T.C. Boyle Revisits a Real-Life, Failed Futuristic Experiment in His Novel The Terranauts

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T.C. Boyle Revisits a Real-Life, Failed Futuristic Experiment in His Novel <i>The Terranauts</i>

Will humanity ever establish an off-Earth colony?

There’s no end of science fiction that tackles this question, looking to the future for answers that fall just about everywhere on the utopian-to-dystopian spectrum. But novelist T.C. Boyle considers the question from a different angle, turning instead to the recent past when an eccentric billionaire and a band of environmentally-minded scientists constructed Biosphere 2 in the desert north of Tucson, intending to test the viability of a completely enclosed world.

The Terranauts, Boyle’s 26th book, takes its inspiration from Biosphere 2 (so named to acknowledge Earth as the original Biosphere) to tell the story of the ecosphere E2 and the “human experiment” of sealing four men and four women inside a 3.15-acre prototype of an off-Earth colony.

“When the experiment first happened, ‘91 through ‘93, as I point out in my fictional account, this was huge news, worldwide,” Boyle says in an interview with Paste. “These people were second only to the astronauts. I, like anybody else, read about it and was fascinated. I thought ‘I’ve got to write something about this.’ It took me a while to get around to it, maybe because, like many people, I was disenchanted when they broke closure.”

In the novel, as in real life, the first attempt at complete enclosure was brief, ending in a medical emergency that sent one crew member outside to the hospital. Boyle’s story begins with a new fictional crew, fully dedicated to living out their two years under the glass.

“It’s a kind of magic, people locked away, life and death,” Boyle says. “All of that stuff was so fascinating to me as a reader of these accounts. And when they did open it up for the Biospherian who cut her finger, it kind of spoiled it. If they were on Mars, they would have died.”

Like Boyle’s Terranauts, the Biosphere 2 participants earned comparisons to explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Edmund Hillary and visionary architect Buckminster Fuller. But skeptics were critical of an air of pseudoscience and cultishness surrounding the project, which ultimately suffered from a myriad of problems.

After the failed attempts to complete seal off the Biosphere 2, public interest in it plummeted, though the facility remains active as a scientific laboratory. The University of Arizona, renowned for its climate research, began managing the terrarium in 2007 and took ownership in 2011. No plans exist to seal the facility, but Biosphere 2 is now uniquely valuable for the ecological and climate research it enables, combining the large scale of field research with the control of a laboratory.

As part of Boyle’s research for the novel, he toured under the glass, exploring the crew quarters and different biomes—rain forest, wetlands, savannah, desert and ocean—that exist side by side in the largest closed system ever created.

“I loved it,” he says. “It was a great experience to go inside and take the tour with the other tourists. I couldn’t help but be disappointed they’re not enclosed still and into the 13th closure now. It’s such a great idea.”

Boyle explores life both inside and outside the ecosphere in The Terranauts, which centers on three characters: Dawn Chapman and Ramsay Roothoorp, who were chosen for the mission, and Linda Ryu, who was passed over. The novel unfolds in first-person chapters that alternate between the perspective of each character, a structural first for Boyle.

“These people passionately believe in this project and want more than anything to get into it. But what happens when you’re not chosen? That’s something that struck me right from the beginning,” Boyle says. “Once we have Linda excluded, we also have a way of getting out of this hermetic world. So we have an outside point of view from Mission Control, Big Brother, and we have also the internal conflicts and joys of living communally under glass.”

The book begins with two epigraphs, which Boyle chose for their potentially opposing viewpoints on what the Terranauts might experience. The first, from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The second, from the John-Paul Sartre play No Exit: “L’enfer c’est les autres,” commonly translated into English as “Hell is other people.”

“It makes sense that this book is kind of like a play in that the characters are interacting right in each other’s faces, day and night, for such a long time,” Boyle says. “With all of my work, I start with a proposition and I see what it means or what it is. I don’t have an outline. I don’t know what it will be. I just work intuitively, day by day, and the story grows.”

If there’s a common thread running through Boyle’s novels and short stories, it’s how people interact with their environment, a theme that’s expanded upon in The Terranauts.

“I’ve written book after book now, not really consciously, but I can see how they’re all allied, about our place on this planet and what it means in terms of the environment. So this is a natural for me,” he says. “Nature is dying, and so we try to insulate ourselves from it. I write a book like this without any ax to grind or even a point to make. That is all discovered as I go along. It’s like their experiment, to put people, plants and animals under glass and see what happens.”