The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle


28925208It is 1994, and in the desert near Tillman, Arizona, forty miles from Tucson, a grand experiment involving the future of humanity is underway. 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. Their sealed, three-acre compound comprises five biomes—rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean and marsh—and enough wildlife, water, and vegetation to sustain them.

In addition to their roles as medics, farmers, biologists, and survivalists, the young, strapping Terranauts must impress watchful visitors and a skeptical media curious to see if E2’s environment will somehow be compromised, forcing the Ecosphere’s seal to be broken—and ending the mission in failure. 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.


I went into this book knowing nothing about it – great for some novels but not for this one.

The interesting:

  • The novel is about a futuristic thing that’s happening in 1994.  They’ve pushed the technology of the time but it’s more mechanical and biological instead of information age stuff.
  • That’s all I have for interesting.  Let that be a warning to you.

The interesting (to me):

  • Many of the characters, especially the narrators, are unlikable.  No one is a saint, and some people are downright slimy.  I don’t mind this kind of thing but if you don’t, now you know.

The not-so-interesting:

  • This novel is about a futuristic thing that actually happened in the early 90s.  Real events are expanded on, of course, but for the first half of the book Boyle sticks closely to reality.  Here’s the thing – life is rarely paced at novel speed.  After the first exciting intro of characters the action drops off until there’s a Happening, but by then it’s such a wreck I didn’t care what went down.
  • People can get bitchy, I know, but women’s looks come up a LOT.  It feels genuine when (the only) person of color notes that all the chosen ladies have light-colored hair, but the rest of the time it’s just petty.  And not even petty in the way women (in my experience) can be, but petty in the way men think we are. ‘Why did he sleep with her, I’m prettier’, ‘She’s not even pretty’, ‘They picked the pretty girls even though I’m smarter’.  I mean, just look at this part of the extended synopsis:

    Told through three distinct narrators—Dawn Chapman, the mission’s pretty young ecologist; Linda Ryu, her bitter, scheming best friend passed over for E2; and Ramsay Roothorp, E2’s sexually irrepressible Wildman…

  • Continuing with gender stuff, there are four women in this crazy calorie restricted environment and there’s not one joke about it being the best diet ever.  Instead, one woman (already skinny) worries about “losing her figure”.  What.
  • The science, while not insignificant, fails to satisfy. I had a lot of unanswered questions – why aren’t there more fail safes and redundant systems?  How did you expect people to survive on a 1500 calorie/day diet when they’re doing manual labor day in and day out? And why the hell would you put all single people in there?  If someone is married they would have someone to call when things get rough, a built in psychological safety valve.
  • You kinda know why people are doing this experiment, but not really.  A couple of people seem to care about the science.  Another about money and fame.  But everyone else?  Who knows.  Because:
  • Minor characters are underdeveloped.  There are eight people in the biosphere – two main characters, three characters to help with plot points, and three characters I forgot existed.
  • Most of the action reads like an overblown soap opera.  ‘He was sleeping with me but now he’s sleeping with her’, ‘so and so is cheating on that other person and I know because I followed them around all sneaky-like’, ‘you can’t do that for a Halloween costume I already called it how dare you’.  I wanted to yell “who cares?”, “grow up!”, and “move on, already!” in turns.

So yeah, not a fan.

Thanks to Ecco and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.