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Review: Orbital

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by Samantha Harvey
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2023
hardcover, 224 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8021-6154-3

You may have seen in recent weeks trailers for a movie simply called I.S.S. (with “International Space Station” sometimes added below it) due in theaters later this month. The premise of the movie is that, after war breaks out on Earth, the American and Russian crew of the station are pitted against each other to control it. The movie promises plenty of microgravity action, but perhaps not much else. That may be why it’s coming out in January, rarely a time when quality movies are released.

Orbital, by British novelist Samantha Harvey, is perhaps the polar opposite of that movie. Like I.S.S., it is set on the space station, but the similarities end there. The short novel follows a six-person crew on the ISS on a single, relatively normal day. There’s no war on Earth and no weightless battles in space; no existential threat from space debris, malfunctioning equipment, or even aliens.

“Space shreds time to pieces,” she writes as Roman, a Russian cosmonaut, wakes up and marks another day on a piece of paper.

You might think a book like that would be boring. In fact, it’s a fascinating character study of the multinational crew, both as individuals and of their interpersonal dynamics. We’re introduced to them only by their first names: Anton, Chie, Nell, Pietro, Roman, and Shaun. They spend the day doing typical activities of a space station crew: exercising, conducting research, and doing maintenance, while eating meals and watching a movie together.

What the novel does is convey is how the experience of a long-term flight on the ISS reshapes their mindsets. When there are 16 sunrises and sunsets a day (the book’s chapters are labeled by the orbit the station is on that day, from 1 to 16), the 24-hour days imposed by the Earth on the station blur together. “Space shreds time to pieces,” she writes as Roman, a Russian cosmonaut, wakes up and marks another day on a piece of paper. “They were told to do this in training: keep a tally each day when you are awake, tell yourself this is the morning of a new day.”

The crew is not a family, Harvey writes: “they’re both much more and much less than that.” Much more in that they rely on each other for everything, much less in that they tend to stay out of each other’s personal lives: “Don’t encroach, is their unspoken rule.” Chie, a Japanese astronaut, shares with her crewmates that her mother has died, and she is treated with sympathy, but she also continues her daily exercise and other work on the station.

Ultimately, Orbital excels because it combines the mundane with the profound aspects of living and working in space. Nell, a British astronaut, describes in one passage about all her dreams and work to become an astronaut led her to this point where you “spend your days packing and unpacking things, and fiddle in a laboratory” while making endless orbits around the Earth.

“This isn’t a complaint,” she adds. “God, no, this isn’t a complaint.” And, after reading the book, you can see why.

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