Review by Ian Keogh
In his introduction to Orbiter Warren Ellis reveals how a deep love and appreciation for space flight was instilled in him at an early age. It explains the hope and inspirational nature of what follws, where the cynicism so often integral to Ellis’ work has been largely sidelined in favour of the wonder of possibilities.
Ten years before the story starts, the space shuttle Venture disappeared along with its seven man crew. It was decided at NASA that these would be the final human lives lost exploring space, and the Kennedy Space Centre and surrounding land now resembles nothing so much as a refugee camp. That’s when Venture returns, guided by an apparently comatose pilot and with the crew missing. Venture has also been altered, and a team of specialists are tasked with discovering how and why. Dr Anna Bracken is a psychologist, Dr Terry Marx a propulsion specialist, and Dr Michelle Robeson had qualified as an astronaut when the program was cut. They very quickly discover several impossibilities.
Based on earlier work, Colleen Doran might not seem the ideal artist for a hard science project, but she’s adaptable, and the grainy touch she applies to cast and technology is a snug fit for Orbiter. She creates a dark and enclosed world for the cast that simultaneously defines them while sustaining suspense. The unknown and potentially impossible is key, and Doran presents a joyful cast astounded at each new discovery.
The cover gives little clue about what to really expect. Ellis and Doran have constructed a procedural detection story, but not grounded in the usual police style deduction. Instead it’s heavy scientific principles at stake. Aware that much of his audience might need led through, Ellis has his cast explain the scientific possibilities underpinning his story, and at these points Orbiter slows from engrossing and intelligent to just intelligent. That’s fine. There are a lot of big, hopeful ideas, and it’s best that we’re all dragged along for the ride. So are the cast, who it’s revealed toward the end have been even more carefully constructed than we might have thought.
Beyond a good story, Ellis is making a reasonable plea. It’s all well and good ensuring everything is as safe as possible, but the human spirit is a questioning one, and as tragic as lost lives are, there is no substitute for an actual experience.
In 2105 Oribiter was combined with Ocean, another Ellis one-shot graphic novel in a larger sized hardcover edition.