OrbitalA column article by: Penny Kenny
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.
Orbital's concept is a simple one, easily grasped by readers: in the far future, two agents of a multi-species, galactic organization similar to the U.N deal with problems that could have serious repercussions throughout the confederation of worlds. Caleb, a human from Earth, and Mezoke from Sandjarr, are recent recruits and partners.
Complicating their working relationship is the fact that Earth and Sandjarr were at war for many years. While Runberg doesn't make this the focal point of the duo's relationship -- the pair have a refreshingly mature attitude toward working together -- that history does underlie the series and inform their viewpoints.
The first two volumes of Orbital, "Scars" and "Ruptures," are a mature pulp SF adventure in the best sense of the term. Newly partnered Caleb and Mezoke travel to Senestam to settle what is ostensibly a dispute between humans and the Jävlods. However, the agents discover there's more to the problem than meets the eye. The pair also encounters the pilot Nina and her neuronome ship Angus, who quickly become major characters in the series.
The series' opening two volumes play out like a really good episode of B5, with a thrilling finale reminiscent of the Alien franchise. Runberg and Pellé introduce characters, worlds, and complicated politics in bite-sized bits that readers can easily digest. Information is revealed in a natural seeming way, while character is displayed through action.
"Nomads" and "Ravages," the third and fourth volumes of the series, contain another thought-experiment.
Against the background of a celebration in Malaysia marking the end of the Human-Sandjarr wars, Caleb and Mezoke must deal with protests against aliens, a vicious killer, and their own pasts haunting them. Runberg's handling of the political aspects feels like it could be his assessment of the immigration issue, but it's not done in a heavy-handed way. Unlike other SF *cough*new Battlestar Galactica*cough* Orbital's author is too talented a writer and too committed to the idea of "story" to turn his work into a polemic or let it drown under its own (self)importance. The elements of plot, politics, character, and action are balanced. Each element moves the story as a whole forward.
And it moves in ways readers might not expect. The ending of "Ravages" shows the heroic ideal in action as the characters are trapped, by their own choice, on a ship in space with one of the deadliest killers in the galaxy. Up until the final four pages I was expecting total victory for the good guys. Runberg, however, tempers his fiction with reality. It does not turn out all right for everyone and, looking back, I saw Ruberg had foreshadowed the ending earlier in the volume. It's great writing and I can't wait for the next volume to see what will happen next.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Orbital universe is that Mezoke's gender is unidentified. The Sandjarr only reveal their sex to one another. It's a tribute to Runberg's talent that Mezoke has a full personality that gender doesn't play a part in. When reading Orbital, you simply don't think of Mezoke as being anything other than Mezoke. While many writers have tried to pull off a genderless humanoid, I think Runberg is one of the most successful.
Pellé deserves part of the credit for Mezoke's success as a character. His design for the Sandjarr makes it easy to focus on the character's actions and personality rather than gender.
Pellé's art is the equal of Runberg's writing throughout the series. It's a beautiful example of the "La Ligne Claire" or Clear Line, which has been defined by some as "just the right lines." Certainly here, Pellé uses just the right lines to tell the story in a clear, understandable way. The eye can easily follow the action, taking in what is happening, where it's happening, and how the characters are reacting to it. Clear Line is not, however, a bland style. There is a rich, textured lushness to the panels. It's similar in many ways to Moebius's SF work and Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
The main characters are easily identifiable. Even Mezoke, who design-wise looks like every other Sandjarr, is individualized by body language and facial expression -- not something easily done when the character wears a full mask at all times. Caleb's rectangular, squared-jawed features immediately connect him visually with every classic, stalwart hero, yet it too can express surprise, annoyance, and concern.
Orbital is an enjoyable SF action-adventure-political drama that takes familiar space opera elements and combines them into a new and interesting whole. It's a series that should be on the shelf of every discriminating reader.
For the past 13 years, Penny Kenny has been an elementary library paraprofessional in a rural school district. For the seven years prior to that, she headed a reading-math program designed to help first grade students with learning difficulties. Her book reviews regularly appeared in Starlog from 1993 to the magazine's unfortunate demise in 2009 and she has published several e-novellas under a pen name. She has been a reviewer with Comics Bulletin since 2007.