Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Orbiter by Warren Ellis review

I really like Warren Ellis as a writer. I’m not his biggest fan but his name is enough to draw me to a project. Some of the reasons I like Ellis so much is that he likes big ideas but in most cases he doesn’t let character or story suffer because of it. He’s also produced work with extremely talented artists throughout his career and when your career consists mostly of comic books, that’s a good thing because visuals matter a lot. Another reason I like Ellis is that he’s gender and race neutral. That’s a pretty big deal, it’s more important than some people think. What I mean by gender neutral is that he doesn’t go out of his way to make every single character a woman but woman are present in most if not all of his work in roles that matter. They’re not limited to being background characters that don’t speak or aren’t otherwise involved in the narrative. Unlike other writers, Ellis doesn’t forcefully integrate women or racial minorities in his work. He’s aware that he’s using a character that isn’t the statistical average human male and so he doesn’t write them as such. He also avoids writing his female and racial characters as stereotypes. It might not seem important, but these elements are present in Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s original graphic novel Orbiter.

Orbiter, like a lot of really good science fiction, begins with real world ideas and scientific facts and uses them to provide us with interesting ideas. Good science fiction is often speculative in nature and it’s concerned with social, political, economic issues. With Orbiter, Ellis uses the lost wonder of his childhood growing up during the Space Race along with the retrospective nature and overly cautionary administration of human spaceflight exploration, specifically the funding and administration of NASA, as the starting point of his story. Ten years ago, Space Shuttle Venture blasted off and disappeared. The shuttle and its crew where never heard of or seen again. Because of the incident, the American Space Shuttle program ended and Kennedy Space Centre has deteriorated and become a shanty town. On a day like any other, the thought-to-be-lost Venture returns home and crashes at KSC. Experts are brought in to study the shuttle and figure out where it went, how it got them and how it got back.

The rest of the story is a science fiction procedure grounded in real world ideas. Ellis has three experts, a psychiatrist, a biologist and an aerospace engineer, study the shuttle and the sole survivor crew member. Along the way he argues why crewed space flight is crucial to the success of space exploration. There are things that men and women can experience that robots just can’t, no matter how sophisticated they are. More importantly, you need humans in order to do experiments. Try having a robot do what Canadian astronaut Chris Hatfield did on the International Space Station last year. His experiments where simple but they helped to clearly demonstrate the way zero gravity can affect everyday items. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the things we can learn from space exploration and study.

I mentioned that Ellis is usually pretty good at keeping the human element in his stories present in his stories along with big ideas. He does so here, too. The four main characters all have their reasons to be concerned with the Venture. For one, it’s as simple as being fascinated with space and curious to learn how it affects animal and vegetable biology. For the pilot of the Venture it’s a matter of exploring and discovering the unknown. Space exploration is also extremely important to the engineer who only wants to help others reach space and come back in the best way possible. He wants to create things that will allow man to do the impossible. I particularly like the character of Anna Bracken, the psychiatrist who doesn’t have any interest to physically go to space but she’s devoted to the idea of helping others understand their own experiences.

Ellis’s comics can sometimes feel like essays. It’s true. If you don’t believe me you only need to read Crécy or Supergod. Better yet, find a copy of Orbiter and give that a read. I say this because Ellis’s writer can sometimes feel much more argumentative than other fiction. In Orbiter, Ellis and Doran argue for the importance of crewed spaceflight. As such, the comic succeeds but it flounders a bit as a narrative.  Part of the problem with the narrative is that everything goes so smoothly. This comic is, in essence, a science fiction mystery and boy, what a mystery it is! The problem is that the specialists from very different fields all work seamlessly together and solve the mystery based on well informed guesses. They’re still guesses though and they guess right every single time.

I don’t get too bothered by that because the point of Orbiter isn’t to provide a great narrative. The point is to inspire. Ellis is trying to inspire pride and joy in the idea of manned space exploration while (unhappily) predicting the end of the manned space flight. I was impressed by Orbiter because the creators also managed to throw in a heavy dose of science fiction while making all three elements, inspirational story, science fiction ideas and prediction all work together. As a species, man has the incredible potential to do the seemingly impossible but in order for us to do the impossible; we have to actually do it. We can’t use technology as a crutch or as a replacement of man in space. That will provide some answer but robotic exploration is stale and uninspired and ultimately not worth as much as real life experienced individuals doing what they do best which in this case happens to be exploring, learning and discovering.

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