Orphans of the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

The “Future History” stories of Robert Heinlein, which dominated the initial phase of his long writing career, might now be his least-read works outside of his dedicated fans. When they were first published, however, these stories proved very influential.

Orphans of the Sky, the 1963 combination of the two 1941 stories “Universe” and “Commonsense,” is one example. It was not the first tale of a massive spaceship falling under mutiny, but after its appearance in Astounding, the great lost “generation starship” trope truly came into its own. Brain Aldiss reworked the idea into his very successful 1956 novel Non-Stop, a favorite of mine. James White later made an underwater version in his 1966 novel The Watch Below. There have been many other books, and doubtless films and TV series, built on this concept. OotS is therefore not just for Heinlein fans – it’s a recommended read for anyone who habitually pokes into the history of the genre.


Gene Szafran cover for Signet. isfdb.org

OotS is a combination of the final two stories of Heinlein’s Future History, by its internal chronology. We’re therefore witnessing the author’s predicted fate of humankind, on board a gigantic spaceship whose planned journey toward the star Far Centaurus spans several, if not many, lifespans. The craft is described as virtually flawless technology whose use is made perpetually available by parts designed to never wear down. The life-support systems are powered by a kind of mass converter technology, where waste and dead bodies are fed.

Somewhere along the journey, the initial commanding officers and crew have been replaced by generations of “captains”, “engineers” and “scientists” of far less sophistication. They now rule the inner “heavy” layers of the starship, whose many decks are subject to different levels of gravity. Their people, most of whom manage farms, lead lives of strict adherence to laws reminiscent of a secular form of Puritanism. Most citizens are illiterate, and a class of professional Witnesses are trained to have the moral codes and history of the ship — now in verse form — in memory (philosophy, politics and science have given way to rote memorization). The outer decks of the ship are generally lawless territory, dominated by violent “muties,” or people born with visually detectable mutations but have escaped being sent to the Converter. The ship itself operates without any human direction, as the inhabitants inside it are now unaware of its mission, its movement, or even the existence of the outside universe.

Hugh Hoyland is a young Cadet who patrols the border area between the decks controlled by his clan and those taken over by the muties. His mentor has noticed his unusual intelligence and has plans to make him a Scientist, a high-ranking, if not truly knowledgable, member of their society. He starts his new career of “junior scientist” among the professionals running the Converter, whose rendering seems inspired by Heinlein’s time in the US Navy:

It impressed on him that he was expected to maintain a loyalty to the bloc of younger men among the scientists. They were a well-knit organization within an organization and were made up of practical, hardheaded men who were working toward improvement of conditions throughout the Ship, as they saw them. They were well-knit because an apprentice who failed to see things their way did not last long. Either he failed to measure up and soon found himself back in the ranks of the peasants, or, as was more likely, suffered some mishaps and wound up in the Converter.

And Hoyland began to see that they were right.

They were realists. The Ship was the Ship. It was a fact, requiring no explanation.

This section goes on, with Heinlein doing much more telling than showing how things get done in this society of decline, but not of decadence. These nuts and bolts come with the territory of reading Heinlein, but they are efficiently communicated and do not overwhelm the plot.

In this society, the Cadets are often left unsupervised by their seniors, and Hugh joins a crew for an ad hoc reconnaissance mission into “mutie” territory. This time, he gets knocked out by a slingshot pellet and abandoned by his comrades. He gets hauled into the dwelling on the local gang leader, a two-headed mutant named Joe-Jim. Instead of having him butchered for food, Joe-Jim decides to keep him around until his curiosity is sated with information about the lower decks.

Gradually impressed with Hugh’s ability to absorb knowledge, he exposes him to the ship’s control room, a massive spherical chamber with windows to the outside space. Hugh manages to integrate himself with the ranks of the muties, and convinces Joe-Jim that the Ship could once again be commandeered, and set on course for Far Centaurus. Of course, this involves returning to his old superiors and convincing them to reconcile with their hated enemies.

OotS looks much better as an inventive novel of the early 1940s than as a book introduced to readers that have already seen the genre grow through the 1950s. Women, for example, are mostly incidental to the plot, appearing in person at the end as cargo. Heinlein did this meaningfully to illustrate the backwards progress of mankind, after women broke barriers in earlier times (see his story “Delilah & the Space Rigger”). Hugh’s treatment of women – he ends up with two wives – is shown as an obvious detriment to his character, but one not visible to the society he belongs to. Still, they end up saying nothing in the entire story. Heinlein would of course give women, and the way they express themselves, far greater attention as his career progressed.

The other (hopefully) outdated aspect of OotS is its “might makes right” ethics, as power is turned over in brutal fashion. Hugh immediate acceptance as a “slave” to Jim-Jon prefigures his willingness to enforce his own position of power with the end of a knife. Again, this is intentional, and at its heart OotS is wartime literature. Less forgiven is the repetition of material between the two stories, which may have been added for the 1941 serialization but never corrected in “fix-up” form. However, I’m still in agreement with the review in SF Ruminations, which put this book on my to-get list some years ago: OotS is entertaining and coherent, and more impressive considering the time in which its constituent parts were first published. 7/10.


