A strange experiment inspired Santa Barbara author T.C. Boyle’s new book

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Photo by Jamieson Fry

Novelist and Santa Barbara resident T.C. Boyle’s latest book, “The Terranauts,” is about eight scientists who live under glass within a prototype of a possible off-earth colony. Boyle, who often writes about the toll human society takes on the environment, said this book is based on a real experiment that took place in Arizona over 20 years ago called the Biosphere 2.

The Biosphere 2 facility, which T.C. Boyle used as inspiration for The Terranauts. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“The people who originated the Biosphere 2 were aware that an artificial environment might be important for us in the future should the original biosphere collapse or should we need to go to Mars or the moon,” said Boyle.

He spoke with KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian.

KCRW: Why did you decide to write about the Biosphere?

Boyle: When the Biosphere first emerged in the early 1990s, I was so excited. There was huge press coverage everywhere. I clipped out all the articles. These “biospherians,” or “terranauts,” as I call them, were second only to the astronauts in fame.

The fascination was that they were locked in. However, the public began to lose interest, and I think I did too, once they broke closure. Why my interest was rekindled now? I’m not quite sure. It was just time to write the book.

This biosphere, with these four men and four women, reminded me of the reality TV show “Survivor.” Does it to you?

Absolutely. The Biosphere 2 was an adventure in reality TV before it existed. Tourists would come and watch through the window. Everything is glass. They see you at all times, and you’re just trying to survive.

By the way, I didn’t know how incredibly sexy this book would be. But as it evolved – four men, four women – locked inside. What are they going to do?

You’ve said there’s an environmental thread that runs through your books. Are you trying to say anything with this one?

I’m asking questions about human life. We live in this mystery, every day. We put our heads down, go to work and try not to think about it. But, we’re all condemned to death. We’re animals, but we’re not animals to some degree. What are we doing on this planet? What have we done to it? What does it mean? Questions of ontology, cosmology, all of it emerges from our relationship with the environment.

One of the issues with nonfiction environmental writing is that it’s always depressing and prohibitive. In fiction, I can provoke you, seduce you, entrance you into being aware of these questions on your own.

What extent does Santa Barbara, or California, impact your work?

I grew up in New York, and I had never been west of the Hudson river until I was 25. I will always feel like a fish out of water in California. It’s been marvelous to come to a new place that will always seem new to me. It’s completely recharged my battery and given me wonderful material.

T.C. Boyle will speak at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on Sunday, December 11th.