Ends and means

What happens when eight scientists are thrown together for an experiment that is both an adventure in discovery and a great publicity stunt

Written by Purabi Panwar | Updated: February 11, 2017 1:08:48 am
The Terranauts, TC Boyle, Bloomsbury, book review, indian express book review Why does Chapman want to stay on with her child? The reader must find his or her answer, Boyle does not provide one.

Book: The Terranauts
Author: TC Boyle
Publication: Bloomsbury
Pages: 508
Price: Rs 599

The year is 1994 and the locale is a desert near Tillman, Arizona, 40 miles from Tucson. As the possibility of global warming becomes stronger on earth, eight scientists — four men and four women — specialising in different fields, are chosen after a rigorous selection process, to live under glass in E2, a sealed three acre complex comprising five biomes — rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean and marsh — along with wildlife, water and vegetation to sustain them. Of course, they are closely monitored by an omniscient Mission Control for whom it is an experiment, an adventure in scientific discovery, and, last but not the least, a great publicity stunt that is bound to attract tourists/observers from the other side of the glass.

The Terranauts by TC Boyle (also known as T Corghessan Boyle and Thomas Corghessan Boyle) looks at these eight men and women, the way they behave and interact/communicate with Mission Control/friends in the outside world and each other, in their enclosed space. The title is interesting — a take off on “astronaut” as these individuals are also encapsulated, with the difference that they are on terra firma; hence, the newly coined word “terranauts”, one presumes. Incidentally, the novel is inspired by a true story. In mid-1990s, a Texan billionaire initiated a similar project and called it Biosphere2.

However, this utopian project failed very quickly. Even as there were human beings still living inside, there was a dysfunctioning as well as a major lack of funding. Would E2, the project fictionally visualised by Boyle, succeed? The novel under review tries to explore the experiences of the eight humans “under the glass” so to speak, through what three narrators have to say in alternate chapters. Two of them — Dawn Chapman and Ramsay Roothroop — are inside, while Linda Ryu is outside and wants to get in by hook or by crook. Each has a slightly different version about the truth of the mission and each is unreliable in his or her way. After all, there can be only a fragmented version of reality, not an absolute one.

Chapman is an idealist, absorbed in her own self, and then, her baby is delivered inside in the enclosed space; Roothoorp starts as a womaniser, but circumstances compel him to be loyal to one woman and marry her, though he retracts from this as soon as he is out of the enclosure; Ryu has a chip on her shoulder as she is not white, something that makes her scheming and self-justifying. There are four more terranauts: Richard, Gretchen, Stevie and Troy. Why are they not allowed to contribute to the narrative?

A look at the text suggests an Edenic atmosphere in the beginning. Though there is no democracy and Mission Control monitors everything, “the dream of inhabiting a new world…and the fame that came with it, was enough to keep us on the straight and narrow…” says Ryu, who refers to the terranauts as “ a hippy dippy commune”, her acrimony at not being taken, still not very obvious. As one reads on, one notices subtle changes. The project needs heavy funding as well as publicity, so tourists are encouraged, though it means compromising with the terranauts’ privacy.

Roothoorp sounds exasperated when he says “every time you glanced up you were staring into the face of a family of tourists…or a journalist…Girl Scouts, Trekkers, bird-watchers…” According to him, “there was precious little privacy under the glass unless you knew where to look”, something that can be rather irritating. One presumes it is the need for funding and publicity that is the deciding factor to let Chapman have her baby in the enclosed space as far as Mission Control is concerned. This, despite the fact that the others face a food crunch in an already pressurised situation, apart from limited medical facilities available to the mother-to-be.

What happens at the end of the two-year period, takes one unawares and is a bit of a letdown as far as this reviewer is concerned. Why does Chapman want to stay on with her child? The reader must find his or her answer, Boyle does not provide one. Another thing that one finds a bit distasteful is the way Ryu tries to get her own back on Chapman, albeit unsuccessfully. Is it just a coincidence that she is an Asian? In an otherwise gripping novel that tries to blend science, human behaviour and much else, this seems to strike a false note.

Purabi Panwar is a writer and translator based in Delhi

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