Orbiter begins with a cosmic mystery. It ends with a powerful tug on the imagination. In between, writer Warren Ellis weaves a spellbinding story about science, space and the wonders we may one day see in parts of the universe we can for now only imagine.
A space shuttle comes back to Earth ten years after it disappeared mysteriously on a mission that was as routine as space travel ever is. Only one of the shuttle's seven crew members is onboard. There is Martian sand in the wheels of a vehicle not designed to go as far as Mars. And the shuttle is covered with what looks like skin.
As one mystery piles atop another, a crew of experts sets out to determine what's happened. They are the remnants of a space program that was abandoned when the shuttle vanished. In the decade since, they've never given up hope that humans would return to space.
One of them believes that an alien intelligence is behind the shuttle's return: "Someone is teaching us how to fly again. Let's see if we understand the lesson."
As they learn, Ellis deftly makes clear the complex science. Even those of us who are not astrophysicists can understand the concepts with which Ellis' characters try to go beyond what we know about how things work in the vastness of space and time.
Although much of Orbiter works wonderfully well, Ellis mars some of it with an inelegant narrative device. After the scientists have figured out as much as they can about the returned shuttle's mysteries, the remaining puzzle parts lie in the mind of the ship's captain. His return from a decade in outer space has left him mute. When a psychiatrist finally talks to him and gets him to fill in the gaps, one character calls her approach "clever." It is not. If the psychiatrist had done any reading in her field, the idea of talking to her patient would have occurred to her much sooner.
Colleen Doran's artwork expertly blends science fiction and fact. She brings to life people trying to expand their understanding to take in some of the expansiveness of the universe. Her final image of a shuttle among stars is a colorful invocation of wonder and hope.
Orbiter is a stirring addition to Ellis' impressive body of work. Even without it, he would have been assured a place among the great comic book writers for his DC Comics/Vertigo series Transmetropolitan, in which a Hunter S. Thompson-ish journalist in a dizzying dystopian future confronts corruption and weirdness on scales far beyond the abilities of most of us to conceive. Transmetropolitan is warped and inspired, a jolting joy to read.
Orbiter is far more optimistic about what our world's future holds. Ellis and Doran have created art with an agenda. They want to rekindle in us the awe of looking up and realizing again that we might have a place among the stars and planets beyond ours.