Cover of book: The Terranauts

T. C. Boyle
The Terranauts

Terranaut Ramsay Roothoorp’s big “closure ceremony” speech has been followed by an uncomfortable silence. He has given them some numbers – the hermetically sealed Ecosphere where the eight Terranauts will spend the next 24 months is three acres wide, eight storeys high, contains 3800 plant and animal species, and five biomes including savanna, a rainforest and a miniature sea. He’s followed with some brief comments on the environmental and atmospheric studies they will undertake that will one day help humanity survive global warming or life on Mars. And he’s brought it home with an inspiring line about what the mission represents, something about the synergy between technics and ecology. The crowd looks baffled. He leans into the microphone, lowers his voice, and repeats the mission’s mantra: “Nothing in, nothing out. Four men, four women. Going where few have gone before.” The crowd goes wild.

These few moments of silence, filled as they are by the crowd’s incomprehension and Ramsay’s recalibration of his message, tell us a lot about the Ecosphere project, the delicate balancing act the Terranauts are required to perform on its behalf, and the kind of world they, and by inference we, inhabit. “And no, it wasn’t a stunt. And it wasn’t theatre,” Ramsay tells us, looking back. “But certainly those elements were present… Call it science-theatre.” 

They also draw attention to the way T. C. Boyle has chosen to tell this story. That is, in hugely engrossing, gossip-laden rants from three of the Terranauts in waiting (Ramsay, Dawn and Linda), who are determined to tell their version of the Mission Two story and who can’t help but vent their spleen. These accounts have something of the tell-all celebrity memoir about them, or the testimony of former cult members. The promise of excitement and intrigue, maybe even sex in the biome, is not just what the gossip-hungry press wants, Boyle seems to suggest, it’s what the reader wants, too. And on this score The Terranauts does not disappoint; this is Swiftian satire as rollicking romp. But it transcends the salaciousness to become a deeply human story, too. 

The book begins about a week before the sealing in of the Terranauts. It’s 1994 in the Arizona desert. Two years of training, testing and team building is about to culminate in the selection of the “Final Eight” from a larger group of 16. They will become Mission Two. They will close the airlock of the armoured glass Ecosphere behind them and for the next two years do whatever they can to not “break closure”. 

Psychologically, things are already not going well. Competition over the coveted places has undermined any camaraderie fostered by the team-building exercises. Dawn figures she and Linda, her best friend on the crew, are vying for the same spot. Their qualifications match so other factors are in play and Linda is likely out by her calculations – “and it had nothing to do with the fact that Linda was Asian, but only how she looked in a two-piece”. Linda begs to differ: “Mission control might as well have been curating an exhibit called ‘Blondes of the Biomes’.” Both of them note Ramsay seems confident. Does he know something they don’t? 

Because these interleaved narratives are post-mortems on the mission, there is a tone to each that suggests how things might play out. If Dawn is emotional and occasionally rhapsodic about it all, Linda is undisguisedly furious. Ramsay seems conflicted about the experience: “I’ve been called everything from cold and calculating to the face of the mission and its beating heart too. My own assessment? Frankly? Somewhere in between.” 

Boyle is good on the Faustian pact of celebrity. Public relations are paramount for this funding-reliant project, and as the eight undernourished, vitamin D-deprived Terranauts quietly go crazy under glass while tourists snap photos of them tending their crops, the tension between the public image of the mission and reality keeps ratcheting up. Indeed, what is reality in such an oddly pressurised environment becomes increasingly difficult for the Terranauts to parse.

Alternating the narrative between the three characters amplifies this. The complexity of these relationships, which have never felt more transactional one moment, or more intensely real the next, is vividly portrayed. So is the fragility of their state of mind. Thoroughly indoctrinated by the visionary behind the project, Jeremiah Reed (nicknamed “God the Creator”), the Terranauts have divided selves. They can’t seem to decide if they are struggling to hold fast to mission ideology or trying to shrug it off. “We all wanted this so desperately we couldn’t begin to conceive of anything else,” says Dawn, at the beginning. But they do begin to conceive of other things, and with each new crisis they face, who is in the right and who is in the wrong becomes murkier. Following Dawn and Linda’s attempts to maintain their friendship through all the ups and downs is particularly heart-rending. 

There is of course a soap opera element to all of this, and there is also something of the masochistic pleasures of reality TV. Who will hook up with whom? How will they hold up once winter comes and food and sunlight are in short supply? What will happen if some of them want to break closure? The sinister edge to the rhetoric is clear from the outset. “Nothing in, nothing out. Ever,” Ramsay intones.

But for all this, and all the humour derived from the increasingly undisguised self-absorption, The Terranauts is ultimately an affecting story about fallibility and agency. The undernourishment, the factional divides, the biological imperatives, the demands of mission control and those of their fellow Terranauts: if Dawn, Ramsay and Linda struggle with all of this, they also struggle to retain a sense of self they can live with.

As Dawn puts it near the end of the book: “There are times in life when you have to do what your heart tells you, no matter who it hurts or what the consequences are.” Consumed by hatred and now motivated by revenge, Linda, her erstwhile friend, couldn’t agree more.  SH

Bloomsbury, 528pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2016 as "T. C. Boyle, The Terranauts".

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Reviewer: SH

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