T.C. Boyle is an incredibly prolific author, one whose name is fairly widely known and respected, but I’ll be honest I have never really considered reading anything by him, nor even heard of this book, until it was sent to me in a book subscription box (Muse Monthly…sadly, they are now on hiatus). And even then, it has taken me over a year to get around to it. Not because it doesn’t sound interesting, but just…there are so many books to read, ok! I just didn’t get to it. But I recently decided that the time had come for me to try my first fiction audiobook. If you follow my reviews at all, you’ll notice that most of my nonfiction reads are actually listens…and I have never tried a fiction audiobook before. I’ve never been a great “audio learner,” so I worried that I’d get confused with the dialogue. However, after a year or so of nonfiction listens, I figured I was accustomed enough to the media to try something new. And when I saw this one on the shelf at the library, I figured here was my chance to try something new and knock out a backlist book at the same time. Perfect.
This is an interesting mix of contemporary lit and sci-fi that I haven’t really read before, like magical realism but with sci-fi instead of fantasy elements. It’s based in our normal world, or more specifically, the pre-“ubiquitous internet and cell phone” world of the mid-1990s. Close enough. But it’s a sci-fi sort of tale in that tells the story of 8 “terranauts,” hand-picked scientists and environmentalists chosen to part of a human and scientific experiment funded by a billionaire visionary in response to global overpopulation and climate change. They will spend two years living under glass in E2, a prototype of a possible off-earth colony (based loosely on the actual Biosphere 2 complex in Arizona?), living in this air-locked environment under the motto “nothing in, nothing out.” But as the two years pass, these 8 people face possible disasters both external and internal that threaten their cooperation and the mission at large, all while under intense media scrutiny. I mean none of that actually happened, but it’s not out of the question to the extent that I feel a full-on sci-fi categorization is unnecessary. Very interesting.
The story is told by three separate narrators: Dawn, the mission’s generalist ecologist (young and pretty), Ramsay, the mission’s communications officer (and a bit sexually irrepressible), and Linda, Dawn’s friend who was passed over as one of the 8 and is supporting the mission from the outside (and is perhaps a bit bitter about it). First, to be clear, this was a great fiction piece to start with on audio, as the three POVs were read by three different narrators who all did a great job and separated the sections wonderfully. In addition, a lot of it was “written” as sort of journal entries, so the dialogue was fairly minimal. (Good choice, me!) And even if I had been reading it like normal, I have to say that the voices of the characters were fantastically distinct and personal. They each truly seemed like separate entities, which is not always a given when the same writer is penning every perspective. I could pick up the book and open to any page and know just from a sentence or two who the narrator is at that point. Very impressive. Relatedly, the general character development was extensive and so real. Like, these characters came alive and I swear I felt like I could have googled them and actually looked up all the events/drama they were talking about happening throughout the novel. Dawn, Ramsay and Linda all read as truly multifaceted and meaningful people, with all the quirks, flaws, unreliability and bias of any real person. And let me tell you, the author pulled no punches on that score. In fact, these were three of the most flawed characters I may have ever read, all in one place. I may even go so far as to say that not a single one of them was fully likable. There were parts in every single narrative that had me cringing, rolling my eyes, getting angry/annoyed, etc. I mean I loved their individuality, but most of the time it was like reading (listening to) a train wreck – it’s horrible but you can’t look away. I appreciated it though; I do enjoy reading about unlikable characters, as they are often the most dynamic.
As far as plot is concerned, it’s definitely secondary to the characters in this novel. I mean things definitely happen, all based around the team’s 2 years under glass. There is a lot of drama that unfolds related to being in such an enclosed place, with the same people and limited food rations and entertainment options. And of course there is the one large…slip?…if you will, that becomes the centerpoint of the story after it occurs (about a third of the way in). And that event really affects the ways the continued development of the characters and their relationships/interactions with each other unfold. But at the end of the day, this is really a trumped up, academic gossip column story. For all the complicated covers of science experiments, environmental concerns, the future of humanity, the mission, etc. the focus is really the drama of the exploration of small group dynamics. Don’t get me wrong, it was actually fascinating, at times, but it was not an action-packed plot in the traditional sense. So that means that, at times, the “story” dragged a little, or focused on random things that really didn’t seem all that important/necessary, at the expense/in favor of developing other parts. I think, if I had been reading, it might have put me off (especially since I hadn’t known to expect that and wouldn’t have been prepped for it). But listening to it was a great experience. I got really into the story, the way the narrators were telling it, their different biases/interpretations of the same situations, etc. Random bonus: it had one of the best/most poignant double-meaning last lines I have ever read. In fact, all the endings were adeptly written combinations of closure (pun not intended…if you’ve read it, you’ll get this) and open-endedness.
Overall, the language, flow and character development were clearly written by a master of language. Although it was not necessarily plot heavy, there was enough of it (and it was well created enough) to support the greater focus of the story, all of which was handled and executed with great skill. If you are in the mood for some serious psyche-examination, then this is definitely the book for you.