The Terranauts. TC Boyle.

Boyle, T C. The Terranauts. Various publishers, 2016. F;1/17.

Not impressive, considering expectation. I was dazzled by Boyle at least a couple of decades ago when I read World’s End, his third novel and winner of a well-deserved prize. But with Terranauts the now 68-year-old very prolific author has lost some of the power of his prime.

Eight young middle-aged single people (four males and four females, wink wink) are selected to inhabit for two years a 3.5 acre artificial environment in the Arizona desert, closed in by glass and kept habitable by a variety of elaborate technologies. I gather this is based on a similar real experiment in the late 80s, and the novel is set in the same era. Three of the characters, one of whom narrowly missed being nominated to join the group isolated inside, alternate as narrators. Unconvincing and eventually vacant sex and more realistic bickering populate their lives, with the storyline ending in a Lee Childs thriller-style plication of plot reversals as the two-year experiment ends.

Linda, left out through what she is convinced is racism and management’s preoccupation with movie star looks, jealously plots to wreck the lives of the other two narrators. Ramsay is just as self-interested but not as bright, and rolls along apparently thoughtlessly enjoying uncontrolled sexual narcissism. Dawn, his female counterpart, is the most superficially altruistic of the three, but makes as a result apparently idiotic self-destructive decisions. It’s a dreary threesome, all of whom perform dramatically below hopeful expectation of the poor reader.

Boyle is a good enough storyteller but at his best was quite a bit more than that. His bitter irony about human nature was, in World’s End, rescued from contempt by graceful if sharp figures of speech and a combination of fun, complexity, and deep sadness. Here he only manages a cynical sneer at life as a series of conflicts among shallow self-interested people making bad choices, set in a contrived environment also created in ignorance. It’s eerily similar to the worst reality TV. There are a few cameos of arresting writing, usually appearing at or around one of the soap opera plot reversals. Not enough, sadly, to rescue the overall impact from something similar to that of Survivor or, embarrassingly, The Bachelor.

Steer clear of this novel, but if you haven’t read Boyle’s World’s End I think you should. It’s not perfect but definitely in a different league. 5.8/7.5.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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