Lucy and Todd

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The Terranauts–T. C. Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 3, 2016 at 9:42 am

What would happen if you took eight people and sealed them up in a three hundred acre glass terrarium with plants and little pigs and fish and a lot of yams and told them they had to be self-sufficient, even to the point of recycling their own air and water? Would they bend to the task like Stakhanovites and make their employers and their parents and the American public and the press amazed and proud? Or would they fall quickly into factions, attack each other, become severely priapic, steal food and live so close to the bone that their egos protrude? Or would nothing occur at all?

Surprise, surprise: all of this happens in The Terranauts. Especially the nothing part.

Supposedly this is a trial run for establishing a closed ecosystem that could support human life on Mars, although during the course of the experimental two years the terranauts get so fed up with eating tilapia and yams and trying to distil booze out of rubbish, this quickly starts to look like a pretty quaint idea. (The Terranauts is based on a real experiment, ‘Biosphere 2’, which took place in Arizona in the 1990s, but it would have been better fun, socially, to set it in the Bush era—many more pricks to kick against.)

The Terranauts is narrated, turn and turn about, by three of the characters involved in the enterprise, which is run by a Richard Branson/Donald Trump figure, largely as a media phenomenon, but partially in cooperation with NASA. He seems an utter philistine, which is what you would expect, although he asks the crew to perform plays from the theatre of the absurd, like The Skin of Our Teeth, The Bald Soprano and No Exit. But these are Boyle’s conceits of course – this guy’s never heard of Sartre.

Ramsay, the ecologist, is the stud of the outfit. He tries to screw everyone in the organization, and half the women in Arizona, before they ‘go inside’ the habitat. There he presses himself on two of the terranauts, and struts around pontificating unconvincingly about ecosystems and masculinity. His only real scientific interests are girls and cheeseburgers.

Dawn is in charge of the animals. She’s so beautiful and soft-hearted. But dammit she’s a scientist and a terranaut too, so when it falls on her to slaughter the miniature pig she tugs at our heartstrings. Briefly.

Linda, Dawn’s best friend in the project, is on the outside, a support worker. She wasn’t chosen to go inside in this group, but hopes to be in the next team, in two years’ time. Like all these characters, she is surprisingly dumb. She’s also a schemer, a rat and an amazing bore – she’s not locked up in the glasshouse, she’s free, yet all she can think of to do is to drive around southern Arizona getting drunk and flashing her semi-celebrity terranaut status at guys in bars.

Dawn has sex with Ramsay without birth control, very much against the rules—the fragile ecosystem would not be able to handle another human being. She becomes pregnant. Ah, you think, a possibly interesting abortion story—but no.

Whether Boyle is attempting to say something about the kind of shallow egomaniacs that would volunteer for this sort of overblown unscientific hokum, it’s hard to say. The satire is surprisingly limp; you need George Saunders for this kind of drastic, speculative adventure. Boyle doesn’t bother to differentiate the voices of the narrators, which is odd, because usually he’s very agile. After a while you start to feel you’re as low on oxygen as the terranauts.

Reading The Terranauts is something like being sealed in a ‘biome’: it feels like a big responsibility, nothing much happens, and it is no fun at all. In reality, it would be impossible for these people, such as they are, to care for each other, or for us to care about them. And the novel is exactly the same. As Linda says, “They’re fools. Careless, petty, banal people.”

There are crises, in the nature of the familiar crises you get in books and movies about submarines and spacecraft. The characters always come back from the brink. They are seemingly invincible, which is a little hard to believe because they’re all so stupid. Maybe it would work, wrapping up all these half scientists and ducks and yams and starfish in cellophane and putting them in a rocket and sending them to Mars, maybe it’s feasible. But one thing’s for sure: it’s dramatic suicide.


This review appeared in the National on October 16, 2016