of Review of Samantha Harvey’s “Orbital”: A Perspective from an Astronaut.
Six astronauts are floating in a spacecraft, gazing at their planet while orbiting it. From this height of 250 miles, Japan appears delicate and the Philippines are alarming in their fragility. Despite the vastness of their view, the object of their awe is as detailed as a Fabergé egg. The entire continent of Europe is precisely outlined, surrounded by glowing roads of light. Autumn colors flourish in the Jiuzhaigou valley and Tunisian salt flats shine in vibrant pink. Through Samantha Harvey’s skillfully composed reflection on Earth, beauty, and human ambition, the astronauts are also gaining insight into themselves.
Harvey has been a bold adventurer in untamed areas for a long time. She began her journey with The Wilderness, accompanying a man with Alzheimer’s to distant regions that go beyond the usual markers of today’s date and the prime minister’s name. Each of her subsequent books has been both conceptually rugged and stylistically refined. In her 2018 novel, The Western Wind, distressed parishioners confess their sins in a secluded 15th-century village where the river overflows and reality becomes uncertain. She then published a nonfiction work, The Shapeless Unease, which delves into the unsettling realm of insomnia.
In comparison, the nearest area of space, known as “Earth’s backyard,” appears to be more familiar and less isolated. In his fifth novel, Harvey takes readers on a euphoric journey with a fictional crew aboard the International Space Station, while also observing Earth with a romantic lens. The novel, titled “Orbital,” takes place during a single day in space, although time is perceived differently in this environment, where “morning arrives every ninety minutes” and the sun moves “up-down-up-down like a toy”. The narrative cleverly follows the orbit of the Earth, with each chapter representing one orbit for a total of 16. The fluid storytelling explores both the past and future, all within the perpetual motion of elliptical travel.
The astronauts continue with their duties in the laboratory, observing microorganisms and the development of cabbage. They maintain a strong sense of purpose, even after months on the mission. Their appreciation for Earth’s beauty remains unaltered, as it moves gracefully through the vastness of space. While they may occasionally desire to witness grand displays of the planet, it is often the simple things, such as the lights of fishing boats off the coast of Malaysia, that leave the biggest impact on them. Even those who do not believe in a higher power may find themselves pondering if those living on Earth are already in a heavenly afterlife.
As the astronauts log hours on the treadmill to prevent muscle atrophy, Harvey embarks on the creative challenge of finding words to describe the awe-inspiring visuals and philosophical musings. The true test for the space-traveling novelist is conveying the impact of these sights to readers. In moments of wonder, like happiness, words seem inadequate. Reports of stunning light effects become less thrilling. The book’s beauty lies not in its overt expressions of admiration, but in its underlying rhythms and structures. This is where the most thought-provoking ideas emerge – about the extraordinary and the mundane, distance and closeness. Some sentences begin with a powerful roar and end with a gentle whisper. Others seamlessly transition from “I” to “you” to “we”. Memories can transport us from orbit to the depths of the sea near Samar Island in an instant.
“The six characters were intended to be seen as one,” recounted Virginia Woolf to a friend who had recently read The Waves. “I wanted to convey the idea that we are not separate individuals, but rather part of a larger whole.” In Harvey’s novel, the six astronauts each have their own unique backgrounds and concerns, yet they ultimately come together to form a singular entity. As they travel through space and return to their respective countries, their constant coming together and parting creates a recurring pattern in the story. They are drawn to observe the auroral lights stretching and shifting around the earth, likened to moths drawn to a flame. They are acutely aware of their collective existence as they continue on their journey. However, it is ultimately the writer’s responsibility to highlight the moments when these distinct individuals, serving as humanity’s representatives, unite in a powerful display: “Without words or reasoning, they converge and join, twelve arms intertwined.”
The Russians depart to their aging Soviet shelter, but it becomes difficult to uphold geopolitical boundaries when traveling at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. A sign on the spacecraft bathrooms reads “Please use your own country’s toilet”, but the astronauts cheerfully ignore it as they drink each other’s filtered urine. Regardless of their nationalities (Russian, Chinese, American, British, Italian), they present themselves as symbols of human collaboration. The narrator interjects before any potential criticism arises: “Their optimism does not make them foolish.” This argument is convincing until you lift your head from the text.
Orbital is an optimistic book that explores the actions of individuals driven by hope. It embraces the idea of the Anthropocene era and rejects the notion of impending doom. While it may lack the fiery frustration found in The Shapeless Unease, Orbital presents a passionate celebration of the world through various perspectives and circumstances.
One of the Russian astronauts enjoys tuning in to amateur radio signals from Earth, as if participating in a phone-in show from the cosmos. A voice from Vancouver asks if there are ever moments of disappointment in space. The astronaut explains that in space, disappointment is non-existent. Even the sleeping bag appears vibrant and alive without the pull of gravity. As a planet of “extraordinary and unusual beauty” gleams outside the window, the sleeping bags continue to gently sway, and the novel gathers its strength for another climb, determined not to feel disheartened.