ORBITER, by Warren Ellis, and Colleen Doran with Dave Stewart
DC Comics, 2003, Hardback, £18.95, 100pp
ISBN 1-4012-0056-7

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

Orbiter seems an eerily prescient book by most estimations, following the loss of Columbia – but given that manned space flight is still such a terribly dangerous undertaking, a story that begins with the disappearance of a US space shuttle (subsequently leading to the closure of the manned spaceflight program) is not really such a longshot after all, if you think about it. Only Stephen Baxter has really ventured much into this slightly dystopian territory before, that I’m aware of (in Titan), and it’s a really nice change to see some decent non-mangaesque sf in the graphic novel format. DC obviously think so too since Orbiter is a prestige format hardback (as reflected in the hefty price-tag).

The return of the disappeared shuttle, to a shanty-town Kennedy Space Center, ten years later is the just the beginning of a mystery that only seems to grow deeper with every discovery. The story follows three experts who are called upon to join a hastily convened team of ex-NASA types attempting to find out where the shuttle has been for ten years, the whereabouts of its’ crew: (only the commander has returned home, and he alternates between catatonia and psychosis), and what on earth (heh heh) has been done to the shuttle (it seems to be covered in a creepy layer of skin)?

There are two main elements to Orbiter one is a classic sf-thriller tale of scientists racing to solve a puzzle, and the other (more poignant) one is the collapse of the dream of manned spaceflight. Being earthbound doesn’t appear to have had many obvious bad effects upon humanity, although the shantytown images of Cape Canaveral hint at a less than perfect Earth; but then Earth is not what this book is about. This book is about the desire to explore, see, hear, touch and do new things – to boldly go where no man has gone before, if you must. The element of tragedy becomes evident in the stories of the characters – all dreamers, all mourning the failure of nerve and imagination that has grounded them – and the childlike joy that enters them when even the very thinnest chance of a return to space is raised.

Warren Ellis loves technology and what it can and could still do. In that sense he’s a terrible geek, but a geek with a punk rock attitude. Orbiter is filled with characters basically mouthing his obsessions and dreams, and this is a book plainly dedicated to rekindling the sense of wonder of space flight, building that flame into the roaring inferno of a Saturn V exhaust – and lighting a cigarette off it (because everyone in Ellis books smokes).

Colleen Doran does an excellent job on the artwork, rendering the characters and technology more than adequately – the shuttle, in fact, looks as beautiful as I remember it being when I was a kid. And this is without even mentioning the beautifully evocative cover, which must surely be up for all kinds of art awards everywhere.

Ellis may have gone a little too far with the misfit-geek-dreamer characters this time; I could handle the driven, brilliant, born out of time Terry Marx, girlfriend-less spaceflight savant extraordinaire (a very Ellis character, as was hardass Colonel Bukovic, the military man in overall charge), but Marx’s potential beau, introduced quite late on, a purple dyed-hair Berkeley maverick, was a case of over-egging the pudding for me.

This is a really good book. Whether it’s £18.95-great is another question, as that’s a lot of money for just 100 pages – 100 pages that, had they been stretched to 150, would have, I think, bumped Orbiter up to being a truly excellent book. As it is the final half feels rushed, although the actual end is a glorious one in true 2001 style.

I assume Orbiter will be out in a softback edition before too long, so I would wait for that – it will make you happy.

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk