THE TERRANAUTS, by T.C. Boyle. Ecco, 528 pp., $26.99.
T.C. Boyle’s new novel, “The Terranauts” is a fascinating look at what happens to eight people sealed in a biosphere in the Sonoran Desert for two years while also having to play to media expectations. It’s 1994, and financial backer Jeremiah Reed, aka God the Creator, envisions the biosphere as the first step to possible life on other planets. The novel is based partly in fact; there were two real-life biosphere experiments in the early 1990s that failed due to lack of resources as well as interpersonal dynamics.
“The Terranauts” is narrated by three distinct voices: Dawn Chapman, a young ecologist in charge of managing the domestic animals; Linda Ryu, a finalist turned spy for Mission Control; and Ramsay Roothoorp, the communications officer, who is always looking for sex. Dawn and Linda’s relationship is the most complex in the book, as their friendship is strained when Dawn is chosen for the biosphere and Linda must stay behind. Linda tries to navigate her feelings of loss and jealousy by gathering personal data on test subjects for Jeremiah. She soon finds herself grappling with the boundaries between the ethical and unethical as she finds potentially damaging information on Mission Control itself, as well as information that will hurt Dawn.
Dawn tries to alleviate the tension in their relationship, while also managing her new living arrangements, with various degrees of success. She quickly develops an attraction to Ramsay that turns into an ongoing affair, producing a baby (named Eve) — an occurrence that throws the team into disarray as their quarters were made for exactly eight humans, not eight and a half. The tension escalates as food becomes scarce and their oxygen supply erratic due to cloud cover. But Dawn finds new purpose both in baby and biosphere, prompting a decision that surprises everyone, Linda and Ramsay most of all.
Ramsay’s task is to sell the story — whether to Jeremiah and his assistant, Judy (whom Ramsay also slept with), the public or his next sexual conquest. If the biosphere is to be a kind of Eden, Ramsay is both Adam and serpent.
These intertwining narratives recall early reality television shows such as “Road Rules” and “Big Brother,” where everything is being recorded, revised, edited and shared. While entertaining, Boyle’s characters could have used more development and felt one-dimensional. Boyle’s descriptions of the biosphere are intriguing, but the reader wants more of them — after all, the problems encountered by the eight companions here actually did occur in the real biospheres, and they have relevance for how we grapple with environmental concerns today.
For instance, our desire to “return to nature” doesn’t always anticipate the wildness and unpredictability of ecosystems. In “The Terranauts,” the team brings on board morning glories “that might have been pleasing to the eye but cut off light to the biomes, especially the rain forest.” They encounter roaches and scorpions that they hadn’t intentionally brought on board, and the galagos need to be fed a “Purina Monkey Chow” mix because they aren’t getting enough insects and fruit.
The galagos are an interesting, almost grotesque frame for the book, as one beta galago is bullied and torn apart by another, despite the terranauts’ attempts to save it. Those brief encounters display the brutality of the natural world, but also hint at the underlying violence that comes with living in a hyper-mediated environment. “The Terranauts” falls short of fully exploring these issues, instead focusing on the dysfunctional relationships of its characters, with moderate success.