Orbiter is probably the graphic novel people least expected from Warren Ellis, the creator of such series as Transmetropolitan or Global Frequency. It is the kind of story that Hard Science Fiction writers regularly make the effort to write about but with none of the casual grace that Warren Ellis’s words and Colleen Doran’s art brings to Orbiter. It is the kind of story that Hollywood regularly makes into movies and usually misses the mark. Take one part Steven Spielberg mix with some Greg Bear and stir with some Larry Niven, Robert Forward and Ben Bova and you essentially have Orbiter, a story about the beauty and wonder of space and the danger of losing it and the loss of leaving it behind.
Dedicated to the astronauts who perished in the Columbia disaster, Orbiter is an articulate and passionate call for manned space exploration haunted by the fear that the Columbia disaster would allow those who support theoretical robotic manned exploration to triumph over manned human exploration with a view to expanding beyond earth.
Orbiter begins with Venture, a shuttle “lost in space” ten years ago, returning home in a fiery catastrophe. With the loss of the Venture, manned space travel had been abandoned and exploration is being carried out purely by robotic probes. The Kennedy Space Center is an encampment filled with Katrina style displaced families and white trash living on its grounds and landing pads. (As can be seen in a panel from the comic book at the bottom of the page.) It’s a scene that implies a larger story in the framework of the issue, so do the grimmer touches such as military personnel empowered to execute anyone breaching security on the spot, but it only forms the background. The story itself arrives with Venture coming out of the sky on a plume of smoke and flame to an unbelieving crowd which has not seen a space shuttle fly in ten years.
What follows then is bloody and horrific and somewhat clashes with the more optimistic and hopeful ton of the second half of Orbiter as everyone in the vicinity dies, some crushed underneath the massive space shuttle and others in the heat of the reentry. To the debris, rescue and recovery teams arrive, sorting out the dead and security the returned shuttle. At this point a military operation throws together a crack team of researchers, some ex-NASA personnel, including Anna, the psychologist in charge of debriefing astronauts on their return from earth and a young genius obsessed with creating engines, to investigate what happened to the Venture.
Like most mysteries Orbiter works by concealing crucial information from the reader by hiding it in a particular place while uncovering lots of clues to begin to unravel the mystery. The hiding place is the mind of the Venture’s commander, John Cost, the only one of the seven man crew who has returned to earth, deemed clinically insane. A video of his first appearance shows him tackling two soldiers who have entered the Venture and attempting to bite them and gouge out their eyes.
But while Anna tries to reach John Cost, the Venture itself turns up large numbers of clues and mysteries, from Martian dust in the wheel frame to the covering of organic skin that covers the metal skin of the space shuttle, to the organic technology of the interior, John Cost’s condition which suggests that he had never even been to space along with the whole mystery of where the Venture had been these past ten years.
The resulting journey is part technology, part speculation and part wonder. The gory aftermath of the Venture’s return and Cost’s attack on the soldiers is left behind, unaccounted for, as the team quickly falls into speculating in awe filled amazement at the answers and mysteries within the reformed space shuttle as team members speculate about an advanced alien technology being responsible for the shuttle’s transformation.
Though the actual technological premises of the reworked Venture are farfetched, Warren Ellis does a good job of balancing them out by focusing more on the crew’s enthusiasm and Colleen Doran’s art lays out panel after panel of the team exploring and investigating the Venture, a prospect that sounds tedious in the abstract but in practice compels with the same fascination that watching the preparations of a rocket launch does, because it possesses that distant sense of wonder at knowing that what we see here is the beginning of something wonderful. As scenes of John Cost’s recollections and the team’s investigations of the Venture’s mysteries are contrasted with grand shots of the Venture’s journey among the planets and stars, to Mars and beyond, Orbiter captures that gleam of starlight which is at the heart of our love for Science Fiction and space exploration.
Warren Ellis never really reconciles the gruesome opening of Orbiter with its most hopeful second half. Nor is there any real explanation for why John Cost’s response to the soldiers was so psychotic, when he appears to be moderately functional and his journey was actually one of amazement and wonder, rather than some scarring and terrible extra-dimensional trip of horror. So the story that begins with a tinge of Event Horizon winds up becoming Carl Sagan’s Contact. But in the end that doesn’t matter.
Orbiter is carried along by the passion of writer and artist for the subject matter that projects easily from the pages. The story is more than a series of pages and panels, it is a paean, a love poem to space exploration and to space travel, to starry skies and the men and machines who dare and struggle to hurl themselves up out of this world and into worlds beyond. One of the more extraordinary things about Orbiter is just how weightless it feels, how lightly the story is told and how easily it is rendered. The look and feel of the Orbiter cover suggests something heavy is about to unfold and while what happens has global and even cosmic repercussions, the story drifts along easily, always headed to its final destination with pinpoint accuracy and while it is not by any stretch of the imagination a new story, it is an easily told and wonderful display of love for the cosmic journey of exploration.
If you have ever looked up at the stars at night and wondered about the planets that whirl around them, the frozen balls of rock and gases circling them in the night, the lifeforms that might dwell on them, whistle through their skies and creep through their forests and deserts and swim through their oceans, Orbiter is for you. If you have ever treasured an Apollo patch, built models of spaceships, fictional and non in your basement, or proudly worn a NASA patch on your jacket, Orbiter is also for you. If you have wondered what happened to the proud tradition of space exploration that has been increasingly sidelined by experiments and probes, Orbiter is also for you.