Sylvain Runberg: The Star that Defines Orbital

A comics interview article by: Penny Kenny
Set in a fully-realized 23rd century populated by various alien races, Orbital follows the adventures of two agents of the Confederation, the human Caleb and the Sandjaar Mezoke as they try to keep peace in the galaxy. Its creator, writer Sylvain Runberg, a busy author who divides his time between his native France and Sweden, took the time to answer some questions about himself and his work for reviewer Penny Kenny.

Penny Kenny: Where were you born and when?

Sylvain Runberg: I was born in 1971, in France, from a Belgian mother and a French father. I’ve spent most of my life in France, but for several years now I've divided my time between my home country and Sweden for family reasons. My girlfriend and my son are Swedish.

PK: Were you a reader right from the beginning -- in other words, were your parents forever telling you to get your nose out of that book and go outside and play? Or were you more into sports and/or music?

SR: I was always a reader and my parents were fine with it! But I also hung out with my friends, playing out in the woods, visiting each other. I was a sociable child, and I liked to travel. I still do. Then I started to be interested in music in my early teenage years, in the mid-80s, especially with all the indie-rock, thrash metal and hardcore scenes that were emerging, and a bit of Hip-Hop too. I’m still a huge music fan. For the record, the spaceship Angus in Orbital is, of course, named from the lead guitarist of AC/DC, Angus Young.

PK: Did you always want to be a writer?

SR: In fact, no. I was into Graphic Arts in college and then I studied history and politics at the university. I worked for several years in a bookshop and then for a publisher, as a commercial employee, but I never really thought of writing myself. Then in 2001 I was immobilized for several months after a bad injury. This is when I started to write, because I needed something to do before I could walk again. It turned out that I liked it, and that in 2003, when I sent some of the projects that I wrote to several publishers, they also liked it! And since then, that’s what I do.

PK: What were some of the books and stories that got you excited as a child? Is Science Fiction something that's always interested you?

SR: There were a lot of things actually. In the field of comics, there were the traditional Franco-Belgian ones, of course, such as Spirou, Asterix, Tintin, that most children read in France. But from the start I was also really into the DC and Marvel characters. Iron Man, X-men, Batman, and Spider-man were among my favorites when I was a child.

I was reading a lot of novels also, especially in the field of history and some of Stephen King’s books too. Then there was Jules Verne, the French novelist from the 19th century who was one of my favorites, and still is. The Godfather of SF and anticipation in my eyes!

And there were all the movies and television series that I really was into in those days : The Twilight Zone, Battlestar Galactica, The Avengers, The Prisoner, the Spielberg movies, Star Wars, King Kong, Planet of the Apes, Dark Crystal, Alien, The Wall, Elephant Man, and so on. Some of the first Japanese animé that arrived in France in the late 70s, Captain Future and Captain Herlock, I really liked as a child. So yes, among a lot of other subjects, I’ve always been interested in Science-Fiction.

PK: As a young adult, were there any artists or writers who captured your interest?

SR: A lot! In every field. Philip K. Dick, James Ellroy, Danish film director and screenwriter Lars Von Trier, Alan Moore, David Lynch, Enki Bilal (a French comic book creator and film director), Dave Mc Kean, Moebius, Japanese manga artist and film director Katsuhiro Ōtomo, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Italian comics and graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, Toni Morisson, Stanley Kubrick, French artist and illustrator Edmond Baudoin, French comic creator Nicolas de Crecy, Argentinean comic artist and writer Alberto Breccia, Tim Burton. Well, there were so many that I can’t name all of them! And there is this French scriptwriter, Luc Brunschwig, who really made me think about the process of writing a graphic novel in his work during the 90s. The funny thing is that 15 years later, he became one of my publishers at Futuropolis and we even co-wrote two books for the series MicMacAdam !

PK: Do you enjoy the sociological-political aspects of Science Fiction or the more action-oriented plot style stories?

