BookBrowse Reviews The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle

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The Terranauts

by T.C. Boyle

The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle X
The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2017, 528 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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In a science experiment in the middle of the desert, participants engage in the everyday business of survival.

In an increasingly noisy and fractious world, the idea of "getting away from it all" holds undeniable appeal. Who among us, while grinding through our daily traffic-choked commutes, navigating crowded shopping malls, and trying to digest the non-stop blare of 24-hour alarmist media blather hasn't fantasized about just disappearing for a while? Those who harbor such thoughts should read The Terranauts, T.C. Boyle's latest novel about the apparent paradise of a world cut off from the tumult of our own.

Readers who were paying attention in the early 1990s to science and technology will likely recognize the separate, secluded setting of the novel as "Biosphere 2," a real-life experiment comprised of interconnected domes built in the Arizona desert with the aim of creating a self-sustaining world, a model of sorts for future human habitation (see 'Beyond the Book'). The widely heralded enterprise involved locking eight people into this artificial construction, which consisted of a simulated marsh, rainforest, grassland, desert, and ocean, for a two-year period. Once locked in, they were to remain there without any physical connection to the outside. As one of the novel's three rotating narrators puts it:

The idea here was to represent five of the typical biomes that self-generate life on planet earth, to model an ecosystem that would allow for living things, including humans, to thrive in a hostile environment – or a space station on another planet…Our species, through overpopulation, industrialization and the reckless burning of fossil fuels, was well on its way to destroying or at least depleting the global ecosystem and might just need an escape valve. New worlds. Seeds of life.

The novel borrows heavily from the experience of the original biospherians (here, called "Terranauts") who lived in what the novel calls "E2" (the second Earth). Drawing on their memoirs, as well as journalistic accounts of the experiment (which Boyle freely acknowledges in an author's note), the novel tries to fill in the psychic space of those geodesic domes, mapping the tensions and trauma that take place among the fictionalized terranauts.

The book flap promises "an epic story of science, society, sex, and survival," and though one expects a bit of hyperbole from a publisher's marketing department, I couldn't help but wonder if the person writing that had read even a little of the novel, as The Terranauts is not in any way "epic." In fact, it's the opposite; it's a book of very small, closely observed moments. Readers expecting a sweeping sci-fi gloss on humanity's place in the cosmos – or even a mild adventure story – should be forewarned. Very little happens in the novel, which is more Peyton Place (or more appropriately, since it's set in the '90s, Melrose Place) than Brave New World. The majority of what passes for plot is simply the relating of soap opera-like events (who sleeps with whom inside the biosphere, and who gets jealous because of it). Adding to the challenge is the general unlikeability of most of the characters, none of whom seems like they would be much fun to be locked up with for two years.

But what Boyle gets right is the sense of anxiety and claustrophobia that would certainly attend any such experiment (video cameras throughout the biosphere record their movements). What begins with great hope and goodwill among the terranauts slowly devolves into a burning disdain for one's fellow inhabitants. To live in such close contact – and to share the deprivations of nourishment and the loss of many creature comforts – wears one down. Boyle shows how bilious the daily struggle to exist can be when limited resources start to dwindle and petty jealousies are multiplied by the paranoia of forced enclosure. As the philosopher Sartre once noted, "Hell is other people" (His play, "No Exit" is one of the dramas the Terranauts occasionally perform among themselves to pass the time while locked inside.)

Regular readers of Boyle's fiction will recognize a few of his pet themes at work here: the consequences of thoughtless consumerism, the obsession with youth and physical beauty, and the precariousness of mental stability. Among his recurrent obsessions, though, it's his urgent environmentalism that finds the most unalloyed expression in The Terranauts, a passion that sometimes tiptoes to the very brink of stridency:

During our mission it was shown that after six months our blood became flooded with lipophilic compounds (PCB, DDE, and DDT) which had been released into our bloodstreams as we burned off the fat where they'd be stored, and there wasn't one of us who wasn't sobered by this evidence – evidence in the blood – of what was wrong out there in the world. None of us had been miners or worked in chemical plants or nuclear facilities. We'd lived normal American lives in the wealthiest country ever known and nonetheless wound up accumulating these toxins in our bodies just from having lived and breathed and consumed the food and swallowed the water in E1, and if that doesn't tell you something, I don't know what does.

Ah, modernity. If the food, water, and air don't kill you, the accumulated stress of daily life will surely do you in. And just when you think the only answer is to huddle with a few friends and get away from it all, along comes T.C. Boyle to show us that dream is as ephemeral as a desert mirage of paradise on earth.

Reviewed by James Broderick

This review was originally published in January 2017, and has been updated for the October 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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