Orbital is a Franco-belgian space opera written by Sylvain Runberg and illustrated by Serge Pellé. Originally published by Belgian publisher Éditions Dupuis S.A. in 2006, the English language edition of volume 1 was released in Great Britain by publisher Cinebook Ltd in 2009. Following the adventures of intergalactic peacekeepers Caleb, a human, and Mezoke, a sandjarr, the series centers on their missions to keep order between the many opportunistic alien races that live side by side in the universe of Orbital.
Really, what weirdo doesn’t love this kind of expansive science fiction universe? Games like Mass Effect, comics like Saga and TV shows like Star Trek offer a vast cornucopia of races, religions, and cultures. Just having so many different peoples existing near one another means the stories of alien political intrigue, military conquest and rock operas pretty much write themselves. Taking advantage of the freedom of the genre, Sylvain Runberg creates a vast cast of characters that span across the wide universe.
It’s a skillful author who can actually make a cohesive space opera with developed characters without getting lost in the fascinating vastness of the story’s setting. Although it tries to do this, Orbital finds it difficult to stick to the plot without getting sidetracked by little details about the setting. A colorful bartender, a gang of local urchins on an off world colony, an alien race’s political system, etc. While enriching to the setting, it’s annoying to have dialogue dedicated to expounding on non-essential filler taking up precious page space. Although an ongoing series with 4 volumes and a 5th coming in November Runberg uses a few too many cliche tricks to help get the exposition out of the way. Since the main characters are diplomatic agents their dossiers contain a short synopsis of the recent major events of their destination which is presented to the reader in full. There are numerous new characters who introduce themselves with long monologues about not only themselves, but details about their race, their hopes and dreams, etc, etc. There is even a full sub story dedicated to a rivalry between Caleb and another peacekeeper alien with a hatred of humans. It takes nearly 4 volumes before the plot moves on from the “mission of the week” formula and begins introducing a larger overreaching story. At this point all the tedium pays off and the series becomes worth buying rather than borrowing.
Orbital isn’t a series that is aimed specifically at any particular gender. At its heart it’s a morally upright pg-13 action adventure romp with an even cast of men and women. Women hold positions of authority alongside men in all groups: intergalactic government, human isolationists, and the many random species in the story. But for a series with such attention to detail, it’s shocking that when it comes to gender relations Orbital completely refuses to address it in almost any way. It should be noteworthy that all of these extremely diverse alien cultures have equal rights and universal suffrage. Is this a requirement for membership in the intergalactic government? It feels odd asking for more details from a book that I just criticized for having too much exposition, but of all the times when it would have been fun to know more about the values and policies of inclusion in this governing body there was no further information to be had. One such exchange is between Caleb and a barman who continually leers at Mezoke until Caleb warns him that Mezoke could be either a male or a female. “Their culture doesn’t place any importance on gender in social interactions”.
This perfectly sums up the writer’s aversion to the discussion of gender within the world of Orbital – it’s socially taboo for the species and/or secondary to the plot. Within a space opera not going further into the societal relationships of the characters in favor of their mission leaves the reader wanting more to go on. Orbital‘s world feels large and immersive, but not as well rounded as it could be.