August 24, 2023: We are living under a heat dome. It is 100 degrees, and the heat index is 107.
So what better book to read than T. C. Boyle’s gripping novel, The Terranauts, about eight scientists, including a marine biologist, ecologist, and a doctor, who are chosen to participate in E2, a scientific experiment that requires them to live in Arizona for two years in an enormous glass dome? Inside the dome there is a mini-earth: a rain forest, a savanna, wetlands, a farm, and an ocean, the waves simulated by a wave machine. The terranauts will plant their own crops and raise chickens, pigs, and goats for milk.
Cllimate change is destroying the habitat on Earth, and humankind may one day have to live on Mars in domes. That is the reasoning behind E2, an experiment in self-sufficiency. The terranauts’ motto is “Nothing in, nothing out.” That’s because the first mission, E1, became a joke, after an injured woman was let out to be treated and returned inside with two more bags of supplies.
Boyle based his novel on the Biosphere 2 experiment in 1991. He was fascinated by the potential of the experiment, but disillusioned when he read in the newspaper that Space Biosphere Ventures had broken “closure” because one of the terranauts was injured. After a year, they further cheated by having oxygen pumped in.
Boyle’s E2 terranauts are determined not to break “closure.” Set in 1994, the novel is narrated by three of the sixteen E2 trainees, one of whom did’t make the team. Only eight exhilarated competitors made the final cut, while those who were rejected are disappointed, depressed, and, in one case, borderline psychotic.
Boyle is a gifted writer who gets the three narrators’ voices exactly right. Dawn Chapman, a beautiful, charming, young ecologist, who has the reputation for being the hardest worker on the team, understands the politics of the mission: she and her best friend, Linda Ryu, are equally qualified, but Dawn understands that she herself is more likely to be chosen, simply because she is pretty.
Linda Ryu, a chunky, abrupt, almost friendless Asian-American woman, the overachiever daughter of two M.D.’s, doesn’t make the team, and is incredulous that the racial prejudice is so blatant. The four chosen women are not only white but blondes. And so Linda, furious and resentful, morphs into a wicked witch in a fairy ale, pretending to be Dawn’s friend, but hoping to sabotage the mission.
And then there’s Ramsay Roothorp, a slick, charming PR man who, from inside the dome, creates story ideas to hook the press and create an audience for their brand. Ramsay’s relationships are usually tactical. While training for E2, he had an affair with Judy, the gorgeous dragon lady administrator at Mission Control, which he admits did not hurt his chances of being chosen for the mission. (Ironically, Linda had sex twice with a sleazy, promiscuous administrator for political reasons, and it did not help her in the least.) And in the Dome, Ramsay is a satyr, first having an affair with Gretchen, who is in her forties, and who initiated the affair; then with Dawn, with whom he falls in love, or at least as close to that state as Ramsay is capable of.
Relationships in the dome are strained, but sexual intrigues are the tipping point. Ramsay’s dumping of Gretchen causes an uproar. Now Dawn has two female enemies: Linda on the outside and Gretchen on the inside. Gretchen makes scenes, screaming at Dawn at the dinner table; Gretchen also confides in Linda (they have contact by phone).
In Gretchen’s new version of the affair, Ramsay all but raped her. This is a version of the Potiphar’s wife story, of which there is a version in every culture. Ramsay’s account, which we read first, credible: his more had never thought of sex with an “older” woman, until Gretchen seduced him. And indeed he is constantly ogling beautiful young women in short skirts and high heels, and Gretchen does not fit this profile. Finally, Ramsay could not stand her clinginess, and told her to get out of his apartment.
In addition to the sexual dramas , the terranauts are slowly starving, as they produce less and less food (this was expected; E1 also had this problem). And during an uncharacteristic spell of sunless days and bad weather, the oxygen is insufficient, and they have trouble breathing. They think about breaking closure, but vote to wait it out. Fortunately, the weather changes, and the problem resolves itself.
Oddly, Dawn, the kindest, most caring terranaut, the one who was most concerned about Linda, loses empathy as she metamorphoses into an E2 fanatic. Dawn has star power and influence: she makes a choice that alienates the crew and yet manages to “sell it” to the chief of Mission Control, known as GC (God the Creator), for PR value. Not to spoil the plot, but we are kind of on her side, yet we see the burden of her decision on others. Later, she is so fanatical that it is possible (probable?) that she has gone mad.
And so we can hardly blame Ramsay for having a meltdown when the experiment ends and he is outdoors for the first time in two years – and away from Dawn. Dawn has proved to be more of a player than he anticipated, and her demands temporarily intimidated and defeated him.
As Dawn’s dedication blurs with narcissism,Linda becomes a smouldering quasi-psycho. Jealousy and malice send her over the edge. The motto should not be only “nothing in, nothing out,” but “Watch your back!”
What I like about Boyle is that he never writes the same book twice. He mines his material from many different sources, and is an expert storyteller. This summer I have read three of his novels: Talk to Me, Blue Skies, and The Terranauts.
And The Terranauts seems particularly relevant during this summer of 2023.