Ron Charles reviews "The Terranauts" by T.C. Boyle, a fictionalized account of life inside of Biosphere 2. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

Twenty-five years ago, long before billionaires started blasting rockets into outer space, our coolest plan for getting out of here was Biosphere 2. Funded by the scion of an oil baron, the $150 million complex rose from the Arizona desert like something Ray Bradbury might have dreamed up over a tall glass of Tang: a self-contained ecosystem where eight intrepid humans could explore how to someday colonize other planets.


As an experiment, it was wildly — some might say, hilariously — ambitious. A number of reputable scientists were involved, but the project glimmered with New Age pixie dust, too, which made it easy to mock. Some of the so-called Biospherians had previously lived on a commune where they produced avant-garde plays. (Imagine Neil Armstrong in “The Bald Soprano.”) Amid an orgy of media coverage, they strode into their three-acre Eden dressed like extras from “Battlestar Galactica.” Not surprisingly, after a few years, the enterprise collapsed under problems you probably have in your own home: way too many cockroaches and not enough oxygen. As one survivor later reported, “We suffocated, starved and went mad.”

Given the elements of this bizarre story, it’s hard to believe that T.C. Boyle waited so long to write a novel about Biosphere 2. After all, the environmental impetus behind the project reflects his long-held concerns about our ailing planet. And it offers just the kind of sweaty isolation he’s drawn to: a high-tech steel-and-glass version of the sanitariums and communes he’s written about in “The Road to Wellville,” “Riven Rock,” “A Friend of the Earth,” “Drop City” and other entertaining novels.

Boyle follows the plight of Biosphere 2 fairly closely, drawing on news reports and books by several participants, but, of course, he transforms the history with his own creative vision. Unfortunately, that vision is shockingly uncompelling. Thwarted by culty alliances, administrative paranoia and a dollop of charlatanism, the real Biosphere 2 failed for reasons that now seem clear. But how a writer as exciting as Boyle could produce such a dull novel remains a mystery. As it drags on for more than 500 pages, “The Terranauts” inspires a sense of tedium that could only be matched by being trapped in a giant piece of Tupperware.

Part of the problem stems from the novel’s structure. Hitting these satirical targets would seem as easy as shooting fish in the Terranauts’ fake lake, but the story comes to us entirely through three aggressively self-justifying narrators who alternate chapter by chapter. One of those narrators is Dawn Chapman, an environmental scientist who announces, “My hair is one of my best features.” Initially, I thought she was selling herself short, but having spent a long time with her, I can confirm: Thank God for that hair!

Author T.C. Boyle (Jamieson Fry)

Her best friend is Linda Ryu, a Korean American who thinks she’s been cut from the crew because she’s not blond. “Do I sound bitter?” she asks bitterly, and she keeps up that grating complaint till the bitter end. “Powerless and castoff” but still hoping to secure a spot on the next mission two years hence, Linda accepts a job as the official project spy, studying video footage of the Terranauts as they go about their lives under glass. Her big scoop is catching one of her colleagues masturbating in the faux rain forest.

Sadly, not everyone is so self-sufficient as that narrow fellow in the grass. The third narrator is Ramsay Roothoorp, a cad who tells us early on, “I’ve been called everything from cold and calculating to the face of the mission and its beating heart.” But his face and his heart are the least relevant organs in the development of this story. For Ramsay, being holed up in this geodesic dome is “a hormonal accelerator . . . a kind of perpetual steamy night of the adolescent soul.”

This may sound like the makings of a Buckminster Fuller sex comedy, but it’s more like watching “The Bachelor: Terrarium Edition.” The adolescent souls in these adult bodies are numbingly petty — and the novel offers no relief from their flat voices, their obvious confessions, their poisonous jealousy. In chapter after chapter, these scientists drone on about who’s hooking up, who’s sneaking into whose room, who didn’t smile back, who’s being so mean! They claim they’re determined to find “the ultimate solution to mankind’s ecological problems on earth,” but I half expected Dawn to pass Linda a note in gym class.

Clearly, Boyle intends to demonstrate the social and psychological decay that gradually corrupts this utopian project — that gradually corrupts all utopian projects — but his narrators exhibit none of the development we need to draw us along. Dawn, Linda and Ramsay are just as gossipy and small-minded at the beginning as they are at the very distant end of the novel. Sadly, the man who designed the Terranauts’ home remembered to pack everything in this little space except irony, which turns out to be even more essential to our survival than oxygen is to theirs.

If only we could have heard more of those plays that the Terranauts are forced to perform after making dinner and cleaning out the water filters. That’s such a delightfully weird element, and the selections are so telling — from “The Skin of Our Teeth” to “No Exit.” But there’s little room for theater amid this torrent of gossip. Sartre claimed that “Hell is other people,” but sometimes, Hell is another chapter.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.

The Terranauts

By T.C. Boyle

Ecco. 528 pp. $26.99