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The Terranauts

I’m a creative person who is the child of scientists. My father was one of the greatest sulfur chemists of the 20th century and my mother was a physics and pharmacology educator and researcher for decades.

Art and music and writing is my genetic code, while my environmental education and upbringing was always one of deep and proper science. The latter influenced me to be rational and theoretical and to question and wonder about our world, my life. The former, to be social and to feel the world, to dance and to get high. So perhaps I’m biased in my reading of Boyle’s particularly incisive view of the scientists who are the main characters of The Terranauts. But let me tell you, it’s great.

It takes a lot of sensitivity and prosaic power to get inside the hearts and minds of people locked up together in an intense project, a collaborative effort of scale, or a prison, and express that faithfully. You really have to go through experiences like that or understand how working together happens in a deep way to attempt something like this. You have to understand people, socially and personally. Boyle does.

In The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle has invented an immense human project, populated it with entirely believable characters and embarked on a plumbing of their emotional and physical landscape with such brilliant detail, I find myself taken aback at the effort and his skill pulling it off.

His description of the technology of the Terranauts’ sealed-glass home in the desert is so vivid in detail down to the workings of the structure itself and including the flora and fauna – in some instances even described with Latin nomenclature in such a way as to feel beautiful – that I had to remind myself this place does not exist.

The pleasure I got from the contemplation of plants, animals and weather ‘inside’ by his characters is distinctly due to Boyle’s sensitivity, rooted in research and built with great prose. His descriptions of the emotional aspects of the scientists’ relationships to their subjects as well as to their co-workers is equally nuanced but even bolder.

The comfort Boyle has developed in delving into human sexuality here reveals an honest portrayal of our superficiality more than our capacity for love. But it isn’t cold.

Science is calculating.

Yet, there is so much of that capacity for love displayed – in the love of a scientific subject, or for the idea of team, or for loyalty as a badge of love. Even the subtleties of friendship and the complicated feelings that tie people together are handled exceptionally here.

This is a faithful portrayal of the emotional landscape of men and women put together for two years separated from us all, and Boyle has created a believable continuum that speaks to everyone about how we act.

Jealousy, lust, envy, competitiveness, anger, love, longing … it’s humans under glass.

T.C. Boyle gets us. His characters over the years are always like people I know or meet along the way. Here he throws four men and four women together separated by only inches from a half dozen of their friends, colleagues and lovers for two years solely for the purpose of expressing intimacy. It’s an incredible conceit seen vividly through.

Employing the style of first-person chapters collected together to do the telling works because of Boyle’s talent for briskness of plot. Though I don’t generally love the format, here it lets Boyle expand inner monologue, the guts of people’s feelings in confession, post-facto, as scientists would … really as anyone would.

Confessing after the fact, telling the truth and letting it out feels so good. It’s a really cool way to unreveal the “True Story of the Terranauts!”

The arrangement of these chapters and points of view is beautiful construction. The first-person chapters are woven in a way of telling the tale that seems complete, unfettered, whole. And it happens progressively.

It doesn’t take long to feel a part of this ecosystem and, once you’re in, you’re equally concerned as the characters as to whether the goats are getting fed or whether there are any tilapia left. You’re equally worried about O2 levels.

The characters are genuine, believable and, confessing their relatable flaws, they’re likable. Those who seem initially like obnoxious foes or nemeses go through transitions and humanize while the flaws of protagonists are openly dissected and brought down to earth.

My emotions changed towards characters and so I felt a part of the immense human enterprise. Like I was on the team, in the dome or at Mission Control, not some dopey tourist staring through the glass on my way to the Grand Canyon. Brilliant.

In retrospect the archetypal quality of the characters is resonant. The details make Boyle’s ecosystem a deeply human environment of our typical longings, lusts, and desires met and unmet. The way we see each other in constrained circumstances relates clearly to how we behave in society and Boyle uses an incredible palette of language to achieve this. I could feel the soil of the Ecosphere between my toes. I wanted to hug Linda, hard.

And, I guess typically for me, I felt kinship with Vodge and Linda and Gretchen.

I thoroughly recommend The Terranauts to anyone with brains and a heart – or for that matter a penis or a vagina.

Way to go, T.C.

3.5/5 stars

A Word on T.C. Boyle’s Utter Coolness

T. Coraghessan Boyle is truly a social writer.

I don’t mean socially-conscious. Or Socialist. Or that he seeks to influence or corral a group of readers in some direct manner.

I mean he’s a social being … and an excellent writer.

His ‘socialness’ is apparent on Twitter where I have enjoyed daily images of his routines – the morning, the egg, the paper, the rat – and of his various voyages. But recently I became one of the many readers/followers to whom he has replied. I was reading his novel Talk Talk, (Viking, 2006), and tweeted some friends about it including his handle and what? what? @tcboyle dipped in to the thread to comment. Turns out he’s totally personable on Twitter and comfortable discussing his work in detail. (More on Boyle’s tweets in my review of Talk Talk).

So last week when I picked up his latest novel, I tweeted to tell him I was starting The Terranauts … and he responded! It was crazy. You can see the exchanges @mtksf. His openness and ease daily with his readers or the public or whatever twitter followers are, strikes me as pretty unusual for a novelist of his stature. I mean, he’s just so cool.

After 15 novels and dozens of short stories and collections, a bibliography of 25+ works, numerous national awards – the guy’s a prolific American man of letters – he still takes time out to hang with his twitter followers. Blows my mind. Though I shouldn’t be surprised. The one time I met him, pre-twitter in 2004, at KPFK in Los Angeles, he was totally present and easy-going, too.

He works at his discipline, teaches it, and is un-self-conscious enough to engage with his readers as a regular person. I can only conclude T.C. Boyle is as great a guy to hang out with as his novels are.