SciFi Classic Book Review: Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky

Short and sweet: this book is a good read and short and sweet – maybe 125 pages. Cool scifi ideas, and a couple memorable characters. One of the earliest stories to introduce the idea of generation ships. It explores some classic Heinlein themes of militarism, leadership and hard tech, and the idea of high adventure within a world that refuses to take its eyes off the mundane.

Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky is on John C. Wright’s list of essential SciFi reading. Grabbed a copy at Half-Priced Books, took it on last week’s trip as backup to the backup to the backup read, finished it last night. First published in two parts in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, Orphans of the Sky was published as a novel in 1963.  Image result for Orphans of the Sky

Hugh Hoyland* is coming of age inside a five-mile long, 2,000 yard in cross section cylindrical generational ship. A mutiny centuries ago left almost all the scientists and engineers dead and ‘muties,’ short for both mutants and mutineers, in control of the upper levels near the ship’s core. Not only is the core where all the navigation and flight command centers are, it’s also the only place where there are windows to the outside universe. The non-‘muties’ hold the levels out near the hull and farm and live like illiterate peasants, ruled by the literate but not-comprehending crew and scientists. All the books left by the Jordan Foundation, builders of the Vanguard, are taken as religious and moral allegory – they pass along an elaborate mythology in which the journey is a metaphor for life, and the ship is the Universe.

Hugh is selected for his intelligence to become one of the Scientists, but, before he gets very far, is captured by the muties when recklessly exploring the inner levels of the ship. His captor wishes to eat him, but has brought him first to Joe-Jim, the two-headed leader of a powerful mutie gang. Joe-Jim takes a liking to Hugh, and spares him so as to have another intelligent person to talk to – the muties, for the most part, aren’t very intellectual if not out and out mentally deficient.

Joe-Jim teaches Hugh the truth: that the ship is flying through space, and that all those weird teachings in the sacred books were not metaphor but stone truth. Hugh is shaken to his core, and devotes himself to learning how to pilot the ship – and realizes he’ll need help.

The rest of the story concerns Hugh’s efforts to get Joe-Jim and the muties on his side, and then to get more help from among the scientists. After intrigue, bloody battles and betrayals, Hugh and a couple of his companions and a few women manage to escape the ship on its last remaining boat as Joe-Jim dies defending the door to the launch. They miraculously find a habitable moon orbiting a gas giant, and even more miraculously manage to land and find food.

(Heinlein does manage to get them all naked by the end – hey, it’s Heinlein – but nothing more is said about it. 1940s, and all.)

Joe-Jim is the most notable character, a two-headed genius with the smarts to rule a gang of muties but without the drive needed to do anything much beyond enjoying life as a petty mafia don. He dies heroically at the end. Bobo, his microcephalic muscle, is a murderous cannibal with a heart of gold, so that his death is felt as a tragedy. The other characters are pretty much perfectly functional stock, but hey, he’s got 125 pages to do this in, so two memorable characters is pretty good.

Writing aside: Orphans of the Sky is the second story featuring a generation ship I’ve read since beginning TNTSNBN, my stab at a story about a generation ship.**  The other was the first book of Gene Wolfe’s  Long Sun series. I cannot remember reading any other generation ship stories, although that says more about my memory, perhaps, and my switch to philosophy and history after age 17 or so, than about the prevalence and importance of such stories.

What attracts me is the idea of building and sustaining a culture – and the simple historical fact that virtually every culture, and absolutely any culture anyone would want to live in as anything other than a ruler, are built on families. Families are no guarantee of peace – hardly! – but lacking them gives you Stalin and Olympius. The bloody battles between families might get bad, but are nothing compared to the fighting once families have been destroyed – at least, that’s where I’m going.  The idea, expressed both in Heinlein’s novel and Wolfe’s, that people trapped in a generation ship would more or less quickly succumb to social gravity and settle at a base state of Mafia-style social organization, is my concern, too – only I’m trying to start from the position that everybody understands this and is trying to work around it. In fact, several aspects of the precautions are so antithetical to ‘enlightened’ thinking that they must be implemented on the sly….

Anyway: good book, short read, just do it!

* Don’t want to get too crazy with analysing names, but Hoyland is a town in South Yorkshire, where the English hicks live – see Monte Python’s Four Yorkshiremen – and Hugh means heart or soul. So our hero has, but rises above the, soul of a hick.

** Although, after crunching some numbers and taking relativistic effects into account, it seems there are a lot of places such a ship could get to in one very long lifetime with any decent level of continuous acceleration – so the generations in my book will include great-grandchildren of still-living members of the original crew. I guess that still qualifies as generations.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

13 thoughts on “SciFi Classic Book Review: Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky”

  1. The generation ships are a common trope in that I’ve seen them mentioned, usually as first stage colonists, in lots of SF, but as the focus of the story, now that you mention it, the only other one that springs to mind might not count. Hint: Remember Talos V!

    1. Thanks. One idea that intrigues me: what if generation ships become routine, yet routinely fail? What if the cold, hard evidence shows big strong families are a key to having any sort of functioning social order survive the trip, for values of functioning = being able to set up and maintain colonies and the orbital braking lasers needed for future colonization/trade?

      You might have what passes for hard-headed scientists having to pitch for the sort of monogamy typical among people they despise – and then getting it past or around the powers that fund.

      Could be amusing.

    1. 1/2 of a great movie! When people talk about religion butting into stories, I think of Wall-E, where the fanatical dogmatic belief that We Are Destroying the Planet kinda ruins it for me.

      1. I think it was worked into the plot pretty naturally – just kind of assumed. I liked the whole thing, but it was one amazing half and one pretty good half.

        Like “Up” was an amazing ten minute opening and afterward a solid above average kids adventue tale.

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