What’s a “terranaut”? In T.C. Boyle’s new novel, the terranauts are eight highly trained and fiercely motivated scientist/adventurers chosen to live for two years inside an artificial dome in the Arizona desert in a condition known as “material closure.” That means nothing goes in and nothing comes out, except for the electricity that keeps the lights on and allows the terranauts to communicate with “mission control” outside the glass. Based closely on the facts of Biosphere 2, the real-life “biodome” that failed to maintain material closure within weeks of its inception, The Terranauts reflects two very specific aspects of Boyle’s literary vision. These are people under pressure — severe at times — who believe that a small group of brave souls can actually change the course of history, and Boyle’s funny, surprising, and thought-provoking plot indicates that he backs that conviction. His writer’s instinct for the ways in which human nature tends to counteract any notion of “mission control” is fully on display here.
The second aspect relates to the war between the sexes, a darker and less admirable side of human behavior that the novel reports on faithfully, and from the front lines. To no one’s surprise, the news from that front is not all peace, love, and understanding. Men operate from different principles than women, and their hormones drive agendas that neither science nor morality can fully countenance.
The best news about The Terranauts is the pleasure it gives to the reader. Boyle has a masterful command of narrative pace. He knows exactly how to approach the plot twists that make a novel memorable, and the structure of The Terranauts is flawless. You feel as if you know these people, and then they do things you don’t expect. Sound like life? Well, it is, and here’s to it.