The protagonists of T.C. Boyle’s new novel, “The Terranauts,” live in a bubble — an actual bubble, their lives conducted under glass. They are the inhabitants of a biodome called E2, located in the Arizona desert. It has a savannah, a rainforest and an artificial ocean the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It is climate-controlled, but the hope of its creators is that it will become a self-sustaining ecosphere.
“Call it science-theater,” says one of his characters early on. “Call it a dramatization of ecological principles under the guiding cosmology of Gaia, in which E1, the original world where we were all born and nurtured, could be viewed as a living organism negotiating the heavy cosmic seas. … Everything connected, everything one. And E2, the New World, the first and only apart from the original one, was to be our laboratory and our home.”
If this story already sounds familiar, you are undoubtedly old enough to remember the troubled story of BioSphere 2. Located in Oracle, Ariz., it made headlines in the mid-1990s as a utopian project rent asunder by dysfunction. It was built by an eccentric Texas billionaire, but the project quickly went into bankruptcy and receivership while humans were still living, unaware, inside. In an author’s note to “The Terranauts,” Boyle openly admits his debts to the original project, though clearly he used the BioSphere 2 as a blueprint, not a roadmap. Like some of Boyle’s other books — “The Road to Wellville,” “The Inner Circle” — “The Terranauts” is not quite a historical novel. It’s a novel based on a true story, a true story whose larger implications sometimes seem opaque to Boyle himself.
As in the real-life biodome, E2 has only eight human inhabitants. They have been selected by an entity they call Mission Control, headed up by a man the Terranauts call J.C. (That’s short for Jesus Christ. His real name is Jeremiah, just to maintain the biblical flavor.) Life inside E2 is difficult, sometimes short on food, sometimes short on oxygen. But it is a chosen life. Everyone volunteered and went through the same competitive screening process to join their two-year “mission.” Over that period, nothing is to go into the biodome, and nothing is to go out. The Terranauts are to fend for themselves, no matter what disaster presents itself, either in the ecosphere they inhabit or in the uncomfortably close relationships they form with each other.
Boyle has three narrators, telling their stories in alternating chapters. The first is Dawn Chapman, a young ecologist chiefly in charge of pigs, goats and chickens in E2. The second is Ramsay Roothoorp, a rakish English major who has been appointed the group’s communications director, responsible for telling the story of their mission to the outside world. The third is Linda Ryu, who did not make the cut, but who is still working for Mission Control in hopes of a place on the next mission.
Each has a slightly different version of the truth of the mission, and each narrator is unreliable in his or her own way. Chapman is a pure idealist, refusing to take the contraceptive pills mandated by Mission Control because “wouldn’t that be a violation of the compact we’d made with the ecosystem of E2?” Roothoorp is a womanizer who seems to think mostly about sex and only occasionally about literature or even the mission itself. “Again, to repeat, I’m not the heartless manipulator some people have made me out to be,” is the sort of thing he often tells the reader.
And then there is Ryu — resentful, scheming and self-justifying. “I won’t play the race card because I really don’t think that had anything to do with it, though look at the hair color of the women they chose and you tell me.” Ryu is Korean, and the others call her Komodo, their “cute” play on “Dragon Lady,” so it seems very clear she is right about the racism.
Still, not one of these characters seems wholly in possession of themselves. You always feel, in “The Terranauts,” like you know something they don’t, not just about the plot but about how they are bound to react to any given situation. Most people in the world are, of course, like that. Self-awareness is in short supply. Boyle is offering an honest picture of humanity here, particularly the sort of humanity that gets involved in such a plainly romantic enterprise. He has a better handle on some of the characters than he does on the others — Ryu frequently borders on caricature. Overall though they’re human beings: brave, lost and often annoying.
But as the novel wears on, exposing us to more and more of characters’ foibles, and moving us through catastrophes we have come to expect because the characters can’t after all avoid being themselves, Boyle’s purpose in telling their story starts to become opaque. He is at best ambivalent on whether there is any method to the Terranauts’ madness, and his ambivalence becomes less a point of subtlety than a hole in the middle of the novel.
Why would anyone choose to ensconce themselves in an environment like this? The characters are given little backstory, so it’s hard to say. Their devotion to “the mission” is more often stated than explained. The idealistic haze of 1990s environmentalism is sometimes effectively evoked. At one point a galago, a small primate, movingly offs itself, which Roothoorp describes as “a caged animal driven to seek refuge in an alien place amid transformers and electrical connections and an improperly grounded wire in order to put an end to the brutality.” (182) This is, obviously, foreshadowing, and something like this does happen in turn to Chapman, Roothoorp and Ryu, but the nature of the disaster that befalls each seems personal, has little to do with the situation they’re in.
There is a very neat metaphor in “The Terranauts” for what a novelist does with his characters: drop them in the middle of a situation and don’t let them out until they have fought and loved and clawed and survived their way through a plot. Boyle, who has always been a writer of palpable intelligence, knows about the parallels between the story he is telling and what he does, I think. But he never quite says it. There is no omniscient narrator here, no winking author letting you know what’s up. One is grateful, somehow, for that. But still, you’ll leave this book wondering what exactly this whole grand experiment of Boyle’s, in all its beauty and ambition, was ever really about.
Dean’s book, “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion,” will be published in 2017.
What: T.C. Boyle discusses “The Terranauts” with Michael Silverblatt
Where: ALOUD at the L.A. Public Library, Mark Taper Auditorium — Central Library, 630 West 5th Street, Los Angeles
When: 7:15 p.m. Nov. 1
Ecco: 528 pp., $26.99