The Terranauts is a novelistic re-imagination of the Biosphere 2 experiments of the early 90s. The Biosphere and the Ecosphere are the same size, have the same habitats, the same number of pigs, goats, and chickens and endure the same hardships, including fluctuating oxygen levels, cockroaches and infestations of morning glories. They also have the same number of people, though the people are, of course, completely different and fictional. T.C. Boyle acknowledges his debt to the Biosphere and the memoirs written by the people who were part of the original missions before you read the first page of The Terranauts.
The novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Dawn Chapman, whose iron will is the driving force of the story; Ramsay Roothoorp, a go-along-to-get-along PR glad-hander whose a bit louche; and Linda Ryu, a resentful second stringer whose friendship for Dawn is a confused mix of love and resentment. It begins the day Dawn and Ramsay learn they are chosen to participate in Ecosphere 2, a second mission that would redeem the failures and weaknesses of the first and the day Linda learns she is not going. She and Dawn fill a similar niche and throughout their training and preparation, their friendship withstood the certainty that if one could go the other could not, but that was stretched to the breaking point when theory became reality and Dawn was chosen.
These Terranauts have the inadequacies of the first mission to live down. The first mission breached the airlock for medical treatment and tainted the mission. They vowed from the beginning they would not do the same. This vow was tested again and again as oxygen levels grew dangerously low, as a power outage shut down the systems that regulated temperatures, and as Dawn discovered that she was pregnant. Needless to say, that was the biggest wrench in the works.
I am a long admirer of T.C. Boyle since The Road to Wellville, Tortilla Curtain, and his several short story collections. A writer who focuses a lot of his time on short stories is someone writing for love, not commerce. With Boyle, you get the sense he writes because he must, that even if he never sold a single book, he would still write and pile his manuscripts high waiting for the day the world caught up to him. He is one of the writers whose books I will check out and read without bothering to read the synopsis. I don’t need it, I know the book will be good. However, if The Terranauts were my introduction to his writing, I don’t think he would be on that list.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good story, fast-paced, full of interesting events and people and a pretty realistic look at how people behave in groups. I think, however, he fell flat when constructing his characters who while not completely flat caricatures, do not rise beyond two-dimensional.
Considering how well he depicted racism and its effects in The Tortilla Curtain and in some of his short stories, his portrayal of Linda Ryu was a disappointment. She is bitter, angry, drinking far too much, and basically an awful, double-dealing, back-stabbing person who occasionally rises to the occasion to be her better self, but not often. Boyle has her claiming she was not chosen because she’s Asian, not white, but precludes any serious consideration of that as a possibility by writing her as an emotional grenade set to go off at any moment. That she is even in consideration seems a failure of their screening. By writing her as manifestly unfit, he trivializes the reality that many qualified people are not chosen because of racism and reinforces the stereotype that unqualified people play the race card.
Dawn is the most interesting character, but even she is not particularly well-developed. She’s committed to the mission. She’s quietly implacable. Ramsey is a weakling, someone who hurts people by avoidance, going along until he can’t anymore, so that his change of heart is a much larger betrayal than if he could have just been honest in the first place. It’s a cycle he repeats with Gretchen, then Dawn, and I assume with everyone.
Nonetheless, despite its disappointments, The Terranauts is an interesting story and well worth reading. It’s fast-paced, moving right along. You will feel that you are there, in E2, that claustrophobic, endless imprisonment with just seven other people for two endless years. The tedium, the struggle, and the privation will feel real. Interestingly, even though his characterization of individuals was two dimensional, the group itself is far more complex and alive than any individual. Even though some of the eight are minor characters, as members of the group, they are still the stars, richer and more complex than the narrators.