T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts: Life Under Glass

I’ve just finished T. C. Boyle’s latest novel, The Terranauts, and I’m still puzzling over it. For those who aren’t familiar with the book, here’s a description:

 

“It is 1994, and in the desert near Tillman, Arizona, forty miles from Tucson, a grand experiment involving the future of humanity is under way. As climate change threatens the earth, eight scientists, four men and four women dubbed the ‘Terranauts,’ have been selected to live under glass in E2, a prototype of a possible off-earth colony with five biomes—rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean, and marsh.

Closely monitored by an all-seeing Mission Control, this New Eden is both scientific project and momentous publicity stunt for ecovisionary Jeremiah Reed, aka G.C.—“God the Creator.” In addition to their roles as medics, farmers, biologists, and survivalists, his young, strapping Terranauts must impress watchful visitors and a skeptical media curious to see if E2’s environment will somehow be compromised. As the Terranauts face increased scrutiny and a host of disasters, both natural and of their own making, their mantra—’Nothing in, nothing out’—becomes a dangerously ferocious rallying cry.”

The first third or more of the book involves the reader in “pre-closure,” the period before these Terranauts enter the time capsule for two years. Boyce uses that section to provide some depth to the charactereview-of-terranauts-copyrs and to establish the complicated interpersonal dynamics between them. The material is interesting enough, but my involvement in the narrative increased after they were enclosed in this kind of modern Eden.

Boyle’s G.C., the man in charge of this adventure, bears a strong resemblance to another well-known creator, JC, and there are other analogies. We have a female Judas (Judy) and an Eve figure in Dawn, whose daughter, born in captivity, actually is named Eve in the novel. Unfortunately, these allusions get a little worn out, the parallels often feeling overdone.

But the actual pressures these characters experience while serving their two intense years inside seem believable and create another level to the interactions. Of course, sex offers some diversions but also some serious problems (which I can’t discuss because of spoilers). The irony is that one of the main point of view characters, Linda, who was passed over for this particular mission but is in training for the next one, is dying to be a Terranaut and attain all of the “fame” that accompanies living in a kind of glass-enclosed terrarium where the inhabitants’—human and animal—lives are on display 24/7, except when they’re in the privacy of their small apartments. On the other hand, those on the inside, can’t wait till they’re free, their lives severely circumscribed during their confinement.

One can speculate that this confined world resembles in many ways the one we actually inhabit, though on a much smaller scale. Still, the Terranauts experience lots of the same conflicts and power struggles that happen on the outside, so readers can view as if under a microscope these familiar dynamics. But I did feel puzzled by the ending and unresolved. Otherwise, Boyle presents a compelling study not only of the problems we face as a species on planet Earth, but also of how vulnerable we are to inner and outer uncontrollable impulses. No matter how rational and scientific we may be, it’s the irrational that actually rules us.