Along with leisure suits, 8-track tapes and New Coke, Time magazine dubbed Biosphere 2 — the humans-in-a-fishbowl experiment that tanked not long after it started — one of the worst ideas of the 20th century.
For author T.C. Boyle, the failed utopian project of the 1990s became the playground for his latest book, “The Terranauts,” a satirical take designed around two of his favorite themes: social interaction and the environment.
“This one,” Boyle said, “was a lot of fun.”
But, first, a brief refresher. In 1991, a crew of eight was sealed shut inside a glass dome in the Arizona desert to study whether humans could survive in a self-sustaining environment for two years. The project was intended to last for 100 years in 50 two-year “closures.” If it could work on Earth, so the theory went, perhaps it might work on Mars or the moon.
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“I was very excited about it,” said Boyle, who appears Sunday at Miami Book Fair at Miami Dade College. “If you remember, the press was huge on it. These people were second only to astronauts, and they fought for their position to be in there.”
The bubble began to burst, so to speak, within a matter of a few weeks. One of the female biospherians severed a finger and left the enclosure for five hours in order to receive medical treatment, something that would be a bit difficult to pull off on, say, Mars.
“Like most of the public, I became disenchanted when they broke closure,” Boyle said. “This was supposed to be an absolute sealed environment — nothing in and nothing out. That kind of blew it for me and everybody else.”
The project was terminated in 1994 — 97 years short of its goal.
Boyle has brought it all back to life, but with a twist that is uniquely his.
“It’s an idea that doesn’t die, and it’s also fascinating because I’m an environmental writer, for the most part,” he said. “I am taking the real history and just changing the names a little bit, and then creating new Terranauts.”
In some ways, “Terranauts” is reminiscent of “Drop City,” his 2003 National Book Award fiction finalist about a group of hippies who hole up in Alaska.
“It is kind of a return to ‘Drop City,’ ” Boyle said of his 26th, and latest, book. “But it’s ‘Drop City’ under glass.”
Boyle trains his microscope on three characters: Dawn, one of the four women in the evenly split crew of eight; Ramsay, the womanizer among the four men; and Linda, who failed to make the final cut and, in her bitterness, does her best to exact revenge.
Though the experiment is scientific in nature, the crew members in Boyle’s book come off more like college freshmen than serious-minded graduate students. There’s sex, booze and back-stabbing — all done in Boyle’s exuberant writing style.
“On the surface, you’ve got these bickering characters who purport to be scientists,” Boyle said. “But, really, what it is about is an animal species. We are an animal species. We can’t separate ourselves from that whether we build a glass dome around it or not.”
The original biospherians might not recognize Boyle’s fictional counterparts.
“No matter what I wrote, I suppose they probably wouldn’t care for it, because it’s not the actual thing that really happened to them,” Boyle said. “That’s their story. So I’m making it into my story by creating a fiction around it. It’s like a play. You’ve got a group of people in a confined space. People behave very oddly, and there’s a lot of psychological stress in any of these situations.”
Boyle said the book is being adapted into a television series.
“I think it’s fascinating because, again, it could generate 10,000 episodes because you’ve got a new crew coming in every two years, and you’ve got the same set and environment,” he said.
Even if the TV series is as successful as Boyle envisions it could be, lasting far longer than the original Biosphere 2 project, the author believes that there remains a future for such an endeavor.
“I’m always just wondering, why are we big apes dressed up in clothes driving cars down the street?” he said. “What are we doing here? What is the world about? And this kind of scenario gives me a chance to reflect on that on a deeper level.”
Meet the author
Who: T.C. Boyle
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Auditorium, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami