Young Flint has a decision to make, does she stay with her family on the remote mining colony somewhere of the planet, Tisa, on the outer edge of the solar system, or does she venture forth, heeding the call of a new path on the planet that her people left long ago?
This is Retrograde Orbit by Kristyna Baczynski, an exploration of youth and the contrasting desires to fly the nest or stay, comfortable and safe, in the bosom of family. It’s a beautifully done thing, the surface simplicity, in both art and set-up, belying a depth and scope that sets up a universal tale of that transition from child to adult, of finding oneself, of exploring who we are, what we want to be, and where we want to be. It’s just that most of us don’t want to be on a distant, radioactive planet.
That’s young Flint, when first we see her, even at her school she’s already looking up to the stars, wanting to explore where her family came from, the planet of Doma. And that sense, that immigrant sensibility, fills every page of Retrograde Orbit.
Flint and her small family, Mom, Grandma (Baba), and her mysteriously distant father, are all refugees from Doma. They, along with most of the population, left many years ago, after the planet suffered some calamatous event, leaving it, reportedly, uninhabitable, there’s mention of radiation, of the danger preventing anyone going back.
Doma might have been a beautiful planet, but no more, although that doesn’t stop Flint from wishing she could have seen it, could have the chance to venture back to see it now. But, through the book, there’s that sense of melancholy, of the loss felt by the displaced, along with the thankfulness of escape, never more beautifully shown than in this simple little conversation between Flint and her Baba.
That single word, “Safe”, tells you so much, but the power of the delay is what really makes the moment work, where Baba gets just a moment to reflect on everything that’s gone on, all she’s lost. It might be a tale of Flint growing up, but it’s also a tale looking at three generations of refugees and how they adapt to their new world.
Notice the slight tonal shift in colour as well? That’s used throughout Retrograde Orbit, with Bacynski using colour to cover a jump forward in time, so we see Flint as a child, a teen, a young adult and, finally, a young woman who’s finally decided just what it is she wants to do with her life.
We see her making friends, starting an apprenticeship at the factory her mom works in, discovering herself, starting relationships, acting up a little, staying out, chilling with her friend, Zed, smoking, reading, watching the skies.
But, there’s always that sense of not being settled, Flint’s desire to move on, to go to a home she doesn’t know, so beautifully described once more by Bacynski in simple ways, as the stroppy, acting up teen comes home one night, sits alone in her room, and we can feel everything she’s feeling, all the displacement, the longing to be elsewhere, the call for home…
The way Bacynski lays out that page is perfection, a simple defeated look from mom, the wistful look out the window from Flint, reflecting on just what on earth home truly means for her now. That’s the epitome of the mood in Retrograde Orbit, done so well by Bacynski, never overplayed, yet always there, as we watch Flint grow into herself and away from her life here.
Over the last few chapters, we see Flint grow into an independent young woman, but also see her becoming increasingly troubled, her dreams of Doma something that dominates her life. And, in the final couple of chapters, where something incredible happens, her life changes overnight. Without spoiling that ending, Bacynski handles it so perfectly, with Flint’s story finding a natural, yet fantastical ending, with an emotional finale that’s simply lovely and, like me, you might find a stray tear working its way down your cheek.
Retrograde Orbit really is a beautifully done work, the two-tone artwork a delight throughout, the storytelling relaxed and yet powerful. But, it’s the way Bacynski deals with the pertinent themes of immigrant life and that sense of displacement felt by those ripped from their homes that stays with you. Like the best sci-fi always has, this tale of a distant world and alien cultures tells us so much about our world today and her empathy and understanding of the events rings so true.
The only complaint I have? It’s one moment, during the young adult phase of her life, where Flint takes a shower after another night out, another new partner. Without this, or even with it, done just slightly differently, Retrograde Orbit would still have had all its powerful message, but it would have been a message that could have been labeled all-ages.
Retrograde Orbit by Kristyna Baczynski, is published by Avery Hill Publishing.