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The Terranauts: A Novel Hardcover – October 25, 2016
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“Boyle is a genius at capturing social microcosms and excavating emotions simmering beneath the surface of contemporary America...A gripping and revelatory tale.” (BBC Between the Lines)
“A sprawling tale of achievement, yearning, pride, and human weakness...a multilayered work that recalls the tragicomic realism of Saul Bellow and John Updike.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“A virtuoso storyteller and a connoisseur of hubris, Boyle mesmerizes and provokes...Boyle is a literary star, and an all-points publicity campaign and author tour will launch this shrewd and irresistible novel of ambition and folly.” (Booklist (starred review))
“This is one of Boyle’s best-and quite possibly one of the best of the year.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“The ultimate locked-room thriller.” (Vulture, Fall's Plottiest Books)
“[A] preapocalyptic tale from a master of maximalism.” (Esquire)
From the Back Cover
An epic story of science, society, sex, and survival from one of the greatest american novelists today.
It is 1994, and in the desert near Tillman, Arizona, forty miles from Tucson, a grand experiment involving the future of humanity is under way. As climate change threatens the earth, eight scientists, four men and four women dubbed the “Terranauts,” have been selected to live under glass in E2, a prototype of a possible off-earth colony with five biomes—rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean, and marsh.
Closely monitored by an all-seeing Mission Control, this New Eden is both scientific project and momentous publicity stunt for ecovisionary Jeremiah Reed, aka G.C.—“God the Creator.” In addition to their roles as medics, farmers, biologists, and survivalists, his young, strapping Terranauts must impress watchful visitors and a skeptical media curious to see if E2’s environment will somehow be compromised. As the Terranauts face increased scrutiny and a host of disasters, both natural and of their own making, their mantra—“Nothing in, nothing out”—becomes a dangerously ferocious rallying cry.
Told through three distinct narrators—Dawn Chapman, the mission’s pretty, young ecologist; Linda Ryu, her bitter, scheming best friend passed over for E2; and Ramsay Roothoorp, E2’s sexually irrepressible wildman—The Terranauts brings to life an electrifying, pressured world in which connected lives are uncontrollably pushed to the breaking point. With characteristic humor and acerbic wit, T.C. Boyle indelibly inhabits the perspectives of the various players in this survivalist game, probing their motivations and illuminating their integrity and fragility to illustrate the inherent fallibility of human nature itself.
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In real life, Biosphere II was a 3-acre glass-enclosed multi-environment dreamed up by John Allen and financed to the tune of $200 million by Ed Bass. Four men and four women were shut in from 1991 to 1993, doing what they could to cope with more and more adversity. They were permanently hungry, and during winter months when oxygen production from their toy forest was at a minimum, they all had headaches. Unfortunately, their solutions to these two compelling problems produced more acrimony than relief. There was food theft, major criticism from external supporters, and the eight biospherians split into two cliques of four that hated the sight of each other. On the up side, they emerged not as eight individuals but as four couples. So at least they had SOME fun in addition to all the hard agricultural work.
Boyle preserves almost all of those elements for his fictional Ecosphere 2. Hunger, headache, hard work, strife, and sex. The fictional version of Ed Bass is known as G.F. for God the Financier. Jeremiah Reed, known as G.C. for God the Creator, stands in for John Allen. Judy Forester is an analogue of Margret Augustine, the manipulative CEO of Space Biospheres Ventures until forcibly ejected from the site by federal marshals acting for Ed Bass (who apparently didn't appreciate Ms Augustine's creative accounting practices.) The physical structure that Boyle describes is exactly that of the real Biosphere, albeit set in the fictional town of Tillman AZ rather than the real Oracle Junction.
Boyle gives us three different narrators--two on the inside and one permanently jealous outsider. Ramsay Roothoorp, known as Vodge, and Dawn Chapman, known as Eos or just E, are the insiders. It's not much of a spolier to reveal that Vodge and E become a couple, because it's pretty obvious early on that it's on the cards. The outsider is Linda Ryu, nominally Dawn's best pal but turned into a devious spy by the management. Linda was so sure she'd be picked as a real Terranaut that when she isn't, her disappointment turns her against the world. The words Boyle puts into the lips of these three are highly believable--as the months of confinement drag on, the insiders wryly document their increasing disillusionment with their fellow Terranauts, and chafe at the tedious tasks of animal husbandry that occupy their lives. Several books were written by the real-life Biospherians, notably Jane Poynter's "The Human Experiment," but although Poynter was very frank about the conflicts, she held back on the sex. Since Boyle risks offending nobody, he adds a very generous dose of rumpy-pumpy both inside the glass and within the management team outside. Linda Ryu reports every salacious detail, some of which involve her personally. There's even some through-the-glass sex--and if you're thinking that doesn't sound very satisfying, I can only agree.
So that's the set-up, and about two-thirds through the book Boyle hits these people with a possibly mission-ending crisis. It would be a major spoiler to reveal it here, but it's a brilliant literary device because it challenges every one of the characters differently. If the art of fiction writing is character development, here we have it in super-abundance. It's delicious to watch how the insiders react with horror, and how the management types ultimately exploit the situation to their own cynical advantage. My only beef was that the final ending was, to my mind, so improbable that I instantly stopped suspending disbelief and simply rolled my eyes. Other than that, it was that rare thing, a book that I consciously slowed my reading of because I didn't want the experience to end.
This telling is true to form in that once sealed in, the Terranauts start acting like a bunch of Junior High School misfits relegated to afterschool detention. There is a constant stream of who are friends, who are enemies and in some cases Frenemies. There are love affairs inside and outside the dome, personal and emotional needs taking precedent over the function of the experiment and for some reason, known only to the author theater productions.
The characters are actually well fleshed from JC – short for Jesus Christ who is the leader of Mission Control and the conductor of this two year satire. His real name is Jeremiah which brings us to a testosteronal need for nicknames in most male dominated ventures. The three first person narrator voices are Dawn Chapman – manager of animals – called Dawn, Eos, E. Ramsay Roothoorp – head of communications – called Vodge. Linda Ryu, who works on the outside and hopes to become a Terranaut in the next group – called Dragon Lady, Dragon, Komodo.
Eventually the entire group, inside and out, seems to be spying on each other, gossiping, tattling and as I said earlier, acting like a group of Junior High brats. This whole experiment which is considered a first step in the eventual setting up a colony on Mars breeds a lot of religious allegory and a lot of satire. It takes an author of the caliber of Boyle to keep this from crossing the line into the absurd. The story, like so many that deal with the psychology of humans thrust in a restricted community, clearly proved the old adage: “We have met the enemy and he is us”. I guess the best thing that Boyle avoided in this captivating tale of self-imprisonment is that SPOILER ALERT they did not eat each other in the end.
For reference, there are 8 Terranauts plus 3 main supporting characters. The story is told alternating between two of the Terranauts and one of the supporting characters living outside the environment. We get a taste for 2 of the other Terranauts but there is almost no coverage of the other 4. In the end, the unique setting is a prop to explore the complicated relationships between the 3 main characters.
As would be expected, each of the characters is highly flawed, although they are credible in their own way. But the storyline is dragged into endless exploration of love affairs, friendship, and betrayal. I felt like I was spending more time reading a daytime soap opera than a relationship-based novel. While I did finish this book, I found it to be highly disappointing and a major letdown. Others may find this to be an important piece of literature. I unfortunately found it to be drivel.