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The Terranauts


The Terranauts

I think that T.C. Boyle’s work makes a good argument for the fact that all of adult life is just a retread of middle school. Boyle loves to see what happens when a group of very different human beings are placed together in an artificial atmosphere and forced to reckon with each other on behalf of a much bigger cause. Whether he’s looking at communes, early American settlers or fitness pioneers, there’s always a group of people thrown together to make good on some ideal way to live that turns out to be not that ideal after all. This is not to denigrate his work --- all great artists have themes, and this is the most prevalent of Boyle’s. THE TERRANAUTS falls directly into this category. Boyle understands the human condition like no other novelist working today. Yes, it’s a big claim, but I think he deserves that vaulted position. He’s that good all the time.

Societal, sexual and scientific survival is tested to its limits in a faraway Arizona desert location in long-ago 1994. Climate change is bringing immense threat to earthly life, and the government decides to select eight men and women to live in a biome community in order to see how much living can be done in such protected circumstances. These scientists, or "Terranauts,” will live under glass in an off-earth colony called E2. This small three-acre compound focuses on five different environments --- rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean and marsh --- and the animal life, plant life and water that are necessary to see them through years of existence.

"THE TERRANAUTS combines Boyle’s seething eye for human drama and frailty with the torn-from-the-blogosphere fear and controversy that climate change elicits from even the most astute scientific expert."

Mission Control watches over them like a fearsome Big Brother, under the leadership of one Jeremiah Reed, aka G.C. (yes, he is called “God the Creator”). He is an eco-visionary who enjoys the scientific exploration made possible by his creation, as well as the publicity and fame it will bring him personally. A previous incarnation was dismissed just hours into its existence when one of the scientists on that journey got sick and had to be ripped out of the sealed-off world for medical attention. To keep from failing this time, a new mantra is adopted: “Nothing in, nothing out.” Keeping the seal on the Ecosphere is the utmost responsibility of every scientist living there, as they try to provide psychological and medical assistance to each other, as well as appease a skeptical public and the nasty media circus waiting for the whole thing to crash down in a single moment.

The story is told by three people: Dawn Chapman, the mission’s attractive young ecologist (whose sexual proclivities could throw the balance off on this mission); Linda Ryu, her friend who has been left behind, saved for the possible second mission if there is one; and Ramsay Roothorp, a sexually voracious wild card who could upset the balance of life under the biomes in significant and decidedly adolescent ways. Like a government-funded game of “Survivor”with immense consequences for the fate of life on earth and other planets, this Terranaut exploration must work. But can this particular brand of humanity with its egocentric intellects and rampant sexual power plays put aside inherent homosapien traits for the betterment of humankind?

If you’re T.C. Boyle, it won’t be immediately evident, and you will spend a lot of time giving your readers a real run for their money, a run filled with humor, pathos and thrills. Seriously, THE TERRANAUTS is like a supersonic rollercoaster of a book --- ups and downs, switches of allegiance, lapses of seriousness and great drama at every turn, while staying stuck like prairie dogs inside little worlds sealed off from the real one in order to understand just how we can save ourselves, if that is even possible. Boyle has a party with this one, and it’s the kind that people will talk about for years to come.

THE TERRANAUTS combines Boyle’s seething eye for human drama and frailty with the torn-from-the-blogosphere fear and controversy that climate change elicits from even the most astute scientific expert. I love the way that he finds the ridiculous and sublime in such a huge and serious issue --- and manages to make you sad, mad, introspective and hysterical (laughing and otherwise) as you watch him manipulate his characters through this alternative world. Boyle is at the top of his storytelling powers (has he ever really failed us? I think not), and his need to make us feel in our own hearts and minds the experiences these characters have in this desert “planet” is palpable to all readers.

Put aside some real time to read this tome; you won’t want to get out once you get into the story. THE TERRANAUTS and their adventures are compelling, memorable and itchingly familiar as well. Long may Mr. Boyle reign.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 28, 2016

The Terranauts
by T.C. Boyle

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062349414
  • ISBN-13: 9780062349415