls has made a deal with Cytex in return for financial support of his election campaign.  The US government also learns that Cytex is withholding information  from their work on the Martian organism.

Al Paley secures Mariella’s release after a hurried court hearing. And next day Mariella gives the keynote address.


Mariella becomes  a special advisor to the Office of Technical Assessment in the US government.  Her responsibilities  including the planning & funding for the Martian microorganism projects, for the many diverse groups who  want a slice of the pie. She enjoys the work, and follows with keen interest  developments in the  research and containment  of the Slicks.  But the Martian slicks have  left a permanent mark on Earth’s ecology.

Mariella’s personal life:

Mariella’s team member on the Mars expedition Anchee Ye, and her husband Don Ye had planned to have children, after Anchee ‘s return from Mars. To avoid potential space-related biological damage Anchee and Don had placed ova and sperm into cryogenic storage, before Anchee left for Mars. Anchee died within days after returning to Earth.
Mariella persuades Don Ye, to allow a fertilized egg to be implanted in her — she is now pregnant with Anchee and Don’s baby boy.



“De Rerum Natura” (Latin; On the Nature of Things) is  a poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC).  The poem is about  Epicurean philosophy and  physics, using images and metaphors, to explain
atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; sensation and thought;  and celestial and terrestrial phenomena.

Translation  by William Ellery Leonard (1916)