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Review: Orbit

Orbit: A Novel
By John J. Nance
Simon and Schuster, 2006
Hardcover, 288 pp.
ISBN 0-7432-5052-4
US$25.00

You’re trapped in orbit, alone. Your pilot is dead, you can’t communicate with the ground, and you can’t get back to Earth. There’s a laptop computer onboard meant for passenger use. What do you do? Well, if you’re Kip Dawson, the orbital Robinson Crusoe in John Nance’s latest book Orbit, you spend your last days recording your life in great detail, and thinking about what you could do better… a message to your children or whomever else finds the record in the improbable event that your craft is salvaged or found on Earth in the future.

Did I mention that the whole world can see every keystroke that Kip types?

This book’s premise made me chuckle at first, but sparked my interest enough to pick up a copy. Having not read any of Nance’s work in the past, I didn’t know what I was getting into. The future here is recognizable: the shuttle is still flying, there’s some tension with China and their space program, and private spaceflight is starting up although it’s still a toddling industry. Kip Dawson won a lottery to hop aboard an orbital spaceflight, and he jumps at the chance to live his dream. He has some problems at home, but plans to get to work on them as soon as he returns from his four orbits of the planet.

Orbit pulls together a lot of elements: action, family, philosophy, religion, and, commercial vs. government spaceflight; yet manages to keep the subjects light throughout.

The canvas the story is painted on is realistic as well. NASA, rife with political (and personal) tensions about commercial spaceflight, chafes under an executive order to mount a rescue mission they told commercial providers wasn’t possible. Other nations are interested in helping out as the story develops, but there’s no standard rescue protocol. Air Force Space Command is also a player in the drama, which I found to be interesting since I once served within it. Lieutenant Colonel Nance (the author is a member of the Air Force Reserve) applies his military experience to these portions of the book. He sometimes resorts to stereotypes (“General’s wives are more like mistresses with commissary privileges”), though those stereotypes wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t some truth to them. As a pilot, Nance’s descriptions of the aircraft operations have a gritty, been-there feel, and this follows into most of the space operations as well. The techie reader will have an occasional “Aha!” moment and catch a technical error, but most of them are necessary for the story and well within writer’s privilege.

Orbit pulls together a lot of elements: action, family, philosophy, religion, and, commercial vs. government spaceflight; yet manages to keep the subjects light throughout. A group of people who read this book would have a difficult time discussing all the angles in an afternoon.

One interesting point for me is that the category listing on the back of the book is “fiction” as opposed to the more specific “science fiction.” While I would definitely put it in the latter category, this may be an attempt to gain wider appeal for the work, as a science fiction label tends to drive away some discriminating readers.

I found Orbit to be a quick, fun read, great to take along for the family vacation. There are some wonderful visuals described within it and it would probably make a good movie as well.


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