Circling the Planet, Looking for God

Circling the Planet, Looking for God

I can’t be the only traveller to gaze out of an airplane window, see the frothed clouds below, and reflect that this now routine astonishment was not offered to Blake, Melville, Tolstoy, Dickinson. Proust’s narrator bursts into tears when he sees a plane and imagines what the pilot sees; Virginia Woolf wrote an extraordinary essay in which she imagines London as seen from a pilot’s cockpit. But, like their literary predecessors, they were never up there to see the view for themselves. And these are precisely the writers, you feel, who should have been granted access to the real thing—the cosmic artificers, the poets and novelists who moved naturally from the mundane to the massive, who saw God and knew death and narrated time, who sensed that, beyond this “mundane egg” (Blake), “This World is not Conclusion” (Dickinson).

In the nineteen-sixties, there came a new astonishment, followed by its routinization. Bill Anders’s “Earthrise” picture, taken on the Apollo 8 moon mission, in 1968, presented the Earth, for the first time, as we see the moon: gibbous, squashed, half shrouded in darkness, and almost ponderously ludic, as if playing sluggish peekaboo. The foreground of the picture, which shows a slip of the moon’s firm landscape, made the perspective only more vertiginous. Apollo 17’s “Blue Marble,” from 1972, was oddly reassuring, the blue-and-green orb resembling both the swirled marbles of childhood and the illuminated globes in toy shops; when we had imagined the world from space, maybe this was what we had seen in our mind’s eye. Even this marvel eventually turned habitual, and those famous photographs became posters for dorms and waiting rooms. Voyager 1’s image from 1990, of our world seen as a tiny blue dot from nearly four billion miles away, is, as Carl Sagan suggested, salutarily humbling; it has been followed by similarly minuscule transfigurations, visual scrapings from Mars and Saturn.

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But most of us don’t live as if humbled. Whether, in these beautiful images, our world seems large or tiny, central or radically decentered, what is truly remarkable is how quickly our wonderment goes back to sleep. How many of us give much of a thought to, say, the hovering H of the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth sixteen times a day as we go about our lives, some two hundred and fifty miles below it? And how many novelists have bothered to think through what life might be like for the humans trying to exist in this hurtling cubicle? To describe in words what our glowing Earth might look like from the portholes of some flimsy ship would be a statement of faith in what words can uniquely do.

Samantha Harvey, one of the most consistently surprising contemporary British novelists, becomes something like the cosmic artificer of our era with her slim, enormous novel “Orbital” (Grove), which imaginatively constructs the day-to-day lives of six astronauts aboard the International Space Station. “Orbital” is the strangest and most magical of projects, not least because it’s barely what most people would call a novel but performs the kind of task that only a novel could dare. It’s barely a novel because it barely tells a plotted set of human stories, and the stories it does tell barely interact with one another. Yes, Harvey gives her six astronauts fictional first names and various nationalities. In this sense, they are preliminary fictional characters. Roman and Anton are from Russia, Chie is from Japan, Nell from the U.K., Pietro from Italy, and Shaun from the United States: two women and four men. Roman, Nell, and Shaun, who arrived three months ago to join the others, are the ship’s newbies. Each is given a strip or two of backstory, enough to mobilize a rudimentary plot. In Japan, Chie’s mother has just died. Nell’s brother, in Wales, has the flu. On board, Pietro listens to Duke Ellington while he works out. Anton’s marriage is unhappy; his wife has been unwell for a long time. And so on. In addition, the astronauts have their particular tasks while in orbit. Pietro monitors microbes, Chie and Nell are doing experiments with mice. All of them are experimenting on their own bodies, testing and checking the limits and stresses of prolonged weightless existence.

But this minimal fictionality is not really the point; it’s merely the ransom paid to the genre in order to resemble the novelistic. The point is everything else: the almost unimaginable unworldliness of the situation. Six imprisoned professionals are speeding around the world at seventeen and a half thousand miles an hour. They circle the Earth sixteen times a day, and thus daily witness sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets (“the whip-crack of morning arrives every ninety minutes”). A gigantic typhoon can be seen gathering over the western Pacific and moving toward the Philippines and Indonesia; this event, from the godlike vantage of the I.S.S., is important but also irrelevant, no more than a vicious corkscrew of distant cloud cover on that faraway blue marble. The real point of “Orbital” is the demonstration of how a writer might capture this spectacular strangeness in language adequate to the spectacle. And how she might do so with fitting surplus, in ways that surpass the more orderly permissions of journalism and nonfictional prose.

