by Samantha Harvey.
Jonathan Cape, 136 pp., £14.99, November 2023, 978 1 78733 434 2
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To capture​ the world in a day was one of literary modernism’s defining ventures, with Ulysses setting the standard for exhaustiveness. Restricting the action to a single day is a mild piece of formalism, certainly when compared with some self-imposed contortions, but it disrupts standard novelistic workings just the same. Plot can more or less evaporate, replaced by less strident patterns of significance. What happens in Ulysses? Even if you accept Hugh Kenner’s explanation for the unfamiliar arrangement of furniture that causes Bloom to stumble as he climbs in through the window of 7 Eccles Street – that Molly decided against adultery and tried to drain her suitor’s ardour by getting him to move heavy furniture – there’s not much incident. People walk and talk, drink and think, but what happens in the book is … Ulysses.

Samantha Harvey’s rich new novel, Orbital, turns the world-in-a-day idea around, playing with both its key terms. All the book’s action, or (less urgent word) activity, takes place on the International Space Station as it orbits the Earth. The two definitions of ‘day’, as a single rotation of the Earth and as a 24-hour slice of human experience, normally congruent, fall away from each other. The time scheme of the book is sixteen days by the first definition, but just one as experienced by the astronauts on the space station, where they try to remain in the ruts of human habit. As for the world, these six (four astronauts, two cosmonauts) are floating 250 miles above it. They can try all they like to maintain mundane routines – ‘it’s early evening now: Shaun collecting the rubbish bags, Roman cleaning the Russian toilet and Pietro the US, Anton cleaning the air purification system, Chie wiping and disinfecting, Nell vacuuming the air vents’ – but mundane is by etymology as well as its everyday meaning a richly inappropriate word. ‘Early evening’ itself is a fragile convention as the time zones ratchet smoothly past below them.

There is a severance of the objective from the subjective. The speeding up of natural phenomena produced by relative motion and a privileged platform is conveyed by phrases like ‘the planet galloping through space’, air currents ‘shunting’ the weather around the continents, space that ‘shreds time to pieces’, with the ‘whip-crack of morning’ arriving every ninety minutes. Day comes at them as a stampede, a barrage that never lets up. The Moon undergoes a gentler transformation. Seeming to move suddenly from one side of the space station to the other, it’s compared to ‘a crêpe flipped in the pan’, an image that shrinks and sweetens a piece of lifeless rock. Yet the stove-side manoeuvre described would be as hard to bring off in the world of the book (the off-world of the book) as a spacewalk. It’s as if basic literary mechanisms too are subject to the changed conditions of microgravity, so that the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor, securely attached on the planet’s surface, float free of each other.

Life outside Earth is usually the preserve of science fiction. It isn’t always profitable to make comparisons across art forms, but Harvey is certainly aware of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, both of them authored in a way that is unusual in an art form as collaborative as cinema. 2001 envisions a future of glassy boredom punctuated by awe, while Gravity starts from a situation not very different from Orbital’s – routine maintenance around an orbiting platform – and turns it into a cascade of desperate decisions and an unrelenting race against death. There’s no boredom in Orbital and no pulse of adrenaline either. To be in orbit, after all, is to be held in a balance of forces. Any acceleration would nudge things out of kilter.

The half-dozen individuals in Orbital, exiled or released from any previous social context for the nine-month duration of their stay in space, make a nest as best they can, hanging like bats in their sleeping bags, remembering not to spit out their toothpaste but to swallow it. Liquids in particular are threats to the integrity of the environment – if you happen to cry you’d better be ready to catch in your hand the tears that float from the surface of your eyes. The ecology of the craft is precarious. There’s a description on the first page of the remains of a party – a double incongruity, first that there could be a party in these circumstances and then that it is possible for there to be even this trifling disorder.

… dirty forks secured to the table by magnets and chopsticks wedged in a pouch on the wall. Four blue balloons are buoyed on the circulating air, some foil bunting says Happy Birthday, it was nobody’s birthday but it was a celebration and it was all they had. There’s a smear of chocolate on a pair of scissors and a small felt moon on a piece of string, tied to the handles of the foldable table.

The untidiness, the chocolate smear and the toy moon combine to suggest the presence of something unthinkable in this setting, a child. When filming Solaris Andrei Tarkovsky made a virtue of Soviet necessity, showing a scruffy spaceship with none of the pristine finish of 2001 – and gave audiences a jolt when a child suddenly scampered across their line of sight.

