The Secret of Life
As I said in my review of The Gate to Women's Country, I've enjoyed reading many books from the Gollancz SF Masterworks series over the years; they're generally well written and thought-provoking pieces of work and provide a nice way to discover new authors. Unfortunately, and like the previous review I've just mentioned, The Secret of Life is one of the few exceptions that prove the rule; I just didn't find it a particularly engaging read.
At first glance, The Secret of Life contains some key building blocks for a great sci-fi novel: alien bio-chemistry, industrial espionage, space travel, and a race to find the key to a major discovery before it falls into corporate hands. Unfortunately, and in spite of this potentially strong foundation, none of the pieces fit together into a pleasing whole.
There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. The one that was first obvious is that I find McAuley's prose rather grating. It's very descriptive; the kind of writing where you learn every detail about a character, down to the colour of their shirt buttons, when they are first introduced to a story. I have read other novels where this has not bothered me so much, but with those the prose of the author tends to be beautiful - bordering on the poetic - whereas McAuley's descriptions are detailed, but utilitarian; not the kind of thing that is pleasurable to read on its own.
McAuley seems to be well liked, and my adverse reaction to the writing style could well be down to personal preference. I did eventually get used to it and settled down into the story, which is where the second, and rather more glaring flaw became apparent. The main issue I had with The Secret of Life, you see, is that the protagonist seems to spend the entirety of it making chronically stupid decisions. We all make mistakes in life and some of them can seem obvious to outsiders even if they are hidden to us at the time, but the cycle of finally getting something she wants, then throwing it away for something as trivial (and obviously a really bad idea) as escaping from a secure government compound the night before a space launch to go on an all-night bender is repeated so often it becomes very, very old.
This flaw, which can not be anything but a poor device to try and add excitement or further the plot, is exacerbated by the viewpoint: while mostly written from a 3rd person limited viewpoint, we are very rarely, if ever, given any insight into the protagonist's thoughts, only told about her actions. Again, this can work well in a story, but it combines very poorly with the aforementioned regularity of poor decisions; a little bit of perspective into the character's thought processes might give some clue as to why she is acting in this fashion.
I came close to giving up on this book a couple of times, but did eventually persevere until the end. I would not recommend it to others, however.