Harvey, writing like a kind of Melville of the skies, finds that fitting surplus again and again. First, she attends with imaginative curiosity to the question of embodiment. It’s one thing to learn as fact that, say, astronauts aboard the I.S.S. are given to headaches and nausea, or that their dried food—already compromised, of course—is tasteless because their sinuses are so often blocked. (Without gravity, our sinuses don’t drain as they should.) Or to learn that mornings aboard the spaceship begin with two hours of running on a treadmill, weight-lifting with resistance devices, and stationary-bike riding, so that the astronauts’ muscles don’t atrophy. But what might it feel like to be experiencing such things, to be sailing in this frictionless Pequod, these cramped quarters where, as Harvey puts it, the floors are walls and the walls are ceilings and the ceilings are floors? Harvey writes of Pietro that “everything in his body seems to lack commitment to the cause of its animal life,” a description that may or may not be physiologically accurate but which is imaginatively acute. In a similar vein, she writes about the suspension of time in orbit, of how the astronauts “feel space trying to rid them of the notion of days. It says: what’s a day? They insist it’s twenty-four hours and ground crews keep telling them so, but it takes their twenty-four hours and throws sixteen days and nights at them in return.” Again, it’s one thing to learn how astronauts sleep aboard the I.S.S. (strapped to a bed and slotted into a compartment that’s not unlike an old British telephone kiosk). But how might it feel to sleep while floating in space, to sleep while dimly aware that a mad earthly floor show of light and darkness is constantly spooling beneath you? Harvey’s prose has an instinct for a kind of exact magic. “Even when you sleep you feel the earth turning,” she writes. “You feel all the days that break through your seven-hour night. You feel all the fizzing stars and the moods of the oceans and the lurch of the light through your skin, and if the earth were to pause for a second on its orbit, you’d wake with a start knowing something was wrong.” Is this how it really feels? I’m persuaded by its imaginative accuracy, in the way that I’m persuaded by the imaginative accuracy of Tolstoy’s descriptions of warfare.

“That sixth grader swore we’d have several more hours!”

Cartoon by Benjamin Slyngstad

Photographs and video bring us the sickly terror of watching astronauts spacewalking, hanging off the limbs of their station while fixing something or other, the irradiated Earth looming below them. But Harvey’s six-page imagining of it plunges the reader, as even video cannot quite do, into the game of becoming that spacewalker, in both terror and ecstasy. Nell and Pietro are installing a spectrometer. Nell has been told not to look down, but how can she not? Alarmingly, the Earth below her “doesn’t have the appearance of a solid thing, its surface is fluid and lustrous.” Her feet are dangling above a continent, “her left foot obscuring France, her right foot Germany. Her gloved hand blotting out western China.” She reflects that her underwater training hasn’t quite prepared her for something that is closer to surfing than to swimming. Then she looks down again, and now the Earth is not terrifying but magnificent, “blue and cloud-scudded and improbably soft against the truss of the craft.” She relaxes somewhat into her tasks. The closest analogy Nell can summon is how one flies in dreams, “because it ought to be impossible for a heavy wingless body to be gliding this freely and smoothly and yet here it is and it seems that you are finally doing the thing for which your being was born. It is hard to believe.” She looks down yet again, and the Earth seems to hang like a “hallucination, something made by and of light, something you could pass through the centre of, and the only word that seems to apply to it is unearthly.”

I’ve quoted this episode at length so as to convey the remarkable quality of immersion that “Orbital” offers, how narrative becomes not plot but the pacing of sensation. (It’s a viscerality that characterized Harvey’s last book, “The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping,” a nonfiction account of her insomnia; this particular light sleeper had to stop reading it, fearful of catching its anxiety.) And notice, too, the musical modulations of Harvey’s prose, how easily the ordinary (vertigo) consorts with the marvellous (space vertigo), and how quickly this prose music moves into the key of the metaphysical: there’s something inevitable, yet beautifully unexpected, about arriving at the vision of our Earth as “unearthly.”

Of course, any cosmic poetics is bound to be a cosmic metaphysics as well. As Melville describes and redescribes his whale, so Harvey ceaselessly drapes our globe in words, and, as with Melville, each redescription is also a reckoning, a theological sizing up. Always, there’s astonishment—Harvey begins and ends with astonishment—especially at the way the world is lit, how it is “chiming with light”:

In the new morning of today’s fourth earth orbit the Saharan dust sweeps to the sea in hundred-mile ribbons. Hazy pale green shimmering sea, hazy tangerine land. This is Africa chiming with light. You can almost hear it, this light, from inside the craft. Gran Canaria’s steep radial gorges pile the island up like a sandcastle hastily built, and when the Atlas Mountains announce the end of the desert, clouds appear in the shape of a shark whose tail flips at the southern coast of Spain, whose fin-tip nudges the southern Alps, whose nose will dive any moment into the Mediterranean. Albania and Montenegro are velvet soft with mountain.

This illumination makes the world seem palace-like, heavenly: “If we must go to an improbable, hard-to-believe-in place when we die, that glassy, distant orb with its beautiful lonely light shows could well be it.” At other moments, from such a distance the Earth seems completely uninhabited; or mankind a creature that comes out only at night, with flares. Perhaps this uninhabited place is nothing more than the ruins of a civilization. At only two hundred and fifty miles’ distance, our glowing world still seems to occupy a privileged place. These astronauts, Harvey writes, “could still be led to believe that God himself had dropped it there, at the very centre of the waltzing universe. . . . No far-hurled nothingy satellite could bother itself with these shows of beauty, no paltry rock could arrange such intricacy as fungus and minds.” On the other hand, they can also see the infinite darkness that surrounds it, and they have a better sense than do most humans of the vast, eternal spaces that so terrified Pascal. From this Earth we send out probes and capsules and cameras to distant planets, we angle huge dishes to pick up signs of other life, but the galaxies appear to have nothing to say to us, and we must grasp “the staggering extent of our own non-extent.” We may be hideously unaccompanied. Harvey wonders whether, if human civilization is like a single life, we’re in a late-teen phase of nihilism and self-harm, trashing the planet “because we didn’t ask to be alive, we didn’t ask to inherit an earth to look after, and we didn’t ask to be so completely unjustly darkly alone.” When the end finally comes, in a few billion years, and the Earth boils up as the sun consumes us, it’ll just be, from the point of view of the galaxies, “a minor scuffle, a mini-drama.”

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