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Book Review: The Terranauts

T.C. Boyle's novel takes us inside a scientific experiment to see if humans can survive in a closed facility

The Biosphere 2 facility in Arizona, which forms the basis of Boyle’s story. Photo: Lynn Johnson/National Geographic/Getty Images
The Biosphere 2 facility in Arizona, which forms the basis of Boyle’s story. Photo: Lynn Johnson/National Geographic/Getty Images

In September 1991, eight scientists were locked in Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona.

This was a “closed system" experiment heralded by some as the most exciting scientific project to have been undertaken in the US since the moon landing, and by others as New Age drivel masquerading as science. Admittedly, Biosphere 2’s legacy hasn’t amounted to anything glorious or long-lasting (in fact, in 1999, Time magazine included it in its list of 100 worst ideas of the century). The 3-acre dome containing five earthly biomes served as a test site for self-sufficiency: Could humans survive within a closed system that wasn’t supposed to have supplies coming in or going out? The results, it was envisioned, could have a far-reaching impact on our understanding of life on planet Earth, and serve as a prototype from which to develop a model suitable for the possible colonization of outer space.

The ambitions, as we can see, were bold and grand. Yet it failed. The “closed system" was breached when an injured member was allowed to leave and return, the equivalent of committing scientific suicide, that is, tampering with an in-progress experiment and contaminating a test site. Rumour also had it that oxygen needed to be pumped into the site when levels suddenly fell drastically.

The Terranauts: By T.C. Boyle, Bloomsbury, 508 pages, Rs599.

These incidents are repeatedly referred to in T.C. Boyle’s novel The Terranauts, based on Biosphere 2, except this time round it’s “Mission 2", a fictional group of eight humans, who enter “E2". The breach serves as a caution, and this team, at least to begin with, is determined that no matter how dire the situation, “closure (is) absolute and unbreakable, nothing in, nothing out".

Boyle’s novel is divided into Pre-Closure, Closure, and Re-entry, denoting the two-year time span we journey with his characters—a motley crew including a medical doctor, a techie nerd (hastily trained in dentistry), an animal husbandry expert, and an ecologist, among others. We alternate between three voices: Dawn Chapman, blonde, pretty, gritty, her “best friend" Linda Rye, bitter about not having made it to the final eight (because, she believes, she’s Asian), and Ramsay Roothorpe, cheerful, hedonistic, smooth talker.

There isn’t a doubt that Boyle—best-selling author of 16 novels—is a skilled, engaging writer. Doorstopper of a novel though this may be, it rarely feels its hefty weight. The narration is quick, light on its feet, pacy. Even with the terranauts (literally, “earth sailors") locked and bolted within the dome, with life a tedious repetition of milking, sowing, fishing, harvesting, cooking and exhausted sleep, Boyle keeps up the drama. He shifts incidents around in time, dropping hints of things to come, and inserts small domestic mysteries (who’s stealing bananas from the food storage room, for instance?). Despite, perhaps because of, their alienation, fission abounds. Not just between the terranauts, who at some point are reduced to eating frogs and peanuts, but also between them and the management team, comprising the leader of Mission Control, Jeremiah Reed aka God the Creator or G.C., sexy Judy Forester, and Dennis Roper, as well as future Mission 3 hopefuls Gavin, Trisha, Ellen. The “closed system", we begin to see, isn’t really hermetically sealed at all. Despite the sturdy glass and steel, there’s plenty going in and out—petty jealousies, sexual attraction, secrets and betrayals and lies. Human emotions, after all, know no boundaries.

Photo: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

The Terranauts brings together several of Boyle’s past thematic concerns: failed utopias (Drop City), fragmented lives (San Miguel), ecological fanaticism (When The Killing’s Done), but where this novel deviates is the tight (but predictable) interweaving of the biblical and the mundane, the spiritual and the carnal, the pure and the crass. At times, the vision behind E2 soars: “The special gift of E2 was in presenting a possible world with an eye toward tweaking it…to create an ideal one." Within the dome, life is ecologically and otherwise like nothing else on earth. When one of the terranauts becomes pregnant, the biblical theme is further expanded (especially when the baby is named Eve). The grand question is, could this be the future? To sustaining life on a planet in the face of a systemic worldwide collapse from nuclear war or climate change?

Alongside, though, runs the disconcerting sense that the project resembles a cheap thrills, drama-ridden reality-TV show. An ecologically driven “Big Brother" watched hungrily by the media and the public (the question topmost on everyone’s mind being, when are they going to have sex? And with whom?). In between these two, Boyle’s novel sometimes falters—and it is a precarious line to tread—struggling to keep it from deflating into one or the other. If the dome is suffocating for the terranauts, the closed narrative group can also be the same for readers, where we are relentlessly privy only to the thoughts of the trio. One gets the feeling, towards the end—and if this is what Boyle intended, then nicely done—that you’ve spent too much time with them in close proximity. At heart, perhaps that’s what we all are, closed systems trapped within our own narrow points of view.

Yet what remains, beyond the larger scientific concerns, is an idea closer to heart and home. Is it possible, or wise, for humans to survive, psychologically, within a closed group alienated from others? Within these intimate living quarters, relationships strain and break (both in Biosphere 2 and fictional E2). Tempers flare, sub-groups form, alliances shift. “We had only what we’d brought in with us," says one of the terranauts, and this, Boyle seems to hint, is the problem. That, no matter where we launch ourselves, be it into the depths of the Arizona desert or the farthest reaches of space, we bring along inside our flawed selves.

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse: A Novel.

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