Back in the not-so-distant past our tv schedules were relatively free of one of our current staples – the reality show. Yes, there was life before the Big Brother’s Strictly Celebrity bake-Off Apprentice hit our screens. There were precursors as early as the 1950s but the first things I’d think of as ‘reality’ shows were the Seven Up series (which started in 1964) and, one I remember watching and being fascinated by as a child, Living In The Past. These were, in fact as much about what could be learned about child development, sociology, group psychology or archaeology as they were about pure entertainment. They could probably be better termed as fly on the wall documentaries but they were shows where we were gripped by the way a group of strangers, unknown to us or each other, coped with situations outside of our everyday experience. I’m not really interested in much of the current crop (unless they involve cakes or charlestons) but always enjoyed the more science/history based ones. And I do recall, from the early 90s, the fuss made – on news programmes rather than just gossip shows – about the Biosphere 2 experiments. Looking back now the science quickly got overtaken by the rather dramatic group dynamics – although the facility is still going it is no longer used as a closed-system experiment. Now it can be used to investigate ecosystems rather than just how nasty a group of people can become when they have no escape in sight…It is possibly no coincidence that the Big Brother franchise was launched within five years of Biosphere 2’s fame.
I wanted to read T.C. Boyle’s Terranauts because I do remember Biosphere 2. I was fairly young at the time (and not so into the science side) so I only remember it as slightly gossipy news story but, to be fair, if it was anything like Boyle’s fictionalised version it would make a phenomenal reality show! As well as the relationships which develop within the enclosed E2 system (the nameof the facility only slightly changed…) – not complicated ones but ones which are furtive and, often, much less than honest – we also have those with the team on the outside. The book is narrated by three people – Dawn and Ramsay (nicknamed Vodge) inside the facility and Lynda, who is a Terranaut in waiting, on the outside – and they have friendships, power struggles and sexual partners among the other Terranauts, the support teams, locals and the ‘mission control’ team in charge of the whole project. Ramsay is the PR person for the team inside the biomes – the fact that PR is given such a leading role should tell you all you need to know about the conflict between the story which mission control wants to present, of high-minded science and progress, and the reality of starvation, petty arguments and sexual tensions. The group on the inside also have the incentive of not making the mistakes of the previous team – resulting in a mantra of ‘nothing in, nothing out’ which soon seems to be leading to near fatal consequences.
Don’t assume that this means the book is overly serious or ‘worthy’. Although I felt it made some good points about how people (and especially women) are judged on their appearance (with attractive blondes at the top of the heap) and shows a slightly scary team in charge of the Terranauts being headed by a charismatic man who seems, at times, little short of a cult leader there is humour too. Oddly, because it becomes so important to the calorie-starved inmates, there are also lots of descriptions of food. It has a certain amount in common with the Martian – the obsession with providing enough food/calories to survive, the odd issue with maintaining breathable air – which seems perfectly reasonable considering that the whole reason for both the real and the fictional projects is to try to discover ways we could survive on other planets like Mars.