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Orbital by Samantha Harvey – an extraordinary tale of our place in the cosmos | Fiction

Samantha Harvey’s four previous novels have roamed through vastly different settings, but their common subject is her characters’ inner landscape, and the ways in which perceptions are altered by time and memory. Her unconventional plots are shaped less by external incident than by philosophical inquiry into the nature of existence and how we make meaning from a life, often from the perspective of distance or in the shadow of death. Orbital, her fifth novel, takes this idea to its logical conclusion; six astronauts of different nationalities, four men and two women, observe the Earth over the course of a day from the International Space Station, 250 miles above its surface.

In orbit, the astronauts are as untethered from time as they are from gravity; in one 24-hour cycle they will see 16 sunrises and sunsets. “You’re bound to Coordinated Universal Time, ground crews tell them,” but up there, in their “great H of metal hanging above the Earth, space shreds time to pieces”. (There are echoes here of Harvey’s acclaimed debut, The Wilderness, in which Alzheimer’s, rather than space, unmoors her narrator from a commonly agreed notion of time.)

From the opening sentence, Harvey emphasises the extraordinary conditions of intimacy and isolation in which her characters exist: “they are so together, and so alone, that even their thoughts, their internal mythologies, at times convene. Sometimes they dream the same dreams…” A different author might have explored the potential for human drama offered by this setup – possible rivalries, affairs, arguments – but Harvey’s focus is less on her characters’ interaction with one another than with the ways in which each of them, separately, relates to the planet that is their only view and the focus of their mission. In any case, the astronauts are professionals, scientists, the products of rigorous training designed to screen for the kind of human flaws that would interfere with the smooth operation of the team. The Italian, Pietro, reflects on whether one day their jobs will be done by robots with “no need for hydration, nutrients, excretion, sleep”. “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?” he wonders. Despite the physical stresses that the months in space literally inflict on the human heart, its capacity for feeling is central to their purpose: “An animal that does not just bear witness, but loves what it witnesses.”

With love comes grief. “It’s the desire – no, the need (fuelled by fervour) – to protect this huge yet tiny Earth. This thing of such miraculous and bizarre loveliness.” This desire is inherently political – how could it be otherwise? From their vantage point they watch the progress of a super-typhoon as it approaches the Philippines; they witness the ravages of encroaching seas and deforestation. “The planet is shaped by the sheer amazing force of human want, which has changed everything.”

Two images recur: one is the famous photograph taken by Michael Collins of the 1969 moon mission with Earth in the background, prompting reflections on the idea that every human in existence (except the photographer) was present in that picture. The other is Velázquez’s Las Meninas, a painting that raises questions about who is the subject and who the viewer. In this slender novel, Harvey seems likewise to have encompassed all of humanity: our reach and ambition, our frailty and greed, our absolute dependence on this “wild and lilting world”. Reading Orbital is a dizzying experience; she evokes the texture of daily life in the space station and pans out to sweeping, lyrical descriptions of the natural world, underpinning both with profound questions about our place in the cosmos. It is an extraordinary achievement, containing multitudes.

Orbital by Samantha Harvey is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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