T.C. Boyle’s “The Terranauts” is based on the real-life Biosphere 2 in Arizona. The premise is that a highly qualified group of eight people will spend two years inside the similar but changed-just-enough “Ecosphere 2” in a completely sealed environment to prove they can. The company in charge of the operation speaks in lofty terms about scientific advancement, reaching the limits of human potential and learning more about how to live sustainably on “Ecosphere 1,” or Earth.
The size of the Ecosphere is the same size as the real Biosphere, just over 3 acres. It’s not much, but that’s part of the point of the experiment. Think on how difficult it would be for eight people to live only on the plants and livestock they can sustain in that space. It doesn’t seem possible; in theory it is, but there are a number of challenges. The real Biosphere suffered from engineering and planning problems, such as a constantly declining level of oxygen.
In the real Biosphere, human tensions also were a significant problem, and it’s clear Boyle wanted to focus on this aspect of the experiment. Unfortunately, Boyle does a poor job characterizing and developing his characters. They come across as children, not top people in their fields, though they are repeatedly described as highly educated and trained experts who have prepared for the experiment for years. They are all immature and selfish, and the best friends feel like nothing of the sort, instead always judging one another (usually on attractiveness and who they have slept with) and working against each other like antagonists.
The book is formatted as a series of accounts by Terranauts — the people living in Ecosphere 2 — or Terranaut hopefuls written after the events of the story. The idea is scientifically interesting, especially as the real Biosphere 2 failed miserably for a number of reasons, some illustrated in this book. When Boyle focuses on the science and the project, the story can be engaging and interesting. However, most of the time, it reads like a series of petty confessionals by people full of spite and arrogance. As I was reading, I felt trapped as much as they were, but this did not seem to be Boyle’s intention. At best, it feels like a season of “Big Brother,” except nobody is getting voted off the island.
There are three narrators: the clear hero/protagonist who is beautiful, intelligent and altruistic, at least in her own mind; the best friend who feels she is (and seems judged by others to be) less attractive, less intelligent, spoiled and bratty; and a man who gets almost no characterization beyond being an oversexed cad. The narration switches among them, but we don’t get the same events from different perspectives; time continues to move forward as the narrator changes.
When Boyle focuses on the science, the book shines. For the most part, the science is well written and accurate, and there are a couple of moments in the story during which the tension comes from working on problems in the design or overcoming outside forces. It’s a shame they are so short, because they do a great job showing the characters as the brilliant, hardworking people they are supposed to be.
In places, the language is beautiful and evocative, especially when describing what the Ecosphere is like: “There was a dense green living aura to the air inside that was utterly unlike the thin stingy air of the desert surrounding us. … Air that went in and out of your pores as if your whole body was a pair of lungs.” Boyle has a talent for potent descriptions that make things feel at once realistic and believable and utterly foreign and surreal. This fades when describing the life of people outside the dome, when descriptions become mundane and workmanlike, making it clear he is just furthering the story until he can get back inside.
The book was disappointing and frustrating; it feels like a wasted opportunity. It was a chance to explore interesting and timely scientific ideas and the social complications of such an unusual living arrangement. But instead of examining these ideas with nuance, it seems like Boyle decided to hinge the story on a middle-school-level drama about love triangles. The ending to the story is abrupt, irritating and fails to conclude the plots Boyle develops. When the book works, it works well, and begins to tell an interesting story based on real-life endeavors. It’s a shame so much of the focus is in petty squabbling that feels awkward and unnatural.