SR: It’s, of course, the sociological-political aspects of Science Fiction that I like the most. For me, Science Fiction can be a marvelous mirror to examine our societies and how we can act as individuals. But a bit of action-oriented plot can be also really enjoyable.

PK: What inspired you to write Orbital?

SR: The first idea was to work around the idea of “can we avoid a cultural conflict,” and if it’s always possible. In other terms, what makes you tolerant or not when you're facing something completely different from your own personal background culturally, politically, morally, philosophically. And of course, a Confederation with 781 different alien races was a good start to explore it.

Then, there was this idea that in that kind of situation, if humans were the last race to integrate into this sort of Confederation, they would be seen by a lot of the members as the black sheep, the primitive new ones that some of them don’t want to accept, with all the prejudice that comes around in this type of situation. That was the basic idea. It’s obviously inspired by all the racism and intolerance that can face the new immigrants in our human societies.

And then, of course, like in every story, what matters are the characters. Where they come from, why do they act like they do, are they really who they seem to be, all that sort of thing that makes a story interesting to follow in my eyes.

PK: Politics seem to play a large part in this story. Will future storylines be delving more into how the IDO works?

SR: The second diptych, book 3 and 4, will show some new sides of how the IDO works…for the better or for the worst.

PK: How do you come up with the alien cultures? Are you extrapolating from anthropology? Or just letting your imagination run wild? Or is it a bit of both?

SR: In general, I start to extrapolate from human anthropology and then bring it to something rather or completely different. In the third book, there’s the question of cannibalism from an alien’s point of view and it tends to get a bit different from the way we usually look at it as humans. And no, I don’t try to promote anthropophagism in this book!

PK: Mezoke is rather an interesting character since we don't know its gender. I think that's fascinating. What made you decide to go that route with the

SR: It’s all the prejudice that is still so strong today about the so-called different ways of thinking or behaving that are supposed to "naturally" separate men and women. I think we are all different as individuals, and that it’s our environment and our own personal decisions that make us what we become, absolutely not our gender. A woman can be violent and insensitive and a man can be sweet and patient and everybody can be all of that from time to time depending on the period of our lives. But I don’t think there’s a natural, specific way of approaching things depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s funny that a lot of readers ask me what Mezoke's gender is, because some of them seem to be uncomfortable not knowing it.

But as I answered them, in Mezoke's culture gender doesn’t define a person, so they should try to think in those terms when it comes to Sandjarr…and maybe with humans too! To stay with that problematic idea, that’s also why I really like Y the Last Man from Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. You’ve got a world where there are only women -- except for the main character Yorick -- a universe dominated by them, and it is still as violent and rough as the world is today. Even if there are no men around anymore, nothing has changed! He really makes a point there.

PK: Will we be seeing more of Mezoke's society/culture?

SR: Absolutely. The third book of Orbital, "Nomads," which just came out in August in France, starts to show some new aspects of the Sandjarr society and of Mezoke’s background. Same for Caleb actually.

PK: There's inherent conflict built into the pairing of Caleb and Mezoke (humans nearly wiped out Mezoke's people in an earlier war) and yet, so far, they seem to be working together quite easily. Will there ever be conflict between them?

SR: You really have to read the third book!

PK: In the Senestam storyline (the first two volumes of the series), readers mostly saw things from Caleb's, or the human, viewpoint. Will future stories explore Mezoke's point of view?

SR: Yes, they will.

PK: Another interesting character who assumes importance in the second volume is Angus the neuronome, a sentient ship. Will we be finding out more about it and other neuronomes in future volumes?

SR: Absolutely.

PK: Is Orbital meant to be a finite series finishing in 10 or so volumes or is it designed to run for much longer than that?

SR: Well, the third book, "Nomads," is out now. The fourth book, "Ravages," will complete this second diptych and will be published in 2010. I already have in mind the general architecture of the two next diptychs, so that could be the start of books 5 and 6 and then 7 and 8. That will depend, of course, on the commercial success of the first four books. But so far the answer from the people is great, so let’s hope it will be like this for a long time in the future.

