The Bizarre Experiment That Inspired T.C. Boyles New Novel The Terranauts

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Eight people walk into a dome in Arizona. From the moment theairlock shuts behind them, they’re forall intents and purposes living on another planet. For the next two years, these eight people willremain inside the three-acre dome,surviving on whatever food and resources they could grow; for the next two years,they’ll see only each other.

Itsounds like either a science-fiction premise, or the worst seasonof The Real World ever. And in T.C. Boyles novelThe Terranauts, out today,it’s a little bit of both. But the Biosphere 2 experiments actually happenedin the early 90s, testing whether humans could live within a closed ecosystem on other planets, and gave usa rare look at where science and cultishness intersect. Boyle’s book draws on his own history exploring those themes, andtakes place on the thin lineseparatingoptimismfrommegalomaniathanks to amuch-publicized, and still fascinating, experiment from 25 years ago.

Voices of theEco Chamber

Boyle first became interested in the Biosphere 2 experiments in 1991, when he read about the upcoming missionin a newspaper. I got very excited, says Boyle. They had a lot of chutzpah, to create a different world altogether. He followed the project closelyat least until news came out that Biosphere ownerSpace Biosphere Ventures had allowedan injured crew member to leave the environment and later return with two duffel bags of extra supplies. After that, I was totally disenchanted, like everybody else, he says.

Harper Collins

In fiction, Boyle imagines how such an experiment would fare if the self-sustaining facility had remained unbreached. The eight Terranauts in Boyles Ecosphere deal with practical problems: an electrical outage, decreasing oxygen levels, poor crop yields. But the real drama is interpersonal. No matter if it’s a reality-show dorm, an Arizona experimental facility, or a pop-up habitat in a lava tube on Mars, eight people living in isolation would squabble about the same things: who has questionable music taste; who shirks their chores; who stole the snacks.

Boyle sees the interpersonal friction as inevitable, especially for a group of people brought together by extreme conviction. That’s not confined to the Terranauts.Boyle has frequentlydrawn onhistorical eventsin orderto explore the dynamics of devotion and cultishness:Frank Lloyd Wrights apprentices in The Women;Alfred Kinseys assistants in The Inner Circle;Norm Sender leading a commune back to the land in Alaska in Drop City. In The Terranauts, the scientists are the acolytes, leaving behind lives in the outside world at the behest of a duo of directors that they refer to G.F. (God the Financier) and G.C. (God the Creator).It fascinates me to think of how very bright ecologists would give over their independence to subject themselves to this big brother thing, says Boyle. Theyre so adamant about their missionthe slightest seed of doubt and their universe collapses.

Boyle has frequently drawn on historical events in order to explore the dynamics of devotion and cultishness; in The Terranauts, the scientists are the acolytes.

Boyle loosely modeled his G.F. and G.C. on the leadership behind Space Biosphere Ventures, wealthy Texas oil heirEdward P. Bass andBuckminster Fuller-inspired ecologyguruJohn Allen. Allen, the eccentric visionary behind the project, was also a playwright under the pen name Johnny Dolphin, and he made the Biosphere 2 inhabitants act in plays;in Boyles book, hungry, irritated Terranauts must perform in Jean-Paul Sartres existentialist No Exit and Thornton Wilders satire The Skin of Our Teeth. Its all theater of the absurd, says Boyle. The Biosphere 2 experiment was theatrical as well.

In the real Biosphere 2 experiments, the colony ultimately collapsed. After the team broke closure, the public lost interest in the project, and duringan abortive second experiment1994, Space Biosphere Ventures dissolved. But the facility’s five enclosed biomes still exist. Since 1996, Columbia University and then the University of Arizona have used it as a research center, converting the living quarters into classrooms and offices and using the biomes for controlled environmental experiments. We can do things in there that we cant do anywhere else in the world, says John Adams, deputy director of Biosphere 2.

There are still some ecosphere experimentsin August, a NASA crew emerged from a year-long Mars simulation in Hawaii, where they could only leave the enclosure while wearing a space suitbut current experiments dont have the same dramatic vision of planetary colonization found in Biosphere 2. In real life, it took a billionaire and a visionary to do it, as a kind of experiment, but a theatrical enterprise too, says Boyle. It caught the worlds imagination. The enduring legacy of Biosphere 2 is to better isolate the effects of climate change, but a New Age dream of intergalactic domination sounded way more interesting to an eccentric billionaire and a playwriting visionary—and to Boyle.

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