T.C. Boyle’s new novel The Terranauts tells the story of eight scientists who are picked to spend two years sealed inside an airtight glass building. The book is inspired by the real-life story of Biosphere 2, which achieved widespread press coverage in the early ’90s, drawing frequent comparisons to NASA.
“They aped NASA in terms of the way they publicized it, in terms of the big celebration with bands playing and celebrities and so on,” Boyle says in Episode 228 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It was a huge deal.”
But rather than being a government program like NASA, Biosphere 2 was funded largely by an eccentric billionaire, leading to an approach that was far more colorful than government-funded research projects. Unfortunately, Biosphere 2 suffered a major setback after only 12 days, when one of the scientists was injured and had to be rushed to the hospital. She returned within hours, but the damage was done.
“In the public imagination the whole thing was rather corrupted at that point,” Boyle says.
The Terranauts imagines what might have happened if the project had continued on into a second two-year closure with a new group of scientists. And though the book mostly focuses on the characters’ foibles and hubris, Boyle believes the Biosphere 2 enterprise itself was fascinating and noble. He’d love to see another billionaire come along and resurrect it.
“Imagine if the Biosphere 2 were still enclosed, a quarter century on, imagine—just in that time—what the environment inside would look like,” he says. “It’s stunning.”
That said, he agrees with author Elizabeth Kolbert that most people probably won’t be living in artificial habitats any time soon.
“Her point as an environmentalist was that maybe we should just take a little bit better care of the [biosphere] we live in now, because it is almost impossible to create another one,” he says.
Listen to our complete interview with T.C. Boyle in Episode 228 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
T.C. Boyle on post-apocalyptic fiction:
“We are living in that [Mad Max] world right at this very moment as we are talking. We are the elite, we’re the top of the food chain, we’ve got all we need. But one third of the people in the world are starving to death as we speak and don’t have access to clean water, and at least a third of the countries in the world—maybe more—are run by gangs, bully boy gangs who have taken over and seized control, from Putin’s Russia on down to the warlords of Somalia. So we’re already living in that world, it’s just that you and I are very, very fortunate in that we are not subject to the control of ISIS, who have taken over our village and have taken our women and enslaved us, and so on.”
T.C. Boyle on the natural world:
“When I was a boy, I would always read about explorers and the jungle and all the creatures, the wonderful creatures out there, from scorpions to caiman to hyenas and all the rest of it, and the world was a big place still. Now we have to invent extreme sports like climbing this rock face and racing with monkeys on your back to see if you can do it, because there are no frontiers, there is nothing left, there is no mystery to the Earth anymore. And what’s left—let’s say in the Amazon—is rapidly disappearing. Idealistically, philosophically, in terms of the magic of life on this planet, it’s so reduced because of the plague of our species. I don’t know how you can get around that.”
T.C. Boyle on his story “Are We Not Men?”
“It projects about 20 years into the future, and I’m dealing with the new gene editing technology, which allows us to make transgenic creatures very quickly and easily, as opposed to the last 20 years. And I’m just wondering about what the results of that will be, and so I’m creating some new transgenic creatures, like for instance the dogcat. When the commercial for the dogcat comes on, “Pachelbel’s Canon” is playing and the announcer comes on in his soft voice and says, ‘Dog person? Cat person? It’s all moot now.’ … The fun of this story is, toward the end, there’s a little list of the creatures that have been given to us. The dogcat, of course, and the crowparrot I’ve invented, but the others, which sound equally crazy—the supercow, the micropig, and so on—they are all here now.”
T.C. Boyle on science fiction:
“Early on in my career I was included a couple of times in the Best Science Fiction of the Year, and early on I was included when [Terry Carr] was doing the series. He wrote me and said, ‘You know, you really puzzle me. You’re this literary guy and you write these stories in The Atlantic and The New Yorker and so on, and yet now you write these wonderful science fiction stories also.’ And I wrote him a long letter saying, ‘Well, you know, I don’t consider them science fiction. I’ve never read any, I don’t know about it so much. I am coming out of this kind of 1960s and ’70s magic realism of Garcia Marquez and Cortázar and Borges and Calvino and even the American writers like Robert Coover and Pynchon and so on. The labels are so fluid and so strange to me.’ So anyway, I wrote him this letter, and then he just didn’t print any more of my stories, because I had said that they’re not science fiction, but again that’s just a question of definition.”