Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Jonathan Cape & RB Media, December 2023
My Rating: 4/5 stars
A snapshot of one day in the lives of six women and men hurtling through space—not towards the moon or the vast unknown, but in orbit around our planet. We glimpse moments of their earthly lives through brief communications with family, their photos and talismans; we watch them whip up dehydrated meals, float in gravity-free sleep, and exercise in regimented routines to prevent atrophying muscles; we witness them form bonds that will stand between them and utter solitude. Most of all, we are with them as they behold and record their silent blue planet. Their experiences of sixteen sunrises and sunsets and the bright, blinking constellations of the galaxy are at once breathtakingly awesome and surprisingly intimate. So are the marks of civilization far below, encrusted on the planet on which we live.
Although marketed as a novel, Orbital reads more like an extended essay: a sort of existential musing on life, our planet, space-travel and our humbling smallness in the scope of things. When approached as such, it’s an incredibly successful work. It’s eloquent, stunningly worded and insightful, and manages the “largeness” of its themes without outstaying its welcome. It’s the sign of a brilliant author who understands their craft ánd subjectmatter, to be able to condense so much down into an under-200-page novella.
Had Orbital been marketed as a literary essay, or piece of non-fiction writing, this would’ve been the end of my review: 5/5 stars, succeeded in everything it set out to do. Unfortunately, it’s marketed to be a novel, and as as a novel it falls flat in some requirements.
A successful novel requires a few key elements: a setting, themes/message, characters and some form of plot/progression. Orbital delivers the former two, but not the latter. Our six cosmonauts never get enough page-time to develop into full characters, and simply exist as vessels for the authors ideas. There’s no development or arc to any of them, making all of them incredibly forgettable.
Thematically, this might actually be the authors point: a commentary on how small and brief we all are. If I view the book through the lens of a non-fiction essay, that makes perfect sense. But if you go in expecting a novel with an actual storyline, character-interactions and development, I fear you’ll come away disappointed.
Some notes on the audiobook: the narrator does a great job and she has a wonderful calming voice to listen to. Had I known beforehand the type of book this would be, I would’ve preferred a physical read. With literary essays, where the focus is so strongly on the language and writing, this is just my personal preference. Again: more of a critique towards the marketing than the actual book itself.
Overall: if you’re in the market for a philosophical, literary essay on space, humanity and the environment, this one is for you! If you expect a space-novella with a plot and deep characters: you might want to reconsider.
Thanks to RB-Media and Netgalley for providing me with an Audio-ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
You can find this book here on Goodreads.