Place carefully chosen plants inside a bottle with some soil and sand and gravel. Add water and seal the cap. With luck, and carefully regulated sunlight, your bottle-garden may thrive.

Some sealed bottle-gardens survive for decades, with condensation substituting for rain, and dead plant matter, fertiliser. This is a very simple form and example of a “closed system”.

The early 1990s saw the construction of a much more elaborate and ambitious closed system.

Set at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona, Biosphere 2 spanned more than 1ha and housed an eclectic collection of species in several discrete ecosystems, including a rainforest, a miniature ocean (with its own coral reef), and a farm to grow food, all enclosed in an airtight superstructure of glass and steel and concrete.

The goal was to create an entirely self-sustaining habitat that would allow eight people to survive for two years sealed inside as an experimental precursor to eventual similar endeavours on the moon or Mars.

It was a huge media sensation at the time, and apparently the inspiration for Big Brother, allegedly the very first reality TV show.

In his latest novel, The Terranauts, T.C. Boyle fictionalises Biosphere 2 as “Ecosphere 2” (E2), creating an alternative narrative of what might, or could, have happened.

Three narrators alternately offer their perspectives.

The novel opens with the photogenic Dawn Chap-man, a modern day Tess Durbey-field (Of The D’urbervilles), whose glorified position belies the fact that her main responsibilities include feeding pigs and goats.

Next we meet Ramsay Roothoorp, the novel’s alpha male, willing to live or die by the motto “nothing in – nothing out” but whose actions are dictated by the opposing forces of intellect and libido.

When Dawn’s best friend, Linda Ryu, isn’t glued to the CCTV monitors that live-stream the activity in E2 she drinks and obsesses about her weight and looks.

E2 is overseen by Jeremiah Reed, a bearded, media-savvy, leader-cum-ruler, half-jokingly referred to as “God the Creator” – G.C. for short.

Be it Doctor Kellogg in The Road To Wellville (1993), Norm Sender in Drop City (2003), Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle (2004), or Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women (2009), Boyle’s novels abound in megalomaniac and charismatic leaders out of their depth while ruling would-be utopias, their idiosyncratic whims inordinately influencing the lives of their eager acolytes.

But unlike these novels, and despite the degree of power he wields, Jeremiah Reed is a minor character in The Terranauts.

The real story lies in the complicated relationships of and between the narrators and the other terranauts.

The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle

They are exposed to permanent scrutiny, their lives monitored by CCTV, the media, and tourists gawking through the reinforced glass.

They live in an absurd reality TV show without the TV, where the reality is a surreal patchwork of ecosystems.

Boyle frames the context early on with references to E.O. Wilson, doyen of both sociobiology (which explains social behaviour in evolutionary terms) and island biogeography (which sees isolation as an intensifier and accelerator of evolution).

E2, with its plants, birds, insects, amphibians, fish, and animals, appears to be a Noah’s Ark, or even a Garden of Eden, but the humans sealed within are both custodians and inmates and subject to the same basic needs and urges as any of their cohabitants. The full implications of this become painfully clear as time goes on.

Like a bottle-garden, or any ecosystem, everything in E2 depends on a tenuous balance. But humans are inherently volatile – and enclosed, even more so.

The activity inside E2 includes sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll (particularly the first), with a side serving of theatre de l’absurde for good measure. Inevitable pairings and factions and frictions ensue.

Food supply and oxygen production are a constant concern. The inmates spend much of their time deprived of both, adding increased tension to their self-sabotaging behaviour, turning E2 into a pressure cooker – at one stage almost literally.

Read: T.C. Boyle interview Who are we? Where are we? Why are we? here.

Ecological and environmental concerns are recurrent themes in Boyle’s novels and short stories (the 2000 novel A Friend Of The Earth and 2011’s When The Killing’s Done being two obvious examples) and pertinent terminology is peppered throughout, though never in a preachy, info-dump manner.

The microcosm of E2 is an analogy for the macrocosm of E1 – Earth, the ecosystem we all inhabit – and the challenges we face, not only in maintaining the interdependent systems that sustain life but also in preserving them to assure the future survival of our species.

But The Terranauts is much more than a meditation on ecology and anthropology; it is an entertaining novel with a page-turning storyline that never lets up in pace.

Told with a dark humour that balances cynicism and empathy, it further cements Boyle’s reputation, not only as an extremely prolific writer (he has 15 novels and more than a hundred short stories to his name) but also as one of North America’s finest storytellers.

The Terranauts

Author: T.C. Boyle
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins, fiction