The Terranauts by T. C. Boyle
T. C. Boyle’s new novel is all about the plot, with the author is at his acerbic best. You would not be blamed for thinking he has no faith at all in humanity until you get to the end. I can’t tell you about that because it would be the final spoiler of all the spoilers I will not reveal.
In case you were living under a rock like I was in 1991, one of the major science experiments of all time called Biosphere 2 put a crew of eight scientists into an artificial glass-enclosed ecological environment for the purposes of demonstrating its ability to support human life leading to the successful colonization of planets. Located in Oracle, AZ, it was a 3.14-acre facility stocked with animals, seeds, trees, and five biomes. The carefully selected four women and four men were committed to remain sealed in for two years with phone lines to headquarters and a viewing window for visitors as the only contact with the outside.
These men and women were called Terranauts but they were human beings with many of the strengths of young, highly educated adults and all of the weaknesses. It is just the sort of story that an author like T C Boyle would be attracted to as a novelist. The publisher calls it “A deep-dive into human behavior in an epic story of science, society, sex, and survival.” It has all of that though Mr Boyle is always and forever mainly interested in human behavior. He does not miss one quirk or forgo any chance to take such behavior to the limit.
The day that the Terranauts go into the biosphere is called Closure. In Part 1, Pre-Closure, we meet the sixteen hopefuls as they vie for the eight spots available and then are chosen much like the sorting ceremony in Harry Potter. Three of the16 tell the story in alternating chapters. Dawn, nickname Eos, is a blonde beauty designated as Manager of Domestic Animals, strong in purpose and loyalty to the project. Ramsay, known as Vodge, will be Water Systems Manager with a second hat of Communications Officer. In addition to his scientific skills he is the consummate PR guy, as well as a ladies man. Linda is passed over, full of rage, and though she had been Dawn’s best friend before closure she turns traitor. Her chapters give the view from outside as she hangs on hoping to be chosen for the second team two years hence.
Included in the cast of main characters are the visionary who had conceived of the project (GC, short for God the Creator, is his nickname, known only to the Terranauts) and his chief aide Judy, nickname Judas. In order for GC to keep his investors happy, all manner of media events and spin must be created, another stress and strain on the outcome.
Reading along, one wonders how such dedicated, trained scientists could possibly be so venal, self-involved, hateful, and scheming. But isn’t that what we have been wondering for the last two years as we suffered through the Presidential campaign and its aftermath? It made for some queasy reading hours.
A good amount of science permeates the novel, though not as much as in The Martian or Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, but the focus is on interpersonal drama, personal motivation, and the very real physical/psychological hardships inside Biosphere 2.
Combine that with the fact that these long suffering candidates, who have worked for years at low pay, will emerge as celebrities when they successfully complete the two year enclosure. Whether they will prevail or not, a whiff of cult essence permeates the mindset of every person involved in the experiment from GC on down through the Terranauts themselves, the 16 upcoming candidates for the next two year enclosure, to all the support staff. It is the classic visionary and his loyal minions scenario that T C Boyle has explored in earlier novels like The Women and The Inner Circle.
Through every shift of loyalties, every emergency, and the many twists of plot, he keeps you hanging by threads of hope and anxiety. Though everyone stays in character, some admirable, some despicable, none of them are without complexity. If you have ever had experiences with cultish groups, you will be fully invested in the novel. If you haven’t, you might not be. Either way, expect some shifts in your own worldview. This is one of his best.
Judy Krueger has been reviewing books since 2009. She also runs a literary blog http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com. She is a member of at least 5 reading groups and reads 7 to 10 books a month. Every now and then, she works on the autobiography of her life as a reader or on her novel in progress. You can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JudyJudykrueger.