About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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9 Responses to Orphans of the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. fredfitch says:

    Hmm–based on what I’ve read about Heinlein, that two wives thing was maybe the least fictional aspect of the book. Though he was no William Moulton Marston. (Male feminism can take on very strange forms, I’ve found).

    The general take is, when he married his third wife, he began writing stronger female characters, even as his politics began to shift rightward. Of course, he was never easy to peg, politically–arguing at the same time for human freedom from laws, and for authoritarian societies imposing order. His intellect was strong and questing, but not, I think, terribly coherent or self-analytical. In many ways, he was more of a philosopher than a storyteller (not that his storytelling was bad)–in many ways, isn’t that novel you’ve just described a fleshing out of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?

    I read a lot of him growing up, and I enjoyed it, but almost always felt like I was reading some kind of very well-written entertaining tract. He can’t help it. He can never just write about a person, it’s always about ideas. That all conflict with each other, in ways he can’t reconcile, which I could respect more if he’d just admit it. He can’t. Can never admit weakness. Can never admit failure.

    I’m not sure I’ve read this one. I’ve read a lot of his Future History stuff, mainly a long time ago (there was a lot of Heinlein in my high school library). I think you saw how I compared one of those books to Anarchaos, and found the latter vastly superior. Because there the ideas take a back seat to story, character, and style. It’s all much more organic and satisfying and self-aware. But as Heinlein himself said, tastes differ.

    First-ever story about a colony ship on a generations-long journey? With SF, it can be so hard to know who came first. Heinlein’s story was one of the first fully developed treatments, but the concept goes back at least to 1918, and William Goddard.


    My favorite treatment is Wall-E–wonder what Heinlein would have made of that? I’m sure he would not have been so churlish as to demand a check from Pixar. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      The first generation ship short story appears to be Laurence Manning. “The Living Galaxy.” Wonder Stories, (September 1934). I’ve compiled a list based (I added a few) on an academic work on the generation ship — check out the book! Simone Caroti’s The Generation Starship In Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001 (2011)


      Liked by 2 people

      • fredfitch says:

        Excellent list, thanks. I’m not sure it includes a short story I can’t remember the title or author for–it’s about a crew of remarkable and benevolent alien space explorers, of differing origins and abilities (very Star Trek, though this story pre-dated that show) coming to what we’re given to understand is Earth–shortly before Sol goes nova.

        In the midst of various adventures and misadventures on the planet’s surface, they find the remnants of terrestial civilization–the entire planet seems to be like the Marie Celeste, recently and mysteriously abandoned.

        Then they see the jets of slower-than-light spacecraft, primitive by their standards–they realize the Terrans have built enough ships to get the entire remaining population off-world and on their way to some future home among the stars.

        They marvel at the level of determination involved in such an endeavor, given their level of technological development, and resolve to overtake and assist them. One of them jokes that they might end up regretting their generosity later, given how formidable these people clearly are. They laugh.

        And the narrator concludes that some time later, it didn’t seem so funny.

        Since that story isn’t written from the perspective of a generation ship and its inhabitants, it might not count. If you were to include every possible variation on this idea, there’d be no end to it. Not sure if Octavia Butler’s Oankali, with their living ships, would count, since space is effectively their natural habitat, and they have no final destination–they will just go on evolving and collecting genes from other species, perhaps for as long as the stars themselves go on existing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Again, only the stories with the stars were my additions — check out Caroti’s book for a more detailed discussion of his criteria of what counts and doesn’t count… he had to narrow the focus of his monograph somehow! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Ah, this is the story I was talking about, where the aliens visit an abandoned earth–hardly an obscure author, though he was at the time.


        Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      That wiki article has a link that both works and is useful: https://archive.org/stream/Galaxy_v24n06_1966-08#page/n185/mode/2up
      That’s an article by Algis Budrys with a section on the “Universe” stories (page 190). He appears dismissive of most efforts up to that point, but was impressed with White’s “The Watch Below.”


      • fredfitch says:

        I always meant to read James Blish’s Cities in Flight books–I had the first one. I put it aside for a rainy day, and never got around to it.

        His concept was unique–the generation ships were wandering cities, unmoored from their home planet, wandering the stars, going wherever the means to make a living for their inhabitants (the ‘Okies’) might exist. More like Steinbeck than Heinlein, though not all that much like either. Again, no final destination. The journey has no terminal point.


      • fredfitch says:

        As I suspected–all four of Blish’s Okie novels are now e-vailable, bundled together at a very reasonable price.

        Though getting them this way isn’t as much fun as rummaging around a little store full of used paperbacks at some dilapidated suburban minimall, it’s certainly a lot less time-consumptive. And dust-free, which I’m sorry to say, matters to me now. (Goddam allergies.)


  2. Pingback: Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 1) | gaping blackbird

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