I don’t really like reality tv. To be honest, I don’t find it very, well, realistic. The situations that contestants are placed in are often very unnatural, the type of characters chosen by production companies to take part in the programmes can seem deeply unpleasant and the way that audiences can forget that the people they are watching are actually people too (with feelings and a right to dignity) is, frankly, scary. Although what is most worrying is that if I do find myself forced to watch celebrities eating bugs and unmentionable kangaroo parts in the jungle or unknowns pretending they are business hot-shots I find myself being drawn in against my will…I’m only comfortable with the kind of ‘reality’ show which involves cakes or dancing (although not both at once – that would either be very silly or absolute genius). But would a novel about a reality show be any better for me? I’d had a good experience with the Terranauts so would the Last One work too?
The show in The Last One sounds like the mother of all reality shows, to be fair. A dozen carefully selected contestants surviving in the wilderness, completing tasks as teams and as individuals. The selection process seems to be as cynical as it was calculated – the producers making sure that there were those who were going to contribute sex-appeal, brains, medical and wilderness know-how and, of course, one person that everyone would hate (or love to hate). We concentrate, however, on a young woman the audience know as Zoo. She seems to be relatively normal – a real person – and, like the producers, the audience seem to like her. So far, so Bear Grylls, but then things get darker. In fact they get downright dystopian (yay!) and we realise that no one is watching – but Zoo doesn’t…Slight Spoiler alert. The contestants have been told that there are cameras everywhere, in places they wouldn’t suspect, so when Zoo finds bodies she is sure they are just props. She doesn’t realise that the world has far bigger problems than who is going to win a reality tv show.
I really enjoyed this book. It certainly made me realise that there could be situations which make us question what reality actually is. Zoo’s experience is, in part, to do with her quest to find out who she is, to have one last adventure before she settles to life as a wife and mother. But it is also an exploration of how the human mind can resist admitting that what it sees is the truth.
P.S. If you enjoy this sort of book but also like something a bit historical then, when you finish this, try one of my favourite books ever, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Same thing, different century…
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.