Orbital by Samantha Harvey

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Review by Annabel

One thing I know: this sublime novella will be featuring in my books of the year for 2024. Samantha Harvey’s Orbital is a beautifully written love letter, a thought-provoking and heart-warming view of Earth from above, exploring the thoughts of six astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) as they observe their planet from outer space, seeing it afresh in awe of its fragile majesty.

They look down and they understand why it’s called Mother Earth. They all feel it from time to time. They all make an association between the earth and a mother, and this in turn makes them feel like children. […] they all have moments up here of a sudden obliteration of their astronaut selves and a powerful sense of childhood and smallness. Their towering parent ever-present through the dome of glass.

Sixteen chapters document one day in October on the ISS, one section per orbit of the Earth, and as the Earth spins on its axis different parts of the planet come into view on each orbit as the ISS travels around the planet. A helpful diagram at the start of the book plots the route of the ISS, ascending and descending, and the point of view changes between the multinational crew members of astronauts/cosmonauts comprising four men, two women, with the orbits.

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. When they get back how will they even begin to say what happened to them, who and what they were?

There is another transition to manage too: that of a day being 24 hrs.

They feel space trying to rid them of the notion of days. It says: what’s a day? […] it takes their twenty-four hours and throws sixteen days and nights at them in return. […] But the mind goes free within the first week. The mind is in a dayless freak zone, surfing earth’s hurtling horizon. Day is here, and then they see night come upon them like the shadow of a cloud racing over a wheat field. Forty-five minutes later here comes day again, stampeding across the Pacific. Nothing is what they thought it was.

One of their tasks is observing the weather, something Nell, a research meteorologist first by training, could do all day, seeing how clouds form and move with the Earth’s rotation. One event they are watching, photographing and reporting back on is a typhoon, approaching the Philippines. Harvey’s descriptions of the weather that Nell sees show the wonder and power of the air currents and oceans, of nature at work. The typhoon’s progress will be plotted in future orbits.

There are some profoundly personal moments too. We expect introspection as the six process their daily experiences and come to terms with their situations, but there are profoundly touching moments too such as when Japanese astronaut and test-pilot Chie hears of her mother’s death. It makes her an orphan, and she fleetingly wishes she didn’t have to go home as she contemplates a photo of her parents taken on ‘Moon Landing Day, 1969’, the caption written on the photograph’s back by her late father. Harvey takes the opportunity to tell us Chie’s family backstory, as she does for the others gradually throughout the narrative.

Although Harvey is pitch-perfect on the technical detail where it’s needed. But, this isn’t science fiction; space is just its setting, as a situation is to comedy. You could, however, say that it is a political novel for it forces us to look afresh at what we’re doing to the Earth through the astronauts’ eyes. That shift in perspective is humbling. How can we be imposing ourselves on this beautiful planet through climate change and conflict as we are? A thought that is enough to bring a lump to the throat. It is part of Harvey’s message, but most importantly, the novella also espouses hope and love for the planet.

It would be a shame if this novella is overlooked by literary prizes this year, such is the quality of Harvey’s writing. It is lush, elegiac, profoundly involving and thought-provoking and it is lovely to see the book complemented by a gorgeous cover design too.

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Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors. She dreams of seeing the Earth from space, it’ll likely never happen, but you can dream.

Samantha Harvey, Orbital (Jonathan Cape, 2023) ISBN 9781787334342, hardback, 136 pages.

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2 comments

  1. It’s dispiriting, how so many millions – maybe even billions – of individuals never consider the miracles that is life on earth, and earth itself, or look to the sky to contemplate its immensity and marvel at our ability to consider that immensity.

    And yet it seems that there enough sensitive individuals who do contemplate all this, and reach out to others, and convey that reaching out through word, deed, glance, through visuals, music, literature. Thanks for reviewing this little gem and reaffirming how important hope is.

  2. It is a indeed a life-affirming little book. There is hope still, but we need to act.

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