The principle of the world-in-a-day novel is that the thinness of the sample slice militates against the forcing of a dramatic resolution. It isn’t a straitjacket so much as a support garment, taking the structural strain and allowing surplus elements to be shrugged off, encouraging emancipation from plot. Everything can be more or less the same at the end as it was at the beginning, and though this is also true in Ulysses, Joyce’s discipline is exceptional. For later users of this template, a residue of plot, or some sort of drive towards resolution and finality, waits in the wings or keeps slyly trying the handle of the back door. Clarissa Dalloway’s day has more shape than anything the three main characters of Ulysses can claim – and try telling her counterweight in the book, Septimus Smith, that this is a June day like any other, when he ends it impaled on iron railings.

Harvey accepts the invitation extended by this variant of novel form to dedramatise and decentre, letting things float. A typhoon can become a supertyphoon under the astronauts’ eyes, but its impact is not felt on board their craft. Considering how few people have ever left the Earth’s atmosphere, it seems almost shocking that she feels able to underplay the brute excitement of their adventure, the tension and terror apparently coveted by plutocrats. The book’s characters aren’t on anything as emphatic as a mission, unless a routine of maintenance and experimentation counts. There’s a passage wondering whether their presence is even necessary: ‘maybe one day a robot could do your job and maybe it will.’ This recalls Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff, and the insistence by the astronauts of the Mercury mission on having not only control of their craft but a window to look out of. Without this, they would be what the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base mockingly labelled them, ‘spam in a can’ – human guinea pigs rather than pioneers. Harvey’s passage about robots continues: ‘But what would it be to cast out into space creations that had no eyes to see it and no heart to fear or exult in it?’ Wonder is part of the mission. Machines can record but not witness.

On the day the book is set – or the days, if you go by the sixteen dawns and sunsets – a more active space mission is in progress, a return to the Moon for the first time since 1972 (such an expedition is planned for 2026). Those balloons were a celebration of the rocket’s departure from Earth’s gravitational field. Since the time scheme of Orbital overlaps with the middle day of this three-day mission there is no obligation to describe its beginning. Harvey chooses to, but finds a way to tone down its drama, not just muting blast-off but skipping it altogether and drawing attention to the contribution of the little people:

The astronauts left their beds yesterday morning, ate some breakfast and embarked on their exactly regimented day. The cleaners came in and, with a sense of ceremony, stripped the beds they’d left, and washed the dishes and cleaned out the barbecue. At five in the evening the rocket eventually launched. There were two full orbits they made of the Earth last night before they propelled themselves clear …

This is perhaps to overplay the underplaying. Might those cleaners feel something more fizzing than a sense of ceremony? The implied correction of perspective risks bringing its own distortion.

Embracing a set of formal restrictions need not rule out a longing for an escape hatch. In one passage Harvey, disengaging from the conventions governing most of the book, imagines the brain activity of the woman whose EEG transcripts were inscribed on the golden discs carried by the Voyager space probes beyond the solar system. Here Harvey goes for a spacewalk of her own, outside the capsule of narrative. The excursion brings with it the essayistic tone that is mainly, and splendidly, absent from Orbital, and even a hint of Mills and Boon (‘every thought cascaded into the dark brows and proud nose of her lover’), though lazy word choice is anything but characteristic of the book. With the description of the two Voyager craft as ‘great coffee grinders wimbling into wayless dark’, the supreme expression of the technological impulse is reduced in status first by a comparison to kitchen equipment, then by a verb of motion so informal as to verge on baby talk. Nothing ever wimbled with purpose or dignity. ‘Wayless dark’, resonant phrase though it is, arrives too late to salvage a sense of cosmic mystery. Perhaps that’s another reason these pages don’t seem to fit: they dismiss the grandeur with which so much of the book is saturated. Harvey thanks Nasa and ESA on the acknowledgments page for information lavishly provided, and those agencies didn’t accidentally help the efforts of a sceptic, let alone a satirist.

Though the characters of Orbital have a privileged view of part of the Moon mission, they also have their own tasks, dealing for instance with ‘sealed experiment boxes or assembling or disassembling ruggedised units’. That word ‘ruggedised’, chosen over ‘reinforced’, is exquisite in its clunkiness, playing out on the level of language a modification of standard kit to meet extreme demands, a brusque adaptation in which elegance has no part to play. Some of the team’s set tasks – a spacewalk, for instance – would be unthinkable without long training, and even so must resist becoming routine. Nell was outside the craft for almost seven hours the week before the novel is set, and her focus on chores drove out any vertiginous qualm: ‘you remove your sun visor and turn on your light and darkness brings out the stars and Asia passes by bejewelled and you work in your light-pool until the sun comes up once more behind you and burnishes an ocean you can’t identify.’ The structure of the sentence, its clauses succeeding each other without subordination, mutes the dissonance between the task being carried out at arm’s length and the abyss of absence that revolves around it.

