There were times when reading The Terranauts where I felt like I had read this story before. It wasn’t that it necessarily had a strikingly similar plot or anything nefarious; no, it was more so that its overarching themes rekindled a sense of hopelessness that so few novels can convey sincerely while still remaining fun to read.
While echoes of Stephen King’s Under the Dome rippled as I learned that the characters inside T.C. Boyle’s sixteenth novel are sealed beneath glass inside an experimental five-biome ecosystem called E2, The Terranauts are being shut off from the world by choice.
It’s 1994, the desert plains of Arizona. It’s three years prior to the Kyoto Protocol which extended the treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the growing uncertainty attributed to the knowledge that global warming has been caused by excessive manmade carbon dioxide. In Boyle’s latest fictional world, humans caught on to the threat of global warming much quicker and with more concern than, well, many of us today.
Scientists have whittled down prospective scientists to eight lucky contestants who will embark on a journey of trying to replicate an Earth-like colony that could persist off-Earth. Like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the picture painted at the outset of The Terranauts is that this is humanity’s last chance at saving itself from themselves. The sealed environment consists of a rainforest, savanna desert, ocean, and marsh, and the job of the eight scientists is to figure out how to survive.
The setup makes it seem as if the novel could become, in some effect, preachy. We are led to believe that perhaps these prestigious few are the answers to the worlds problem with its own species. But, characteristic to T.C. Boyle’s 34-year career in letters, The Terranauts becomes a book that is ahead of its time in terms of global outlook, but incredibly timely with regards to its humor, conflicts, and radiant wit.
Narrated by three distinct voices within the group, Boyle’s diverse cast is constantly watched over by Mission Control, and, inevitably, the outside world. They live and die by the slogan, “Nothing in, nothing out,”—meaning that they are determined to live as if the world outside of E2 has really fallen, and this is their last hope. There’s elements of George Saunders here. Perhaps the decision to set the novel in the mid-nineties makes the whole thing ironic. The scientists, convinced that they need to maintain the integrity of the experiment, in some respects devolve into savagery. They are getting back to nature in the bizarre methodology that is a human engineered ecosystem.
Before long, the pursuit turns into a spectacle that latches onto the intrigue of the media and subsequent onlookers. In what seems like a nod at the need for publicity in order to do right, the constant watching by those outside of E2 turns Dawn, Linda, Ramsay and company from fact-driven researchers to instinctual beings who engage in a large amount of sexual activity, enough to convince the reader that these individuals are tasked to repopulate the world.
In an attempt to convey the flawed nature of this manufactured world, and it’s effect on those who are subjected to what ends up being a reality game of sorts, the narrative voices that Boyle chooses to embody are all ones who lean heavily in the spectrum of narcissism. It’s not quite that they are unlikable, but that they are full of themselves in ways that manifest in greater fortitude when placed behind the walls of E2. Considering that eight people were tasked with saving the world, it is somewhat understandable that, by and large, their perceptions of themselves in relation to the world around them is rarely grounded in reality.
Boyle’s latest novel hits on a lot of notes, but its choice brand of humor (deadpan) may not be appealing to everyone, and the characters inside E2 sometimes agitate and occasionally infuriate.
The Terranauts jumps off of an interesting premise in unexpected ways, and mostly succeeds. T.C. Boyle is a wonderful storyteller with a seemingly endless palette of riveting ideas.