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A profound meditation on our lonely planet

It’s a Tuesday morning in October, and hundred of kilometres above Earth, six astronauts snooze weightlessly in their sleeping bags. The uncleared paraphernalia of last night’s dinner sits in the galley, while beyond the spacecraft’s titanium shell, ‘the universe unfolds in simple eternities.’ In the beautiful Orbital by Samantha Harvey, we spend one day and sixteen orbits of the Earth in the astronauts’ company, as they reconcile their scientific objectives with existential contemplation and the insistent human buzz emanating from our lonely planet.

Space shreds time to pieces, we’re told. The astronauts know this all too well. In their rotations of the Earth, every ninety minutes brings a morning. A typical nine-month mission would deliver four thousand, three-hundred and twenty sunrises; it’s enough to unhinge the calmest of minds. Trained to anchor their thoughts, the crew are composed enough when we first meet them, two Russians, one American, one Japanese, one Brit and one Italian.

More than just colleagues, they are, among other things, each other’s doctor, hairdresser, mentor and companion. Absorbed in data collection and experimentation, and sanguine about consuming each other’s recycled urine and air, they are a floating space agency family, carrying out routine tasks in ‘Earth’s backyard.’

At this literally astronomical distance, they are cocooned observers of their home planet. And yet, the ‘babbling pantomime’ of Earth’s newsfeed still reaches them, along with some devastating discoveries.

Japanese astronaut, Chie, learns that her mother has died. The unique horror of a bereavement in space leaves her consumed by the thought of her mother’s body down on planet Earth.

‘Her only mother now is that rolling, glowing ball…the only thing she can point to that has given her life.’

Against this backdrop of grief, flight deck instruments are indicating that a typhoon is set to hit the Philippines. Charged with monitoring and photographing it, the crew watch as it spirals into a devastating maelstrom, forcing them to assume the role of fortune teller, seeing the future but powerless to stop it.

Meticulously researched, Orbital is excellent on the everyday detail of life aboard a spacecraft, from inevitable muscle wastage and artery thickening to experiments on onboard bacteria. But it’s the psychological and philosophical insight that lends Harvey’s novel such poignancy and beauty.

The crew are already beginning to suffer from dissonance. The planet they see contains no borders except those of land and sea, ‘…just a rolling, indivisible globe, which knows no possibility of separation, let alone war.’

But of course, as earthlings they know different.

The astronauts’ personal histories, hopes and dreams are juxtaposed against the building storm, the clouds’ milky cover giving the Earth ‘the pearly glow of an eye shot with cataracts.’ Their perspective has been that of the pioneer, exploring the potential of human life in outer space, but Mother Earth is calling them, ‘this thing of such miraculous and bizarre loveliness.’

A unique and profound read.

Orbital by Samantha Harvey is published by Jonathan Cape, 144 pages.

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