In Nell’s experience of looking out of the craft, ‘any claustrophobia becomes agoraphobia in an instant, or you have both at once,’ but in practice there’s remarkably little fear in Orbital. Nell finds the nothingness of space inexplicably consoling. It is exciting but somehow reassuring: ‘Once you’ve been on a spacewalk, looking at space through a window is never the same. It’s like looking through bars at an animal you once ran with. An animal that could have devoured you but chose instead to let you into the flank-quivering pulse of its exotic wildness.’ On that remembered spacewalk, when she saw her companion, Pietro, gliding out against the profound darkness, he seemed to be ‘a bird released to an unimagined freedom’. Only the description of suits like the ones they wore that day as ‘ghostly floating things, touched with the rawness of space’ (and carrying a paradoxical burned smell after their encounter with non-being), testifies to the uncanny nature of what they are doing there, so far from home. These astronauts seem to envy those who will travel further and more adventurously, and seem already to be anticipating that anything that happens after their mission will be an anticlimax – ‘the ride of your life will pass in an eyeblink’ – a condition for which Wolfe coined the phrase ‘post-orbital remorse’.

There is a tax to be paid for that ride, on a cellular level, as hints scattered through the novel make clear. The astronauts’ bone density is thinning. In microgravity their arteries thicken and stiffen, their hearts become weak and shrunken. The texture of their skin changes, their hands becoming as soft as flannel. The cognitive tests they do regularly show a decline in function, at least when it comes to estimating time. Without the feedback of weight they don’t immediately locate their limbs when they wake and must use their eyes to find them (‘Where did I put it, that arm? says the panicked brain’). These erosions of strength and bodily identity create an atmosphere of unease, but never quite the suggestion that life in space is a form of addiction, perhaps even a malign enchantment. It’s just that the ‘superfast astronaut über-being self’ has got a bit frayed.

The consistent pitching of events in a low key, the seemingly perverse determination to keep the tension from mounting, so that energy is held in suspension rather than discharged, is far from arbitrary. It is designed to make the emphasis fall elsewhere, on rapture. It’s hard to think of a book in which the lyrical impulse is so strongly and so successfully relied on. This is space aria rather than space opera, with the drama of getting into orbit fully displaced by the wonder of being there.

It is not a room of one’s own, not with six unrelated individuals billeted in a functional space, so confined that if two crew members coincide in a doorway they have to turn on their sides and glide past each other front-to-front, but it is, with a vengeance, a room with a view:

Blue becomes mauve becomes indigo becomes black, and nighttime downs southern Africa in one. Gone is the paint-splattered, ink-leached, crumpled-satin, crumbled-pastel overflowing-fruit-bowl continent of chaotic perfection, the continent of salt pans and red sedimented floodplain and the nerve networks of splaying rivers and mountains that bubble up from the plains green and velvety like mould growth. Gone is a continent and here another sheer widow’s veil of star-struck night.

The middle sentence flirts with incoherence before the syntax settles down. The effect is of a hyperventilating nocturne, as language scrambles to keep pace with accelerated impressions.

The point of view here is nominally Chie’s – Chie, whose mother has died while she was in orbit, who has chosen not to have the funeral delayed until after her return. She might ask for a fragment of bone from her mother’s cremated remains. The six astronauts, their home cities listed as Osaka, Seattle, London, Bologna, St Petersburg and Moscow, are cleanly differentiated, but not built up as characters beyond a certain point. They’re all responsive and thoughtful, but they function as pinhole cameras raked with light, dazzled by darkness, rather than as full presences.

There​ are plenty of passages in Orbital which make clear that orchestrating drama on a small scale is well within Harvey’s range, if it had been a priority: ‘Don’t you think Russia is unduly afflicted with a love of condensed milk? says Shaun, who by now has floated above them as he likes to do, and hangs there picking honeycomb from his back teeth.’ Despite this piece of chiding banter in microgravity, national and territorial distinctions on Earth have no real force in the space station, even when they’re supposed to. Roman and Anton, the Russian cosmonauts, have rations that sound more flavourful – sorrel soup, potted fish, olives – than those issued to the others (macaroni cheese, or that’s what it says on the packet; steak brisket), but they don’t hold back from sharing. Pietro at one point tried to make a garlic sauce, but the experiment was not a success. When it overheated the smell pervaded the craft, strongly resisting filtration. In theory, use of the toilets, Russian and American, is restricted to the appropriate nationality, but no one bothers with this. The governed know better than their rulers. The Earth they look down on isn’t visibly contested, except where the long border between India and Pakistan is lit up at night: ‘That’s all civilisation has to show for its divisions, and by day even that has gone.’ By day, in fact, the Earth looks blessedly uninhabited.