PK: Do you have an ending for Orbital that you're working toward?

SR: I have to take a joker on this one!

PK: You work with the artist Serge Pelle. Did you come up with the design of Orbital's future and pass it on to him? Or have you developed it together? How did the two of you hook up? Did you know one another before? Or was it the publisher's suggestion to work together?

SR: I wrote the first two books alone, before proposing them to the publishers. Then, when Dupuis, the publisher of Orbital, wanted to sign it, they proposed it to Serge Pelle. So in general, all the design came from his fertile imagination. I think it’s important to give the most possible freedom to the artist, especially when it comes to this type of Science-Fiction.

PK: Are there any authors you've read who've influenced Orbital's story?

SR: It’s difficult to say. The only influence that I had consciously in my mind when I started this project was the trilogy known as The Culture by the novelist Iain M. Banks. That was the kind of Science Fiction I wanted to write with Orbital, even if in the end the two universes are really different.

PK: Do you have a particular audience in mind when writing Orbital? Do you write the story you want to read? Or do you write for others?

SR: No, I never have a particular audience in my mind when I start a story -- except if it’s a book that is made for children at the start, of course. But that’s not what I write in general. And there are a lot of readers that told us that they like Orbital even if they are usually not into Science Fiction. I think it’s kind of nice in a way. And I always write the story I want to read, otherwise I don’t really see the point of writing!

PK: What would you like readers to take away from Orbital?

SR: If they had a good time reading it, it’s really fine enough for me! And if some people start to think about matters that they did not think about before, well, it’s a bonus.

PK: You've written other books. Are they also Science Fiction? Or do you write in a variety of genres? Do you have a favorite genre to write in?

SR: As a reader, I like really different sorts of stories. Same thing as a scriptwriter : Science Fiction (Orbital, Le Sourire de Myra), anticipation (Les Brigades Rezo, Hostile), Historic Fantasy (Hammerfall, Reconquêtes, MicMacAdam), history (Thomas Salgren), humor (Astrid, Les Colocataires), supernatural thriller (Les Chemins de Vadstena, Les Carnets de Darwin), social thriller (London Calling, Faces Cachées). I like all the stories I write, whatever the style they are related with.

PK: Do you write to explore themes and ideas? Or do the characters come first and you create a story for them?

SR: Well, at the start, the both are possible. There are no rules. A project can come from a general theme or a particular character that pops up in my mind. But I think it’s important that all the stories start from the characters. That's what gives consistency to them. A rich universe without strong characters doesn’t become a good story in general.

PK: Do you have a writing schedule -- a set number of words or pages you write each day?

SR: Yes, I have a schedule. When you’re writing 6 or 7 different books at the same time, it’s an obligation. In general, it’s a number of pages a week (rather than daily) and a number of new sequences a month.

PK: Who are some of your favorite authors now?

SR: In the comics/graphic novels field there are a lot of English/American writers I like. Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, and Warren Ellis among others. I also really like Walking Dead from Kirkman and Adlard and DMZ from Wood and Burchielli. There are also two Japanese authors that I find really inspiring -- Inio (Solanin) Asano and Naoki (Monster) Urasawa. I also have to mention the approach of some television series like The Sopranos, The Wire, the new Battlestar Galactica, The Tudors, The Shield and Entourage that I really appreciate. There are also some Nordic novelists such as Ake Edwarson, Karin Alvtegen, Hemming Mankel, Arnaldur Indridason. And Hayao Miyazaki, of course.

PK: When you're not writing, what do you like to do?

SR: Spend time with my family and my friends, listen to music and discover new artists, go to concerts, read, watch movies, go clubbing, have drinks in some good bars, travel, meet new people, go mountain biking, jog, walk in nature and try to learn more about the world we are living in. I guess that’s it!

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