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As a child, Warren Ellis dreamed of space. He wasn’t the only child dreaming of the stars, nor the first.
Possibly, not even the most important – he never became an astronaut or invented a propulsion system breakthrough.
But Ellis is scared that out there, some child might be the last child to dream of space.
We seem to be losing the momentum he remembers back from when he watched the early launches on a black and white tv set.
And since he did grow up to be a writer, his job is, perhaps, to help keep the dream alive. To inspire us to continue our journey onward and outward into the great unknown.
At the core of it, that’s what this graphic novel is about. Orbital, created by Ellis and artist Colleen Doran, is hardly the first work they’ve had in the field of comics (you must have read Ellis’ Transmetropolitan by now, yes? And Doran’s art has graced the pages of Sandman and Lucifer.) It may not be the work that is associated with their names on the back of books, but it’s obviously one of great personal importance. Ellis’ introduction here cements that firmly.
This is a work of love.
In many ways, this book is as much a love song to short sci-fi as it is to the space exploration program. It’s a far cry from the alien beat-um-ups that many people associate with the genre.
The book opens in a setting that is at once a judgment and a warning – a shanty town built on the crumbling remains of the Kennedy Space Center. This is the world that Ellis fears to come, without hope of the next great step.
In typical Ellis style, everything is promptly blown to shit, and the slight hint of dystopia is swept aside as characters are introduced, brought together, and confronted with one heck of a mystery.
As with many science fiction stories focused on a mystery of technology, the characters are amusing, but mere reminders of particular types of people – interesting, but not overly burdened with details of their life stories.
We have to understand about who they are and why they are involved fairly fast, because they are quickly put to work.
Ellis attempts to give them enough quirks and personal moments (about one for each of the three main investigators) for us to feel for them and I’m glad there’s no real push on backstory – they are human. That is enough.
It’s about humans, but more about a general human desire for exploration and knowledge – not about particular human stories.
Colleen Doran‘s work here is of a similar nature – the art shows character and emotion that’s immediately understandable. Wide eyed exuberance, fear of the unknown, enthusiasm tempered by previous dreams dashed. It all shows plainly on the faces of our cast. I’m sure any reader could pick one and say “that’s me.” Or maybe several, depending on the breadth of your experience.
She keeps things somewhat dark and gritty, but not without periodic glimmers of something more, something better. Or perhaps something we just shouldn’t be so afraid of, even if it does seem dangerous.
If the book suffers at all, it’s from problems that plague many science fiction tales. Is it Hard Sci-Fi or soft? Space Fantasy? Is that gibberish that they are shouting or is he dumbing down real science?
Some people, either those with an aversion to anything sounding like math or those who hold several degrees and no sense of humor, may not like the book based on “boring” or “inaccurate” dialogue.
I didn’t care much, personally, but I’ve been raised on Star Trek – I feel that what is important is the story the author is trying to tell, if it flows smoothly and has the right message.
The momentum built well and the characters reacted to everything in understandable ways. I won’t pretend to be able to judge any of the science chatter. It sounded fun, at least.
Finally, long time science fiction fans may find themselves bored with a familiar story. They may also find themselves brought back to what got them into science fiction in the first place.
Perhaps the book will find many new science fiction fans. The sense of wonder, of discovery – hope tinged with fear, seeking understanding. That’s what it’s all about.
Never give up on space. It’s too damn big to ignore.
4 out of 5. A very enjoyable book, with a done-in-one classic science fiction story. Ellis is relatively un-offensive, compared to his previous works, and Doran’s art expresses everything needed (and often more.) Not an absolute stunner, but definitely something to check out.
This book stands alone.
No prior reading required, though you might want to look into the history of manned space flight. If you’re really a context nerd, anyway.
Oh hey, look, here’s a book called The History of Manned Space Flight. What a coincidence.
If you haven’t yet, you need to read Warren Ellis’ amazing Transmetropoltian series. He’s done a variety of other work that would also be of interest.