Astronauts make unlikely aesthetes and philosophers: the flattened affect displayed by Keir Dullea’s David Bowman in 2001 seems the more likely personality profile, or the slow psychological implosion of the cosmonauts in Solaris. But the characters in Orbital can’t leave the meaning of life alone. If Nell indicates the multidimensional field of view outside the portholes and asks, ‘What made that but some heedless hurling beautiful force?’ Shaun invokes instead some heedful hurling beautiful force.

The convention in the book is that these technicians, their awareness ‘whittled … down to a pinpoint’, as one of them puts it with perhaps self-refuting eloquence, trained to react with precise reflexes from moment to moment and not to think of much else, respond to every sight and sensation with elation and acuity. The convention is established early and expanded in increments, so that by the hundred-page mark it doesn’t seem out of the question that Pietro, invited to inspect a postcard sent to Shaun by his wife many years before, should reply to what she has written on the back of the card – who or what is the real subject of Las Meninas? – by saying it’s the large, handsome dog in the right foreground. Shaun looks at the picture again:

An animal surrounded by the strangeness of humans, all their odd cuffs and ruffles and silks and posturing, the mirrors and angles and viewpoints; all the ways they’ve tried not to be animals and how comical this is, when he looks at it now. And how the dog is the only thing in the painting that isn’t slightly laughable or trapped within a matrix of vanities. The only thing in the painting that could be called vaguely free.

There’s no sign of the erosion of cognition suggested by the results of the tests the astronauts undergo. If anything, the conditions seem to enhance mental functioning when someone asked, ‘With this new era of space travel, how are we writing the future of humanity?’ can reply unhesitatingly, ‘With the gilded pens of billionaires.’

‘They should have sent a poet!’ Jodie Foster’s character Ellie Arroway laments in the 1997 film Contact, in frustration at her own expressive limitations when faced with cosmic glory. And now, it seems, they have. The lyricism in the book isn’t just a matter of finding meaning in beauty but of interrogating it. Looking at the Earth is an intensely reflective business. Shaun’s thoughts about life on the space station, for instance, are as serenely packed with philosophical suggestion as a Wallace Stevens poem: ‘the heart scraped hollow with craving, which is not emptiness in the least, more the knowledge of how fillable he is. The sights from orbit do this; they make a billowing kite of you, given shape and loftiness by all that you aren’t.’

If one voice isn’t allowed to predominate and dramatic tension is not to be pumped up, how does an ensemble cast function in a novel? In The Waves Virginia Woolf also made use of six named though not freestanding characters, to embody an implied universe. Her approach was to build up a polyphonic texture, with the risk that the voices would become blurred, neither distinct nor blended, in the book’s somewhat solemn interior spaces, its cathedral acoustic. If The Waves is somewhere in the background of Orbital, it may be as warning rather than model. It showed how easily lyricism can get clogged, with details becoming indistinguishable from abstractions, losing the power to animate a fiction. Harvey keeps things crisp and contained, her researched details (the way people’s cheeks look puffy in microgravity, the way clothes don’t quite follow bodies) properly weightless.

The solution in Orbital is announced in the book’s first sentence: ‘Rotating about the Earth in their spacecraft they are so together, and so alone, that even their thoughts, their internal mythologies, at times convene.’ In a science fiction novel this might seed a thriller plot involving the breaking down of identity, the replacement of human difference by a Blob or a Borg, but that isn’t the game here. The novel resists its own individuating drive by emphasising that many of the characters’ experiences are held in common. Variations of response are simply filtered out, the fact of separateness overridden.

This is an unspectacular choice on Harvey’s part, which may mask its sheer oddity. It’s a move both mild and drastic. Hard to imagine that ‘they’, all six of them, respond identically to a realisation of environmental degradation, and a planet contoured and landscaped by want: ‘One day they look at the Earth and they see the truth. If only politics really were a pantomime … It’s a force so great that it has shaped every single thing on the surface of the Earth that they thought, from here, so human-proof.’ That ‘one day’ could be different for each of them, just as it could be a day by either of the definitions on offer in the book, but their understanding of their own complicity is presented as being one-size-fits-all:

They come to see the politics of want. The politics of growing and getting, a billion extrapolations of the urge for more, that’s what they begin to see when they look down. They don’t even need to look down since they, too, are part of those extrapolations, they more than anyone – on their rocket whose boosters at lift-off burn the fuel of a million cars.

