“It is 1994, and in the desert near Tillman, Arizona, forty miles from Tucson, a grand experiment involving the future of humanity is underway. 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. Their sealed, three-acre compound comprises five biomes—rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean, and marsh—and enough wildlife, water, and vegetation to sustain them.
Closely monitored by an all-seeing Mission Control, this New Eden is the brainchild of ecovisionary Jeremiah Reed, aka G.C.—”God the Creator”—for whom the project is both an adventure in scientific discovery and a momentous publicity stunt. 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, forcing the Ecosphere’s seal to be broken—and ending the mission in failure. 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 Roothorp, 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.”
My Thoughts: It is difficult to believe that something that occurred in the 1990s is considered historical fiction, but there it is. Anyone who grew up in the 1990s may remember the movie Biodome with Pauly Shore and one of the Baldwin brothers. The Terranauts is a more serious version of the movie, without the bad acting and interlopers who find themselves locked inside the biodome. The focus of the novel is on the human element, the one uncontrollable element of the entire experiment, and honestly, the human element comes out looking pretty bad.
The entire novel takes place over the course of the two-year experiment. Told from the three different viewpoints, we get the chance to see multiple sides of the drama. Unfortunately, the drama is essentially a soap opera under a bubble, and the three narrators are thoroughly unlikable. Each expresses a sense of self-righteousness that is meant to be a defense of their actions but turns out to be an indication of the egos at work. Linda Ryu’s narration is particularly disturbing as she comes across as a jealous, two-faced harpy.
Then there is the discomfort brought about by their unwavering belief in the mission. It borders on cult behavior, and there are some instances of the entire experiment being described as a cult. The focus on purity and lack of outside interference not only becomes repetitive but also downright uncomfortable because it is so extreme. Their behavior does not necessarily exude rationality, and their complete unwillingness to compromise at all makes one question their sanity as well. This does not just apply to the two terranauts/narrators on the inside of E2; since Linda is on the outside of the experiment, the argument that the extreme attitudes are a result of the pressures of living in the enclosure do not apply. In fact, Linda is just as committed to the entire experiment as the other two and exhibits the same attitudes and belief systems as the other narrators.
In other words, the people are just not enjoyable. Getting into the mind of someone with a mental illness or a serial killer is interesting because there is reason for their deviations from “normal”. In The Terranauts, we get to see inside of the minds of extreme believers, and that is a bit too much to handle because for most people that extremism is unfathomable. They have no reason for such unwavering faith, and it is scary. It is no different than the person who takes the Bible or the Quran literally or someone who joins a cult.
The other problem lies in the fact that there is no action at all. In a novel in which the characters are at least sympathetic in nature, the lack of action would be perfectly fine. Character-driven novels are enjoyable, insightful, and often quite thought-provoking. This character-driven novel is none of those. The three narrators are so selfish that it is like reading a novel from Donald Trump’s point of view times three. There is no character development, just a devolving into the most childish of adults. Given the space constraints of E2, there are only so many daily tasks and rituals that one can read without getting bored. While this is meant to confirm the devotion of the terranauts and their willingness to face such boredom for two years, readers do not have the same belief in the experiment as the characters in the novel and therefore struggle to understand why they put themselves through the torture.
It does not help to know that there was indeed a real-life E2 near Tucson and that in the mid-1990s, eight people locked themselves inside for two years as an experiment to discover whether a biodome would be a viable option should we need to abandon Earth. They faced similar challenges that those in the book face, except the real-life terranauts were willing to compromise and accept outside help when survival inside got a little dicey. Given this information, it is easy to extrapolate that many of the issues from E1, the first experiment, that Linda, Dawn, and Ramsey scorn so thoroughly are really the problems that arose during the real-life experiment. The fact that the second experiment only lasted six months, and the entire project was abandoned after that makes you wish that the same thing had happened with E2.
As much as I detested the characters and scorned the soap opera nature of their behavior, the surprising truth is that The Terranauts is an easy and somewhat enjoyable read. It really is a soap opera in book form, and there is something about a soap opera that is just so darn watchable. You hate what is happening and groan with every unrealistic scene, but you cannot turn away if you tried.