Monday, July 26, 2010

Orbiter by Warren Ellis - Questions & Answers

The graphic novel book club selection for August 1st was Orbiter by Warren Ellis. Orbiter is Ellis' love letter to astronauts and the space program. He was inspired by the 2003 Columbia disaster. It is a very quick hard sci-fi read. Technical jargon is dropped throughout the graphic novel. Apparently, understanding said jargon helps the reader comprehend some elements of the book, but is not totally necessary.

Much of the intrigue of the graphic novel revolves around the mystery of astronaut John Cost, who returns to Earth from a previously thought doomed shuttle launch. Cost is catatonic through most of the book and the ending both raises and answers questions. Since I have not previously read any Warren Ellis graphic novels, I can't compare. However, judging from various reviews, this is not standard Ellis fare. All in all, an enjoyable read.

Here are the somewhat *SPOILERY* discussion questions and answers. Thanks to our book clubbers, including Erika, Richard, Jeremiah, Elena, Jan, Josh, Vrlina, and Nick (me!) for the answers and discussion.

1. Warren Ellis seems to be interested, maybe obsessed with astronauts and space. How does this show in his writing? How does it affect the story?

The entire book is indeed a love letter to space, this is especially clear in the foreword to Orbiter in which Ellis laments the uncertain future of the space program since the 2003 Columbia disaster. In fact, Orbiter was apparently on the back burner and Ellis and Doran decided to unleash it on the world after the Columbia disaster, so perhaps this affected the storytelling and message behind the book.

2. What recent political occurrences could have influenced Orbiter? What if the graphic novel was written now?

Most likely due to the recession, Obama has deemphasized the space program. Rumor has it, the current space project could be the last for a while. Elena posits that Ellis could be working on Orbiter 2 as we speak. (Which she would not be very happy about).

3. Why did Ellis choose to set Orbiter in a post-apocalyptic world? Is the post-apocalypse setting used too often in graphic novels?

Orbiter isn't necessarily post-apocalyptic. The beginning of the book would have you think so with the tent city and the state of the Kennedy Space Center, but news casts and current technology are available. That said, though, the post-apocalypse theme is getting a bit worn.

4. Orbiter is a rare occurrence in comics - a hard science fiction tale. Are there other graphic novels that fit into this genre? Why aren't there more hard science fiction comics?

It could be argued that Y the Last Man is hard science fiction. The only other series I can think of is a nice little manga called Planetes. I think the market for hard sci-fi graphic novels hasn't been found yet. As Richard and Jeremiah discussed with us, graphic novels are often used for crazy ideas, like a real world full of fairy tale characters. Maybe authors have not found the hard science fiction graphic novel niche yet.

5. Why does John (the returned astronaut) keep having violent reactions to the psychiatrist and conversations about his experience?

It is mentioned briefly at the end that the aliens showed John some things he was not ready to see, so this could have resulted in such shock. The man was also alone on a space ship with nothing to think about but these aliens and the unbelievable things he'd seen. The violent reactions remain a mystery, anyone care to weigh in there? John also gets off scot free at the end of the book when he leaves again, everyone seems to ignore the violence and death he caused.

6. Did the technical jargon used throughout Orbiter detract from the story? Add?

It added an element of realism and believability. Although we did not understand everything being said, we felt the jargon added.

7. What is your opinion on Terry and Ali's romance at the end of the book?

Tacked on, cheesy. In fact, the entire end of the book with everyone being gung-ho about leaving everything behind including their loved ones and life on Earth to go visit some aliens who have magic purple goo. Jack of Fables lookalike Terry and Ali's romance just seemed to be reaching for the unnecessarily mega-happy ending, Wayne's World style.

8. Orbiter is dedicated to the astronauts who lost their lives in the 2003 Columbia disaster. After the disaster, the shuttle program was suspended. Is space exploration worth the risk to human life and spending of government money? How do the themes of Orbiter play into this?

Warren Ellis obviously thinks that space exploration is worth it. This was a big point in our book club. Jeremiah argues that unmanned technology such as the Hubble and Mars rovers can help us learn as much if not more about space than the much more dangerous manned spaceflight. It seems that manned spaceflight hearkens back to the days of Magellan and Christopher Columbus, man just wants to conquer the unknown and call it his own. Clearly, Orbiter illustrates that space exploration has tangible mental and physical effects on astronauts. If Ellis was not so biased and one-sided in his view on space (SPACE IS GOOD!), perhaps the argument could be made that Cost is used as a commentary on the negative effects on returned astronauts.

