The Poppies of Terra #22 - Orbiting Meaning
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Early on in David Fincher’s film version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the narrator reflects on the nature of his constant travels: “You wake up at SeaTac. SFO. LAX. You wake up at O’Hare. Dallas Fort Worth. BWI. Pacific. Mountain. Central. Lose an hour. Gain an hour. […] This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. You wake up at Air Harbor International. If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”
Samantha Harvey’s stunning new novel, Orbital, which chronicles the innermost thoughts of six astronauts aboard a spacecraft that orbits the Earth sixteen times every twenty-four hours, seems to dwell entirely within the shadow realm of that specific temporal flux and perpetual dislocation. To what extent can memory girder identity when the entire planetbound context of one’s previous life has been removed? To what degree can willpower create inner stability in the absence of the natural rhythms and forces–including gravity–that have shaped a lifetime? As the astronauts gaze upon the planet’s rapidly spinning surface, seeing everything from the outside, do they become different people? From orbit number eight: “On the curve of the earth, fast approaching, is a mossier tinge, a land less arid; then a finger of blue with a depth of black. Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie. Their centers beaten steel in the afternoon sun. The past comes, the future, the past, the future. It’s always now, it’s never now.”
In Chapter 2 we learn that Roman has been aboard the vessel eighty-seven days: “To his tally kept on a piece of paper in his crew quarters, Roman will add the eighty-eighth line. Not to wish the time away but to try to tether it to something countable. Otherwise–otherwise the center drifts.” This leads to one of the novel’s many poetic lines: “Space shreds time to pieces.”
There is much the astronauts do to attempt to moor themselves to their biographies, with mixed, and for us readers often elegiacally beautiful, results. In training they’ve been told to be mindful of each new “day,” and they’ve been cautioned about the problem of “dissonance”: “They were warned about what would happen with repeated exposure to this seamless earth. You will see, they were told, its fullness, its absence of borders except those between land and sea. You’ll see no countries, just a rolling indivisible globe which knows no possibility of separation, let alone war. And you’ll feel yourself pulled in two directions at once. Exhilaration, anxiety, rapture, depression, tenderness, anger, hope, despair.” Through Harvey’s masterful prose, which knows just how often and how hard to swing between the blunt and the delicate, we too see this fullness and we too experience each of those emotions. The setting, fastidiously precise as it is inviting of metaphysical abstraction, is the novel’s seventh crew member, and the characters’ internal disunion becomes a greater cohesion absorbing us readers into each of their subjectivities.
Twenty-two chapters chronicle the sixteen orbits of one twenty-four hour interval, the prose roaming from individual consciousness to consciousness, often without a clear point of demarcation within individual chapters. This might at first seem perplexing, but it is soon revealed that Harvey’s form astutely emerges from thematic function: “They have talked before about a feeling they often have, a feeling of merging. That they are not quite distinct from one another, nor from the spaceship.” In this view, Anton acts as a heart, Pietro as a mind, Roman as hands, Shaun as soul, Chie as conscience, and Nell as breath. In lesser hands, this picture of the six astronauts as a single organism might become strained and twee, but one of Harvey’s skills is to anticipate and resist such impulses: “Then they agree that it’s idiotic, this metaphor. Nonsensical.” And yet, it’s “unshakeable all the same.” Always, action and reaction, force and counterforce. With deftness and sensitivity, the author is able to eat her orbital cake and have it too.
Relativism is a constant throughout. During the first orbit Shaun recalls an art class he took that asked what the real subject of Velázquez’s Las Meninas was. A multiplicity of answers is possible: the king and queen, their daughter, her ladies-in-waiting, us viewers, the artifice of art, or perhaps nothing at all? The question returns during the tenth orbit, connecting moments that at first glance might seem disparate. Another arresting example of perspectival switching probes whether in the famous photograph taken by Michael Collins during the moon mission of 1969, the image truly contains all of humanity save for Collins, or no one at all except Collins? Like the astronauts themselves, these are complementary opposites summing to a whole, but not easily resolved.
If you enjoy literary science fiction, you’ll be entranced by this wonder of a book. But be forewarned, there is no forward-pulling plot in the conventional sense: all the energy is in the writing itself, and the concision and originality with which it renders the astronauts’ world. Harvey makes fantastic use of color in her descriptive passages, and enlivens the narrative with dialog, as well as lists (often funny and bittersweet at the same time). The seventh orbit features a spacewalk, and there are knowing references to “Hollywood and sci-fi” during the ninth orbit, but the book remains entirely Harvey’s creation. In her ability to bring our attention so finely to bear on the sluicing currents of cognition itself, I’m curious if Harvey drew on her experiences with sleeplessness, as chronicled in her memoir The Shapeless Unease.
If it’s true, as one of the characters ponders during the sixteenth orbit, that “all good things must go this way, towards fracture and fallout,” the novel nevertheless manages to carve out the type of absence from everyday reality that allows for a dazzling reconstitution of the self. Time might be obliterated, but even that undoing is, as the Big Bang itself, transitory. Orbital is hypnagogic but simultaneously hyper-alert. During the fifth orbit, Pietro thinks: “...there’s a euphoria that finds you with a velvet stealth, finds you in the blandest of moments, and you can feel the southern hemisphere stars through the craft’s metal shell.” The joy of Harvey’s accomplishment likewise arrives without fanfare but is greatly affecting, a constellation of words that shines through from the page to the heart.