In their 2011 memoir We Wanted to be Writers, authors Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer recount their experiences (in “Life, Love, and Literature”) at the storied Iowa Writers’ Workshop while arguing that their mid-1970s MFA classmates – a gilded cohort that included Jane Smiley, Joe Haldeman, Sandra Cisneros, Allen Gurganus, Joy Harjo, Douglas Unger, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Michelle Huneven – were, in their words, “the most decorated in the history of American letters.”
Whether true or not (and Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship cast of the late 1950s, which included Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone, and Gordon Lish would certainly quibble), there’s no arguing with the fact that their Iowa class did produce one of the more versatile and imaginative storytellers of the baby boom generation in the person of T. Coraghessan Boyle, author of such acclaimed and eclectic titles as The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, and The Harder They Come.
In The Terranauts, his 16th novel to date, Boyle uses the real-life Biosphere 2 vivarium project of the 1990s as the basis for a compelling and thought-provoking examination of the frailties of human nature.
When first we meet Dawn Chapman, Ramsay Roothoorp, and Linda Ryu, they are three of the 16 finalists vying to become part of an eight-person team that will live for two years inside the Ecosphere, a domed, self-sustaining environment in the Arizona desert that’s a melding of Big Science technology and Big Top showmanship. The brainchild of flamboyant eco-visionary Jeremiah Reed, the Ecosphere is engineered (with rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean, and marshland biomes) to support its inhabitants physically while supporting itself financially from their relentless exhibition to the media and the ticket-buying public.
The final eight – four men and four women – are chosen not just for their technical expertise, but also for their telegenic qualities and their perceived ability to withstand the psychological stresses of extended, close-quarters isolation. But tensions arise from the outset when Dawn and Ramsay are selected for the mission while Linda – Dawn’s avowed best friend – is not. These three narrators then chronicle the socalled Terranauts’ progress in alternating firstperson chapters as what begin as petty jealousies soon metastasize into profound interpersonal dysfunction – think Peyton Place meets Ecotopia with an unhealthy (and winking) dollop of Lord of the Flies.
The novel is rich – perhaps overly so – in Biblical allegory wherein the Ecosphere (or E2), the ostensible prototype of an off-earth colony, is hailed as a kind of New Eden with Dawn (team nickname Eos) as its Eve and Ramsay (Vodge) its Adam, their incipient attraction undermined by the poisonous Linda (Komodo), and all of it overseen by the hovering omnipresence of Jeremiah (G. C., for God the Creator.)
In the hands of a lesser writer, The Terranauts ($26.99, from Ecco) might have wandered into soap-opera territory or, worse, into the mists of sci-fi dystopia. But by burrowing deeply into his characters’ psyches even as he pushes them to the limits of human endurance, Boyle confects a gripping narrative in which his lab rats – and that’s essentially what they are – are reduced by time and tribulation to their elemental selves. The results vary, of course, and that’s precisely the point of both the experiment and the novel; that stripped of the trappings of their celebrity – the matching red jumpsuits and the glossy magazine covers – the Terranauts are flawed human beings whose pride and cowardice, lust and envy will eventually, in the crucible of isolation, define them.
While some may find fault with the novel’s claustrophobic setting and extended timeframe, Boyle’s seamless prose and his prodigious talent for character development combine for an excellent read, and one that ought to make his Iowa classmates proud.
Chuck Greaves is the author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury), a WSJ “Best Books of 2015” selection and a finalist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.