written by Warren Ellis
illustrated by Colleen Doran

Warren Ellis's Orbiter
illustrated by Colleen Doran

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages: Young Adult

A Fantastic Tale of Humanity’s Future

Why has no one tried to make a movie based on this incredible graphic novel? The short story contained in these pages is the perfect framework for a redemptive film, an inspirational matrix to turn our collective consciousness past Mars and out into the universe.

It’s the near future. Following the mysterious disappearance of Venture, the last manned space shuttle, the Kennedy Space Center has become a tent city of impoverished have-nots ensconced in their own filth.

image from Warren Ellis's 'Orbiter,' caption added

NASA contents itself by sending robots to space, and the human race has turned their faces from the sky. Then, Venture returns.

  • Ten years late.
  • Missing the majority of its crew.
  • Wrapped in a biological matrix.
  • With evidence that it’s been to Mars jammed in the wheel wells.
  • Without evidence of having spent ten years in space.

All of which is clearly impossible.

With military precision, a team is assembled: three individuals whose lives, hopes, and dreams have been shattered along with the space program. Dr. Michelle Robeson, the last astronaut; Dr. Terry Marx, a rocket scientist; and Dr. Anna Bracken, psychiatrist to the former space program, are all fired up by their new mission: to determine where Venture has been, how it got there, and what happened along the way.

While the others puzzle over the seemingly impossible changes that have been made to the shuttle, Dr. Bracken tries to crack the near catatonia of the mission’s sole survivor, pilot John Cost. Clearly, he has been places, seen things that defy human understanding, and it is only by bringing him back to humanity that she can unlock his secrets.

Meanwhile, the other scientists come to the conclusion that they can only complete their own missions by throwing away everything they know about physics, chemistry, biology, and reality. When the impossible is reframed in terms of weird, but possible, hypothesis, a clear picture of the universe begins to develop. When John Cost returns to reality to provide the final pieces of the puzzle, the characters are poised to take the first step into a new era of exploration and knowledge. Humanity, as John Cost says, needs to “grow up.”

Graphic novel review - Warren Ellis's Orbiter

Orbiter, published in the wake of the Columbia disaster, is a hopeful prelude. Like Carl Sagan’s Contact, it gently nudges readers to awaken the potential of their own minds. We must dream, Orbiter tells us, but we must also be willing to let go of our dreams in order to grasp an even more beautiful reality. When John Cost learns that manned space missions were cancelled as a result of his disappearance, he responds, “Jesus. That’s all backwards.” Instead, the puzzle should have fired the human imagination, generated speculation, initiated a search and rescue mission, anything to draw humanity out from its “trapped and lonely” existence.

Toward the end of Orbiter, Dr. Bracken assesses her role as therapist to astronauts: “I wanted to see space through their eyes. To see how it changed them, to help them make sense of their experiments. To help them see how glorious and charmed it all is.” Bracken’s voice, here, is Ellis’s, reminding the human race about the possibilities of the unknown. There is something glorious and charmed about the enigmas of the universe, and it is only with dogged determination to understand that we can finally grow up, and out, into the universe.

More science fiction.

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