As I’ve said in a previous post, TC Boyle is one my favorite writers ever, and he’s just plain bad-ass in the realms of wordsmithery and American letters. Now, when I first heard of The Terranauts, I was pretty excited because, subject-wise, it seemed to suggest that here was something of a departure for Boyle, insofar as this novel would involve space-age sciencey stuff, and not his normal milieu: cops, hippies, activists, Californians, families.
But here, even in this topically new realm, he’s again demonstrated his plainly incomparable grasp of character development and human dynamics, particularly in such a trying and interesting environment as the one inhabited by the folks in this novel.
The novel is set in Arizona, outside of Tucson, on a large swath of land owned by a private organization rivaling NASA in its importance for human advancement in the space age. The company is headed by a larger-than-life, Elon Musk-like fellow named Jeremiah, and he’s conducting a grand project that will set the stage for the eventual human colonization of Mars. They’ve built a facility, essentially a gigantic, atmospherically controlled, glass-enclosed greenhouse, complete with crops, livestock, hundreds of species of plants and animals, living and dining quarters for eight human beings, and an airlock through which nothing may pass, neither in nor out, except for once every two years. The closed environment inside of the biosphere is designed to be a kind of smaller version of Earth, and contains the various biomes that our planet also contains: a rainforest, a desert, an ocean, but all on a smaller scale. It’s all part of a grand experiment in which fifty consecutive two-year missions will occur back-to-back for one hundred years. The point is to test not only what kinds of crops and animals and sustainability protocols might work in a future colony on Mars, but also, perhaps most interestingly, to test what kinds of pressures a group of eight human beings can withstand in a closed system.
The novel begins as the first two-year mission is coming to an end. There’s a group of sixteen final candidates who have been preparing and training for years to hopefully be part of the second mission. Our three principal protagonists—and all three are equally the protagonists of this story—are Dawn Chapman, Ramsay Roothorp, and Linda Ryu. Dawn and Ramsay make the cut, and are part of the final eight members of the second mission, while Linda does not make the cut. Boyle writes the novel in alternating chapters from each of these three characters’ first-person perspective. The first section of the book is titled “Pre-Closure,” covering the period of time leading up to the second mission’s commencing, and comprising three chapters, one from Dawn’s perspective, then one from Ramsay’s, and finally one from Linda’s. This pattern of repeating chapters from Dawn’s, Ramsay’s, and Linda’s respective perspectives repeats eight times thereafter, throughout three additional sections (“Closure, Year One,” “Closure, Year Two,” and “Reentry.”)
To place the events in historical context, Boyle reveals that the second mission begins on 6 March 1994, about a month before Kurt Cobain killed himself, so we’re in a world before the full-on advent of the internet age and the ubiquity of cell phones, but we’re clearly in an environment of cutting-edge scientific technology and research.
Then, within these parameters, this painfully specific and nuanced premise, what transpires is essentially a riveting, delightful, and suspenseful soap opera. Once our eight astronauts on land (hence the title of the novel, terranauts) are locked into the ecosphere, there occur all manner of inter-relational dramatic twists, but also plenty of pure mortal drama resulting from the stressed, closed environment in which the characters find themselves. For example, the place is atmospherically independent of the outside world, so when there’s an extended period of cloudy weather, the plants inside the ecosphere don’t produce enough oxygen, and things can get quite precarious pretty quickly. Furthermore, when a medical situation arises in the absence of access to a modern hospital, things can also get hairy.
Now, if all of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is all based on a real series of experiments. In 1991, Space Biosphere Ventures began an experiment almost exactly like the one described by Boyle in this novel—eight astronauts for 2 years—in Oracle, Arizona. Indeed, the real-life experiment ran a first mission from 1991 to 1993, but, though the mission did run its full two-year course, the airlock was opened on one occasion when a crewmember with a medical emergency was allowed out and some supplies were brought in, undermining the whole point of the closed-system experiment. Boyle’s fictional version of this is quite similar, incidentally. Roothorp, especially, muses over the blatant failing of the first mission and the paramount importance during the second mission of maintaining closure no matter the cost, for the conceit of the whole experiment is that the mission must be self-sustaining. The real-life second mission was marred by even more extreme problems, but where Boyle’s talents as a writer shine is in his ingenious re-imagining of this second mission.
Needless to say, I won’t spoil the fun for you by revealing details of any of the twists that arise, but I can’t recommend this novel enough. It’s a wild ride, a space-age Lord of the Flies situation, a ton of fun, and yet another great work from the masterful TC Boyle.