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Book Review: Orbital by Samantha Harvey

Thank you to the publisher, Grove Atlantic via Net Galley, for an advanced reading copy of this literary fiction novel about Earth from space.

This book review is also published on NetGalley.

Samantha Harvey, Orbital, Grove Atlantic, 5 December 2023, 208 pp., ISBN 9780802161543.

Book cover Image of Orbital by Samantha Harvey with the book title and text overlaid on a colourful planets background.
Cover Image: groveatlantic.com

Orbital by Samantha Harvey is an astute and astounding perspective of Earth, told through the eyes, hearts and minds of four [fictional] astronauts (American, Japanese, British, Italian) and two cosmonauts (Russian) who live just above Earth in a space station. They observe and reflect on our strange and fascinating planet and our weird human propensity to nurture and simultaneously destroy everything excellent on Earth. Harvey’s capacity to contrast extremes makes for moving reading. When expressing the physical and mental toll of being in orbit on the human body or the interplay of the characters observing both natural and constructed planetary systems, there is turbulence and a deep gentleness too.

Stunning passages of landscape writing made me pause to re-read and contemplate the mind-boggling diversity of Earth’s geography with a new perspective. Whilst Orbital is a very human story, delving into the relationships of the astronauts and cosmonauts, this is also about our global mother, Mother Earth. Orbital can be seen from many perspectives: a sustainability warning, the shifting baselines of our views on our race of progress, or a story that can shift us into systems thinking.

Reading Orbital reminded me of an experience when using Google Earth to browse the internal technology of the International Space Station interior a few years ago. As I zoomed in on the crew’s storage area, I was surprised, amused and yet deeply heartened to find a hard copy atlas of the world stowed safely into the baggage. Something about that tangible atlas amidst such sophisticated technology shifted my perspective as Orbital has. To realise that we can still feel lost, even with everything in our sights.

Whether you are a cloud appreciator, a storm chaser, a yearning armchair geographer or just open to contemplating the wonder and woe of humans as earth shapers, Orbital is beautiful and profoundly thought-provoking in a way that may change you.