In a world being redefined by xenophobia and authoritarianism, reviewing books has seemed, well, frivolous of late. I read Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler last month, but was distracted by Trump before I could start a review draft. I tore through Han Kang’s The Vegetarian a week ago, but got sidelined by protests before jotting down any notes. I inhaled Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 on Saturday, but a murder mystery at sea seems silly when staring down an IRL humanitarian crisis. And don’t even get me started on George Washington’s biography—the man once graciously returned a lost dog to a British general, in the middle of a war. Donald Trump’s broadsides feel pettier than usual after even a few pages with the original founding father.
Still, reading a book—preferably one set in a time/place/galaxy far, far, away—can be a welcome reprieve these days, and I really went into T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts expecting to forget, for at least a few hours, about the particular brand of America we find ourselves in at the moment. I suppose, in some sense, the book did accomplish that: For a few beautiful hours, I disliked the characters in this novel almost as much as I dislike a certain newly minted leader of the free world.
The Terranauts is inspired by the Biosphere 2, an Arizona research facility created in the early 1990s as a closed ecological system meant to house groups of scientists for two years at a time. It is still the largest closed system ever created (though now a museum), and yes, it was the inspiration for seminal Pauly Shore film Bio-Dome, a movie that first familiarized me with marijuana and which I am pained to discover is now more than 20 years old.
The Terranauts is centered on its own version of the biosphere, the Ecosphere 2, and is told from the alternating perspectives of Ramsay Thornton, Dawn Chapman, and Linda Ryu, three of the Ecosphere’s would-be entrants. Ramsay and Dawn are ultimately a part of the second team ever to embark upon the two-year experiment (the first is felled by an injury in month one and breaks the airlock), while Linda waits her turn on the outside.
Two years is a long time for anyone in this equation. Certainly for Ecosphere’s crew of eight, who share close quarters inside a three-acre glass dome with a finite food supply and endless obligations to a handful of clashing natural environments (animal pens, beach, rainforest, desert). But also for those on the outside, those waiting anxiously for the completion of the first truly successful mission (like G.C., EcoSphere’s eccentric overseer), and those, like Linda, waiting anxiously for their moment in the bubble.
Two years is also plenty of time for some serious, serious shit to pop off. As Ramsay says in the book’s very first sentence, “nothing’s going to make us break open that airlock short of murder and cannibalism.” After that kind of intro, it’s hard not to expect The Terranauts to be some dystopian version of utopia, a beautiful hopeful creation undone by the machinations of eight flawed humans, humans perhaps made crazy by circumstance. I was picturing The Shining; I was picturing Lord of the Flies; I was picturing The Stanford Prison Experiment.
Instead what emerges is a Real World: Ecosphere (without the expert editing), a banal recreation of Biosphere 2 that wants for more action and much better writing. After reading the book’s acknowledgments—Boyle references the memoirs of a few members of the actual Biosphere crew —I can’t help but feel that he got so caught up in being accurate that he forgot to be interesting. Or even to create three distinct voices for his three distinct narrators. And nobody even eats anyone!
The Terranauts does have one big twist, or one and a half depending on how you look at it. The first comes about halfway through the book (just when you’re really starting to nod off) and even though it makes every annoying character, improbably, even more annoying, at least it’s a thing. A plot point. At least something happens. I’ll say no more.
Of Boyle’s three perspectives, the most interesting by far is Linda. As a human, she’s rendered clunkily—I never find her totally believable and, as mentioned above, she sounds just like the other two. As a woman, she’s rendered simplistically—she has about three emotional settings and makes an absurd number of comments about her hair. But despite being the only narrator not living inside a scientific experiment, Linda’s jealousy-fueld foibles are the most entertaining to watch. If The Terranauts were Office Space, Linda would be Milton and her spot in the Ecosphere that red stapler.
In conclusion, Boyle’s novel is a concept without a plot, and if it weren’t blessedly easy to read, I might not have lasted the duration. Five-hundred pages of The Terranauts, like two years inside a glass dome, is just a bit much.
TITLE: The Terranauts
AUTHOR: T.C. Boyle
PAGES: 528 pages (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Harder They Come, The Tortilla Curtain
SORTA LIKE: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves meets Bio-Dome meets Oryx & Crake
FIRST LINE: “They can call me a corporation man all they want, yet what’s a corporation really but a group of people getting together to advance mankind, and no, we are not and never have been a cult and G.C. is no guru, or not anymore, or he won’t be once we’re inside because once we’re inside nothing’s going to shake us and nothing’s going to make us break open that airlock short of murder and cannibalism, and even that just wouldn’t sway me—that would just amount to one more observable phenomenon in the ecology of closed systems.”