First, the facts: The International Space Station (ISS) was launched in 1998 and has orbited Earth every 90 minutes, 16 times a day, ever since, traveling at over 17,000 miles per hour. It has been continuously occupied since 2000 by an international crew. You can look at a floor plan of the craft, which is larger than a six-bedroom house, flip through photographs sent back by the astronauts (there's a weekly top ten) and much more at the nasa.gov website.
So "Orbital," the fifth book by British writer Samantha Harvey, is not a work of science fiction, not at all. It is an imaginative gloss on science fact, depicting one day in the lives of six men and women aboard the ISS. The author calls it a "space pastoral" — a pastoral traditionally portraying an idealized version of country life, only here the "country" is the galaxy and the "life" is sleeping in floating sacks, eating chicken cassoulet from sachets, and tending lab mice. In her creation of the astronauts' inner thoughts, their daily tasks and the things they see out the window, Harvey has created a wondrous and timely hymn to life on Earth.
There's no shocking event or tragedy in the course of the book's 16 orbits, but things do happen. The crew monitors a typhoon that forms and strikes Southeast Asia, where the Italian crew member, Pietro, is friends with a family he met on his honeymoon. Chie receives word that her mother has died at home in Japan — a beautiful passage reflects on her survival of the Nagasaki bombing as an infant. Another space mission catapults past them in "a five-billion-dollar blaze of suited-booted glory": four astronauts headed to the moon.
Harvey vividly renders the practical and emotional details of life in space, from the cargo cubes that contain trash to the talismans and images each astronaut has brought on board. In a brief radio conversation as they pass over Vancouver, a woman on the ground asks a Russian crew member if he doesn't feel a bit "crestfallen" about how absurd the whole thing is. After the meaning of this unfamiliar English word is explained, he has a very powerful answer.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is its interpretation of the experience of seeing Earth from outer space: "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. Because of course you know that war abounds and that borders are something that people will kill and die for."
Seeing this vision day after day, Harvey's astronauts are possessed by the need "to protect this huge yet tiny Earth. This thing of such miraculous and bizarre loveliness ... an unbounded place, a suspended jewel so shockingly bright."
Doubtless this review appears in a newspaper chock full of heartbreaking reports of life on our suspended jewel. If Harvey meant "Orbital" as a tiny, 200-page chance to consider it all from a different perspective, her clarion call could not have come at a better time.
Marion Winik is a Baltimore-based writer and professor.
By: Samantha Harvey.
Publisher: Grove, 193 pages, $24.