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.
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Somewhere along the journey, the initial commanding officers and crew have been replaced by generations of “captains”, “engineers” and “scientists” of far less sophistication.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.