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'Orbit' shows death as liberating experience

You have five days to live. And there's nothing you can do but face it.

That is the central issue that motivates "Orbit: A Novel," a science fiction work by John J. Nance. "Orbit" is a refreshing change from the normal sci-fi fare, as it's not so laden down with tech-terms as to make it unreadable.

Instead, it approaches things from the position of Everyman. Kip Dawson is a dreamer who is offered a chance to fulfill his boyhood dream -- going into space. To his credit, he makes the trip, despite the doom-and-gloom predictions of his bitter and estranged wife.

Of course, everything goes wrong, and he finds himself trapped in orbit, the only living person on a private (and broken) space shuttle, and no realistic way to get safely back down to earth. There's no one to help him, and he has no way to contact anyone else.

Or, so he thinks.

And that's where the real story begins. Because Dawson is convinced he's going to die, he grabs a lap-top computer and begins to write the most intimate thoughts about his life, thinking that this small lifeline to sanity might be found years later, when his body is recovered.

What he doesn't know is what makes the novel fascinating: the shuttle's computer is broadcasting every word back down to Earth, and people are responding to Dawson's honestly human reactions. He's baring his soul for a future audience, unaware that, down below, a current one is spellbound by his ordeal and the bravery he shows.

A warning: "Orbit" is one of those gems that, should you start reading it, you'll suddenly look up to find that hours have vanished. The book is nearly as emotionally draining as the events within are to the main character. You live his every moment with him.

The book is also inspirational, because it asks a hard question: How satisfied are you -- should you be -- with your life? Are you brave enough to take risks for that happiness, or do you plod along, day by day, doing what you do because it's what's expected?

e-mail: tbankhead@buffnews.com

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Orbit: A NovelBy John J. Nance

Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $25

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