9. What is Anna's motivation in being a therapist for astronauts? Why is this important?

We felt Anna was a bit of an unnecesary character, it seems she was only used so that she could finally get John Cost to talk again. She was also a weak plot device to have each character describe their love/motivations for space. Anna wants to hear the stories of astronauts and live vicariously through them, etc.

10. Why is John Cost catatonic upon his arrival to Earth?

See #5. I sometimes write redundant questions.

11. Why did the other astronauts send only John back to Earth on a ten year journey?

Elena believes John was a martyr. His job was to go back to Earth and tell the world of the beneficial aliens who want to "play" aka travel in space. Elena also argues that John could be lying about the whole thing. Do we believe one (formerly bloodthirsy and crazy) astronaut? Would you jump on a ten year old ship with an unstable astronaut and a Jack of Fables lookalike to visit some aliens who want to "play?"

12. What are the implications of alien technology on human spaceflight? Alien technology allowed the Venture astronauts to truly explore space. What will happen to the space program now? Will humans somehow adopt the alien technology?

No one but the army general is skeptical about the alien technology. How does anyone know it is worth the risk? Maybe the aliens do mean humans harm. Everyone seems completely willing to take this risk for the chance to travel space. The alien technology also makes future space programs pointless. If we've already seen the purple goo technology that allows for unlimited spaceflight, why would we go back to our faulty shuttle screws and missed calculations?

13. What is the importance of Dave Stewart's color palette? How does Colleen Doran's style fit with the story?

The color palette is brown and earthy. Maybe this is a contrast, to show the bright and radiant purples and blacks of outer space? Doran takes a very realistic art style for the story, to fit with the science and logical aspects of the plot.

14. Warren Ellis says in his foreword, "It's a book about glory. About going back to space, because it's waiting for us, and it's where we're meant to be." Do you agree with this statement? Are we meant to be in space? Is Ellis' agenda pushing through an otherwise honest message?

Elena's answer was too good not to quote, "His agenda IS his message, completely transparent and not very much fun. If we were meant to be in space, we would have wings and rocket feet and space gills. The message is honest and heartfelt, but lost on the likes of me." I agree to an extent. As previously mentioned, Ellis' message/agenda is clear and unchanging. We were not meant to be in space, but I do think we're meant to explore the unknown and I think humanity finds something fascinating in that.

15. Many reviewers criticize Orbiter for its sudden ending. What is your opinion on the ending?

Many of us thought it was abrupt. I remember getting to the last few pages and wondering, "how is Ellis going to wrap all of this up with so little space left?" Despite the abruptness, I felt it tied up what needed to be tied up and I believe that the ambiguity was interesting.

That's it! Thanks for coming to the book club, everyone. Let's keep the discussion going in the comments section.


  1. Thanks everyone for a good discussion on Aug. 1.

    When I read "Orbiter" four years ago, the book instantly became my favorite book, but when I reread it in preparation of this reading club, I was disappointed that the actual storytelling was weak, jagged and undeveloped.

    After the discussion, I was convinced that going into space is less important (thanks Jeremiah), but I do still believe it's important to try to "see the roses" and give people a chance to look at the universe directly from out of the earth's atmosphere. I won't be rich enough to go on Virgin Spacelines' first treks, but after saving up I could imagine it would be fun.

    The first time I read "Orbiter," I also got the impression of needing to take risks to "grow up." The need to take and accept risks is still important in all types of ventures -- I referenced "Orbiter" in a discussion of school of choice -- but I didn't get the same impression after reading "Orbiter" the second time.

    I just finished Ellis's "Ministry of Space," which is more recently published and less emotional (but English-centric). The latest book does a better job -- storytelling, pacing, development of ideas -- of what Ellis intended with "Orbiter." And it's grounded in human exploration, possibilities and practicality, whereas "Orbiter" concludes with the irony we need to grow up so we can play like kids with other aliens. Further, in "Ministry of Space" Ellis also recognizes the flaws of the preaching he did in "Orbiter," concluding with one of the most memorable, powerful and surprising panels I've ever read.


  2. Josh, neither our library or Prospector has Ministry of Space. You mind doing a Can't Find It?

    Actually, anyone else who is reading: the library orders graphic novels almost exclusively by request. Do me a favor and do "Can't Find Its" on graphic novels we don't have. If they are older, we may not end up buying them, but do this for new graphic novels and they are almost always bought. I may do a post on this.

  3. I don't mean to nitpick, but if there's Aliens and purple goo technology, it ain't hard sci-fi.

    Don't let the mediocrity of this one put you off from reading Planetes. That's an absolutely wonderful (and legitimately hard) bit of SF.

  4. All of the shuttle/flight technology is backed by (semi) legitimate science though. No science is used to back the purple alien goo, I'll agree with you there.