Perhaps the message is felt to be too important to be subjectivised, but that’s not the way fiction usually works. It’s not just modernism that is quietly being turned away from. The normal way of approaching a broad level of meaning in literature has been first to differentiate and then to integrate, singling out individuals (Odysseus, Hamlet, Bloom) before offering them as representatives of humanity. The singular ‘they’ that neutralises gender has a certain ideological glamour, but plain old plural ‘they’ is a recessive word, no more than a placeholder, denoting a group, but ready at a moment’s notice to be superseded by the greater claims of the individuals who make it up. Not in these pages. Here it basks in any amount of wan glory.

Nothing could represent more clearly as a physical fact the thinning of social texture that was both lamented and exploited by modernist writers than a team of specialist technicians, with the weakest possible claim to constitute a family, looking across emptiness at the planet from which they came. However much their thoughts coincide, community would be a lot to hope for in these circumstances. The lower category of commonality seems more appropriate. Either way, it’s highly unusual for fiction to emphasise shared experiences over individual ones:

They take blood, urine, faecal and saliva samples, monitor their heart rates and blood pressure and sleep patterns, document any ache, pain or unusual sensation. They are data. Above all else, that. A means and not an end.

In its bareness, the thought brings them some relief from the anguishes of space – the loneliness of being here and the apprehension of leaving here. It was never really about them and it is not about them now – what they want, what they think, what they believe. Their arrival and their return.

Relief doesn’t seem the obvious emotional response to this realisation. The additional oddity of this passage is that it contains a clear untruth. Just three pages earlier it was mentioned that Anton has discovered a lump on his neck, which he is keeping quiet about, hiding it by raising the collar of his polo shirt. It’s true that his reasons for suppressing medical data have an unselfish component: ‘They’ll worry and send you home and, because you can’t fly back on your own, two others will have to go with you, and to cut short the missions of those two others would be unforgivable.’ Still, there’s no place within the book as it stands for this reinsertion of a dissident ‘I’ within the ‘they’. This is a formal contradiction between two aspects of Orbital, not a late-arriving plot strand or a psychological complication with any possibility of development. And the lump on Anton’s neck isn’t mentioned again.

The partial restriction of access to the characters’ minds is a legitimate novelistic move, and has a lot to do with the extraordinary mood of the book, its radiant floating in an intermediate space. The hybrid perspective is an expedient, justified by what it makes possible, the prodigious beauty of so many pages, but over time it’s a solution that becomes a problem. The floating begins to seem like stasis, a state from which neither advance nor retreat is possible.

It might have been better to tailor the book to the dimensions of yet another definition of day: the interval between waking and sleeping. The twenty pages of coda after the crew go to sleep make for awkward reading (though a novel of 136 pages may be as short as British publishing will contemplate). It seems jarring to have the view outside the windows described with hardly less gorgeous specificity with the human population asleep. In any case, the contradiction of Harvey’s need both to channel material through her characters and to bypass them doesn’t go away because they happen to be unconscious: ‘In their sleep the crew feel the abrupt weight of night’; ‘if the crew were watching and had adjusted their eyes, there’d be no sense of emptiness.’ She recruits the photograph of a cosmonaut in the Russian quarters as a mouthpiece: ‘Krikalev seems to look out now from the photograph as a god looks on its creation, with a patient forbearance. Humankind is a band of sailors, he’s thinking, a brotherhood of sailors out on the oceans.’ There are plot updates (on the progress of the Moon mission, on the devastation of the typhoon down on the Earth’s surface, on a tiny but widening crack in the hull), though plot was never more than a tangential element in the book.

Before they go to bed the characters gather for a sort of curtain call:

In this half-sleep and confusion the strangeness of their lives for a moment catches up with them. It finds them in a circle in the middle of the module facing each other as if they’ve just met again after a long time apart. Without word or reason they sail inwards and join, twelve arms interlinked. Buona notte, o-yasumi, spakoynay nochee, sweet dreams, goodnight.

It’s as if they know more than their author. Saying so is a compliment, if a backhanded one, to the imagination that brought them, at rationed intervals, alive.

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