The search for immortal scientific truth is, alas, undertaken by mere mortals. Humans, in fact. As much as we might like to think otherwise, it turns out that our humanity tends to get in the way of science. We do manage to turn up a truth now and again, but the journey to those discoveries is fraught with humanity. We are unable to control ourselves, even when the fate of the world we create is at stake, even when that world is domed-over and walled-in. The pristine, austere environments created by the bio-dome E2 should be the perfect place for science to unfold. But in T. C. Boyle’s The Terranauts, it’s 1994, and the experiment about to unfold tells us more about humanity than science.
Boyle’s story unfolds in three first-person narratives. The plan is to lock up four men and four women for two years. we meet the team just before they enter, when they are still competing for spaces. Ramsay Roothoorp is something of a Lothario, and one of the lucky ones to get chosen as a Terranaut. Before he even gets inside, he’s measuring up the women who might be chosen, and honing in on the one he plans to seduce. Dawn Chapman is also chosen, unlike Linda Ryu. By giving us both perspectives [those inside and outside the dome], Boyle is able to easily up the mischief ante. As the science spirals out of control, them humans create interpersonal tension with no effort.
Of course, it’s the sex. It’s always the sex. The affairs, the trysts, the covering thereof, the uncovering thereof, the complicated attractions and rejections that are the dynamics behind all our lives manage to come a bit more to the front when isolated under (or outside of) the dome. Lynda is jealous and spiteful and yet wants to support the effort within, on the faint hope that she will be selected next time. Connections inside and outside the dome are woven and rewoven with Boyle’s narrative expertise. It’s funny and tense and intense all at once.
For a book that essentially locks the door and throws away the key for much of its length, Boyle finds plenty to keep us tense and engaged. And trust me, every time you think you’ve twigged to every wrinkle, another is revealed. While you might intuit that this does not end well, you might also be quite surprised by Boyle’s deep affection for the flawed creatures he knows so well. For all the science they attempt, the experiment that works best and offers the most substantive results is the one performed by fiction writer T. C. Boyle, who crafts fully-rounded, living characters in his prose Petri dish and brings them to life in the slippery agar of his gripping plotline.
Given the title it comes as no surprise that The Terranauts is a journey to Earth at its most human. Whether you are in or out of E2 makes little difference. E1 is teeming with humans, who spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in courtship and mating rituals. And yes, the same behavior that gets us in trouble does now and again, give birth to answers that might be a ray of hope. But when those hopes become human, all bets are off.
Listeners who have been tuned in to this podcast for a while will know that I’ve spoken with T. C. Boyle many times over the years. We’ve always had fun and this time was no exception. Before we even got into the studio, I was reminded of the first book by T. C. Boyle I read, World’s End. And here we are hurtling into a future that was only described by science fiction back when The Terranauts takes place. In fact, as Boyle himself observed, his actual set-in-the-future SF novel A Friend of the Earth might well have been set in 2016, not 2016. The merde has hit the fan quite early. Science fiction is, at heart, an optimistic genre of fiction when it purports that there is a future to predict.
Or settle back and enjoy the long-form discussion….