TC Boyle is a writer, we sense, who likes knowing things. He’s the kind of writer who reads newspapers – and notice we say newspapers, plural, because I get the sense if he reads a so called fact in one place he’d want to check it out in a couple of other places to make sure it’s true. Or as true as could be ascertained. In the post factual world we live (and how utterly demoralising those words are – post factual), where feelings are held in higher regard than facts, where idiots compete with experts for space and news attempts, above all things, to be balanced, thereby suggesting idiots and experts warrant equal consideration… well, let’s just say we need writers like TC Boyle more than ever.
Although The Terranauts is a work of fiction, and no character here is deliberately meant to resemble anyone living or dead, the story is inspired by (and Boyle acknowledges as much in the opening pages) the “accounts of the original Biospherians, especially Abigail Ailing and Mark Nelson’s Life Under Glass and Jans Poynter’s The Human Experiment as well as to Rebecca Raider’s thorough history of the project, Dreaming the Biosphere and John Allen’s foundational Biosphere 2: The Human Experiment.” Boyle readers will no doubt make two quick assumptions from these facts: (i) Boyle has done his research (no surprise there); (ii) Boyle isn’t shackled by the historical record. This is important because Boyle’s fiction can feel encumbered (as it was, for this reader, in a book like The Women) when there are a set of tracks he has to adhere to. At the same time, however, some of his best books – Riven Rock, The Road to Wellville, The Inner Circle – have told ostensibly true stories in a fictional way so perhaps it’s as simple as luck of the draw, but his hit rates far exceed his misses and for that we are greatly thankful.
So, as you might have gathered by this point with all the talk of biospheres, The Terranauts concerns a group of hardy scientists who agree to take part in an auspicious experiment (or if truth be told, the second of a number of auspicious experiments, the first having ended in controversy – and actually, if we are truth-telling, the overall plan is to run the biosphere for 100 years in two year inclements), to be housed beneath a dome and to have no common dealings with Earth 1 as it is affectionately known. The aim is to create a self-sustaining environment should the world ever need to populate other planets (having ruined this one) or simply manufacture spaces where human life can continue (having ruined our current environment). We have a trio of narrators: Dawn, Ramsay and Linda. Dawn, we sense, is a good looking, all American sort, ambitious and unquestioning. Ramsay is more of a chancer, in charge of PR, something of a hound when it comes to the ladies (part of the reason for his inclusion is his strictly hush-hush affair with Judy, one of the high-ups). And Linda, who loses out to Dawn and spends a lot of her time bemoaning her fate and conniving to do people ill.
The bulk of the novel concerns the two years in which Dawn, Ramsay and six other people spend beneath the dome, although it is bookended by what happens immediately before and immediately after. It will come as little surprise to readers of The Inner Circle to know that Terranauts (and Terranauts in waiting) think about sex a lot. Ramsay is first out of the gate, as Dawn attempts to maintain a relationship with her boyfriend on the other side of the glass (despite Linda’s interference); it isn’t too much of a spoiler to let you know that eventually some of our narrators get together (and others beneath the biosphere too). Sex is the stuff of life and if life is to prosper under glass it has to embrace pretty much every aspect of it. And that is what The Terranauts does. Imagine this as a primitive Big Brother (part of Ramsay’s job is to engineer success for the dome in terms of creating a tourist attraction) – and like in Big Brother, the inmates have their ups and their downs. The ups and downs of the inmates is the meat and two vegetables of the book: aggrieved ex-lovers, fighting monkeys, unexpected arrivals who proliferate in ways that play havoc with the ecosphere and, perhaps unsurprisingly, babies. Much of the central portion of the book focuses on the intrigue of new life.
Boyle is a writer who fashions novels that feel supersaturated in colour and detail. His best novels – and The Terranauts is up there – are so absorbing that you emerge from them blinking and distracted (as if you’ve been to the cinema in the afternoon and the bright light of day makes you realise you’d forgotten the rest of the world even existed). His writing is also such that, irrespective of the strength of the characterisation or the switch and jerk as you travel along the chicanes of the plot, you frequently find yourself struck by the elegance of a phrase. Here’s an example from very early in the book:
“So it would have been February. A February morning in the high desert, everything in bloom with the winter blooms and the light spread like a soft film over the spine of the mountains.”
Something else Boyle is a past master of is creating characters who, on paper, are not very nice but who we feel sympathy for all the same. Boyle deals with subjects of great complexity but, like a master swordsman, a Zorro, can remove a pair of trousers or carve a Z, with barely a stroke. If you take Linda as an example – she is self-centered, conniving, as we’ve said, cruel, mean, angry, spiteful; but she is also badly-served, just wants what she was promised, is lonely, is on the outside looking in. You may not like her all the time but she is not in any way, shape or form two dimensional.
As I read what is to all intents a historical novel, it occurred to me that I would like to read a Boyle novel set now – in the post factual, Trump Vs Hilary world in which we find ourselves – but given that things seem more handcart to hell-like than ever before, what The Terranauts may well turn out to be is a new kind of science fiction. This may well be the best possible outcome we can hope for. If President Trump does help unleash the first nuclear war, we’ll be swapping copies of this on the black market, reading to glean whatever we can in order to survive. Or maybe we’ll be fine and this will just be another great TC Boyle novel that lots and lots of people should read if they have any sense.
Any Cop?: Another winner from TC.