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Orbital by Samantha Harvey

05/12/2023
Orbital by Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey’s new novel Orbital is an extended love letter to the Earth. It charts the 16 orbits  made by the International Space Station over the course of one station day, passing over every country, some at night and some during the day. Harvey explores the lives of the six astronauts on board and the things they see and experience as they progress around the globe. There is very little in the way of plot or conflict or personal movement in Orbital. Instead Harvey presents a prose poem – a meditation on life, its tenacity and its fragility.

Outside the earth reels away in a mass of moonglow, peeling backward as they forge towards its edgeless edge; the tufts of cloud across the Pacific brighten the nocturnal ocean to cobalt. Now there’s Santiago on South America’s approaching coast in a cloud-hazed burn of gold … [T]heir craft tracks east, eastward and down towards Patagonia where the lurch of a far-off aurora domes the horizon in neon. The Milky Way is a smoking trail of gunpowder shot through a satin sky.

On board the craft it’s Tuesday morning, four fifteen, the beginning of October. Out there it’s Argentina it’s the South Atlantic it’s Cape Town it’s Zimbabwe.

A key aspect of this view of the world is a continual reflection on the unity of the Earth. And the juxtaposition of this global view with the borders and boundaries that human beings have imposed.

You’ll see no countries, just a rolling indivisible globe which knows no possibility of separation. And you’ll feel yourself pulled in two directions at once. Exhilaration, anxiety, rapture, depression, tenderness, anger, hope, despair. Because of course you know that war abounds and that borders are something that people will kill and die for.

But there is also the realisation that everything that they see is shaped in some way by these political and very human forces:

Every swirling neon or red algal bloom in the polluted, warming, overfished Atlantic is crafted in large part by the hand of politics and human choices … The planet is shaped by the sheer amazing force of human want, which has changed everything … a planet contoured and landscaped by want.

This theme is epitomised by the typhoon the crew tracks as it makes its way across the Pacific, a mega storm driven by warming oceans and possessing a greater destructive force due to rising sea levels. Harvey takes readers down into the storm through the eyes of a Filipino fishing family who have a connection with one of the astronauts, providing a dual view of the event – the majestic space-station-eye view and the chaotic ground-level struggle for survival.

The other main thread of this narrative is the lives of the six multinational crew members – two Russian cosmonauts and one each from America, Japan, Britain and Italy – ‘sailors on a ship on a deep, dark unswimmable sea’. Early on Harvey observes that the crew are not sticking to the ground-control enforced Russians vs the Rest edict but rather work together as a single unit.

At first on their missions they each miss their families, sometimes so much that it seems to scrape out their insides; now, out of necessity, they’ve come to see that their family is this one here, these others who know the things they know and see the things they see, with whom they need no words of explanation.

And the narrative slips between their individual thoughts, their histories and their work as if they are a single being. Harvey charts their exercise regime, the impact on their bodies, their meals, the experiments they are running, and their love–hate relationship with their environment:

They know that the vision can weaken and the bones deteriorate. Even with so much exercise, still the muscles will atrophy. The blood will clot and the brain shift in its fluid … While they’re here food tastes of little. Their sinuses are murder …

Anton asks [Roman] a little while later if he worries about this.

No, he says. Never. And you? …

No, Anton answers. Never.

A third aspect of the narrative involves the launch of a new manned lunar mission. This thread brings in wider considerations of humanity’s place in the universe and a potential future for humanity beyond the Earth. It also provides a more personal echo of the experiences of the crew of the space station. As the lunar mission passes them, the space station crew see that their time is coming to an end.

… there’s a backlash feeling, quiet and unshared but there in them all, of what has suddenly become their own mundaneness. The mundaneness of their earth-stuck orbit, bound for nowhere; their looping round and never out.

But they also see the potential of lunar colonies and later colonies on Mars. This builds to a reflection on the life of the universe as if it was compressed into a single year, from the big bang through to the rise of humankind in the final few seconds of New Year’s Eve, and then into a contemplation of what might come next.

In the end, Orbital is a book to sink into. The richness of the language, the startling nature of the imagery, the contemplation of nature, and the insight into lives that only a handful of people ever get to experience. The narrative runs on the orbital track of the space station, constantly providing new views of and new reflections on different parts of the planet. In doing so it gives readers a fresh way of looking at the world and our place on it, and our impact on the environment. But Harvey also provides plenty of optimism for the future, chronicling a day in the life of an indomitable planet and reflecting on the human spirit of curiosity and cooperation.

This review first appeared on Newtown Review of Books.

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