Book Review: “The Terranauts” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

The Terranauts by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Prolific author T. C. Boyle often writes about ‘Utopias on Earth’, especially in the American West (this a very Californian theme, I think). This novel builds on the strange pre-internet trip of Biosphere 2, which he imagines continuing with additional missions. (The initial mission was a catastrophe—worse than a failure, it was a farce.)

In 1994, the eight new Terranauts are to be sealed in to the (rebranded) “Ecosystem 2” for two full years, to live in a completely self contained mini-ecology. The basic goal is “Nothing in-nothing out”, which simple to say, but hard to do. The miniature, mashed up ecology is supposed to sustain itself for the two years.

There is plenty of technical material here, necessary to understand the challenges these Terranauts have chosen to face. But this is not a technical book.

As in the original mission, the “E2” project is a confused mish mash of science fiction, experimental ecology, and new age utopian dreams. The closed system is supposed to be a model for space habitats in the future, or perhaps on Earth should conditions deteriorate.  It is never clear quite what the motives are of this cult like “research project”.

The design of the habitat is a confused medley of plausible and dubious elements. The habitat is absurdly small to support a “biosphere”, and the artificial “ecosystem” is constructed from tiny samples of plants and animals from several different ecozones (including a swimming pool sized “ocean”). The closed system must recycle all its wastes, maintain an adequate atmosphere, and provide food for the animals and eight humans–all on a ridiculously tiny scale compared to “Ecosystem 1”.

The “nothing in, nothing out” rule is applied (as much as possible) to air, water, and food. But power and sunlight are “imported”. And, notably, the Terranauts are allowed to communicate with the outside world, though the channels are restricted. The idea is to simulate being on Mars: there is plenty of solar energy, but nothing else outside.

The dome is supposed to be air tight, and despite the care they take there are “volunteer” species, including cockroaches (of course), sparrows, and mosquitoes.  They don’t even seem to consider the microbiota carried by the people, plants, and animals, and I suspect that microbes probably can get in and out, especially as the dome ages and seals leak.

I note, too, that the mission plan is for the seal to be broken briefly every two years, to exchange crews and refresh animal and seed stock. The “100 year” mission is actually 50 two year missions, which  I think rather invalidates the “what if you were on Mars” experiment.

Of course, the experiment also includes the team of eight Terranauts, true believers with considerable technical knowledge and grand sounding titles. (With a crew of 8, everyone is the “manager” of “supervisor” of something.)

The crew is supposed to have been carefully selected and vetted, though they seem dramatically under-prepared to my eyes.  Why did the mission not have detailed plans to help them pack and store their stuff before going in?  Why did they not have pre-packed clothes and toiletries?  Why did they not do a practice year as an isolated crew before sealing them in?

Anyway, Boyle tells the story of the crew, as they experience the strange combination of technology (pumps, instruments, tools) with back-breaking subsistence farming. Inside the dome, they must work constantly, mostly by hand, but there is never enough food, oxygen is scarce, and a power failure could kill them in a day or two. They are constantly near starvation, dirty, aching, and far from happy. This utopia is no paradise.

We get to know these imperfect people as they live out an eventful two year mission and beyond. Boyle tells the story of this mission through the first person recollections of three of the people involved. The narrative is a bit complicated, but he did a very nice job weaving together the first hand reports.

As in many of Boyle’s stories, the problem with moving into a “perfectly designed” utopia, of course, is that people aren’t perfect—they are still people. Stuff happens.

Despite the mantra of “nothing in, nothing out”, the crew is intimately connected to mission control and the larger world who are watching the “experiment”. They may be physically isolated, but the crew inside is still connected to people outside the dome. Intrigue and anxiety flow both in and out.

“A mess” doesn’t begin to describe it.

The story also shines light on  contemporary culture. Set in 1994-5, this story is not only pre-internet, it is pre Reality TV. This crew is “under glass”, on display 24/7, subjected to tourists literally nosing the glass as they live out their life together. The psychology of this experience is very much like a reality show, and if it were done today, it would be a reality TV show.

I found it somewhat charming to watch the crew and  mission control naively struggle with celebrity and the experience of being constantly watched by millions, even as things unravel. It makes us realize just how norms have changed in a few decades: these days we are used to people living “under glass”, for our entertainment.  Who would do such a thing voluntarily?

Biosphere 2 predated the internet and internet billionaires, but it still resonates. These days, Silicon Valley Utopians are still dreaming of colonizing Mars, and in fact are working to send people out to space and Mars as soon as possible. (No 100 year experiments to learn how for these new geniuses, though. “Move fast and break things”, “fail fast”, just do it.)

Boyle’s realistic descriptions of life in a closed system (based on the real experiment) should be sobering reading for these enthusiastic would-be Martians. How ever flawed, Biosphere 2 is actually a reasonable model for what these Mars colonies will need to do—except with no possibility of popping the seal and getting rescued. It was impossible to make it work for even a couple of years in Arizona, how long would such an environment last on Mars?

My own view is that living on Mars is a suicide mission. You can read The Terranauts to get an idea of yet more ways you might die, quickly or slowly, and also just how much “fun” it is to be a subsistence farmer.  Colonizing Mars will be hard work, and you probably will die within months.

  1. T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Terranauts, New York, HarperCollins, 2016.


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