I love T.C. Boyle because he takes really interesting true life events and people, and he always spins them into a fascinating story. I learn a ton from his books because he makes real events so memorable. At times he takes his characters a bit over the top, and this was true in this book as well. But at the same time he immerses you in a place and time that you won’t likely forget.
The Terranauts is based on the Biosphere Project I and II that took place near Tucson, Arizona in the 90’s. From Wikipedia:
Biosphere 2 was originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life; defining mission one as eight humans for two years. Additionally, it served to explore the web of interactions within life systems in a structure with five areas based on biomes, and an agricultural area and human living and working space to study the interactions between humans, farming, and technology with the rest of nature. It also explored the use of closed biospheres in space colonization, and allowed the study and manipulation of a biosphere without harming Earth’s.
I didn’t go into this book knowing anything about the project, despite actually living in Tucson in the early 90’s when all of this was occurring (I was a student at University of Arizona). You might read this book differently if you know a lot about it, but I’m guessing most people don’t.
Boyle spends a lot of time describing the science involved in this experiment, although he does so in a way that is understandable to the non-scientist reader (like myself). It does seem a bit much at times, but I think it’s the only way to really understand what happened, and I did feel I learned a lot.
There are really two aspects to this story. One is the science of what happened (or what might have happened) when eight people are shut up in a 3-acre dome for two years and forced to live only on the land and the atmosphere inside. Second is the more reality-TV show nature of what happens when eight people are shut up in a dome and are watched and controlled by the outside world for two years.
The story is written from three characters’ point of view, and it’s written in a journal style. There is some repetition of events but it’s helpful to see what happens from three different perspectives. Sometimes, though, I found that Ramsay’s and Dawn’s voices were too similar, and I had a hard time differentiating which character was speaking. Linda’s character is quite distinctive, although as I mentioned earlier, I think Boyle does take her a little “over the top” sometimes.
Our three main characters are incredibly self-centered. If you need to like the characters you are reading about, this may not be the book for you. I sort of like having a love-hate relationship with characters in a book, and you get that here. I also found that my sympathies changed towards these characters throughout the book.
One thing I found annoying was that each character has two names, a real one and a Biosphere nickname. That got very confusing, especially for the five lesser characters.
In general though, Boyle once again weaves fact and fiction (and a lot of research) to create a really compelling story.
Note: I received an advance review copy of this book from Edelweiss and publisher Ecco. The book was published October 25, 2016.