Paul J. McAuley : The first novel I attempted to write (but didn’t finish), age 15, was set on Mars, perhaps inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and the juvenile novels of the astronomer Patrick Moore. Even then, before the Mariner and Viking space probes, Mars was obviously a landscape that could be mapped; it had an atmosphere and ice caps, and there were markings that could be resolved by optical telescopes based on Earth; unlike Venus, it was not shrouded in dense clouds; unlike Jupiter and Saturn it *had* a surface. So yes, I had an interest in Mars for a long time, and it’s amazing how much we know about it now, compared to how little we knew about it back in the late 1960s.
ActuSF : Did you read a lot of books settled in Mars?
Paul J. McAuley : I’ve read most of the SF novels set on Mars, and an awful lot of the scientific literature. And of course in the last few years I’ve been able to follow the discoveries of the new generation of Mars probes over the Internet. I was able to use online maps and photographs to zoom in on the areas of Mars that feature in the The Secret of Life.
ActuSF : With The Secret of Life, did you write a hard SF novel or a political book?
Paul J. McAuley : It’s a hard SF novel about the way that science and politics intermesh, or sometimes fail to mesh. Science is at its best an impartial dissection of the way that organisms or the world or the universe work: truth is paramount, and a scientist’s reputation depends on her veracity. Some politicians pick and choose facts to suit their particular bias or agenda - as in the recent scandal over political manipulation of NASA climate data. Part of the story of The Secret of Life is a dramatisation of the damage and dangers caused by political interference and partiality.
ActuSF : The Secret of Life is settled in a very near future. Aren't you afraid of the obsolescence syndrom?
Paul J. McAuley : I chose the particular near future of The Secret of Life as a setting for the story I wanted to tell. While I hope it’s self-consistent and plausible, it isn’t meant to be an accurate representation of what lies ahead of us. Any writer who attempted that would be suffering from some kind of acture overconfidence, I think. It doesn’t matter that details turn out to be wrong as long as the story and the setting are plausible.
ActuSF : You're depicting very different green countercultures, but they're all marginal. Do you think that this kind of community, loosely connected by the strict application of uneconomic growth, is the most viable solution to pollution?
Paul J. McAuley : I think a bottom-up approach is much better than a top-down command and control economy approach. After all, responsibility begins with the individual, and how we choose to live affects the demand we put on the environment. Right now in Britain, many of the challenges of climate change and carbon footprints are being met at a town or village levels rather than by the national government. A campaign to ban plastic bags in the village of Modbury has caught the national imagination, and several towns are making plans to have a neutral carbon footprint. Some problems are more amenable to large-scale solutions of course - electrification of the railways to replace polluting diesel locomotives is one example. But loose economic networks without central control by with common aims are very robust because they have many pathways - many solutions to problems. And that seems to be a very useful approach to a problem like climate change, which causes all kinds of problems in itself.
ActuSF : What's your opinion about GMO?
Paul J. McAuley : I think that the European ban on GMO crops is unsustainable - it’s a luxury that a food-starved worldcan’t afford. Unfortunately, the big GMO companies have too often gone for modifications that are more for profit than utility, but that’s changing. Right now, we’re at the point that computing technology had reached in the 11960s - large mainframes built and owned by a few large companies. As the technology becomes cheap and universal, GMO will hit the PC phase, and that’s when it will become really interesting. I think that it’s quite possible to be green and to use GMOs.
ActuSF : Speaking of sustainable development, is there a state of emergency, yet?
Paul J. McAuley : Obviously there is, because the world’s resources are finite and growth in demand continues to rise exponentially. What’s alarming is that all kinds of critical shortages are arriving at once - water, oil, rice, wheat, soy beans, fish, metals . . . It’s actually a worse scenario than I imagined when writing The Secret of Life!
ActuSF : Why your characters are always nonconformist persons?
Paul J. McAuley : Modern SF is a nonconformist literature, and its main narrative thrust is the triumph of the individual over the norm. The Secret of Life follows that model to some extent, but I think that Mariella is less of a nonconformist than she actually is - she’s a self-declared rebel because she’s not only uncomfortable with hierarchy, but she can’t get along with other people. Which creates for her as many problems as solutions.
ActuSF : Why writing in present tenses?
Paul J. McAuley : The Secret of Life is the second in a loose trilogy of novels about biotechnology in the near future. The other two are Fairyland and White Devils. They’re written in the present tense to strike a sense of urgency and immediacy. Not ‘this might happen’, but ‘this is happening right now!’ As indeed much of it is in the world we presently inhabit; I’ve simply exaggerated current trends.
ActuSF : The Secret of Life was written in 2001. Things have changed since then. Do you think you would write the same book in 2008?
Paul J. McAuley : It would be more or less the same book because it would be about the same characters in the same situation - the discovery of life on Mars and its effects on life on Earth. A few details might be changed, but overall I think we’re still heading towards the kind of world in which the US and China (and India) are contesting for economic and political power, and climate change is going to cause all kinds of changes forseen and unforseen. Of course, it isn’t likely that we will have esablished a manned base on Mars by 2026, but that’s the science fictional part of the book!