Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky is at once trivial and epic, mundane and surreal. Originally published in 1941 in two-parts in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, it is (so I learned through internet research) a “godfather” of the SF genre. By this, I mean that it introduced plot elements that were later used by dozens of SF authors. Actually, I had never heard of Heinlein before reading this book, but I have since learned that he is an “old master” of science fiction literature. His work has been emulated and many of his books seem to have been re-printed in the last decade for new generations of readers.
But, is he really as great as all that? In Orphans of the Sky I found stuff to be loved and hated. It is cleanly written in a tight style that I really admired. However, the Biblical references, in the history of the fictional civilization, could be taken as positive or negative. The most disturbing thing in the book (at least for me) was the violence. The main weapons used by these space-age natives are knives, and throwing is the best way to launch them at their target—being animal, people or “Muties” (mutants). As you can imagine, this leads to some painful results and Heinlein gives just enough gory details to make one squirm. (I would not say he is ever over-grotesque, but it is definitely not for the weak of stomach.) Even more alarming is the way women are treated in the fictional civilization. Female abuse is hinted at at least two times, and the male-chauvinist attitude of the main characters (who all happen to be men) is clearly seen. (From what I understand, Heinlein was trying to create a civilization complete with its own history, beliefs and social structure, so perhaps this treatment of women—and the other negatives—can be excused on these terms. Regardless, they made me feel uncomfortable enough to mention them.)
The plot is too layered and twisted to lay it all out here, but I think an introduction is at least needed. The storyline follows a certain Hugh Hoyland and his adventures aboard “The Ship”—a place that at first seems to be a strange planet, but then is slowly revealed to be an actual space ship. The socio-structure is made up of Commoners, Scientists and the Captain. There are similarities between this book and Lois Lowry’s The Giver (in case you have ever read that modern classic). Also living on the Ship are the outcast Muties, supposedly deformed because of sin (though the scientific explanation is shown to be radiation.) The humans superstitiously fear the Muties (and any children born with deformities—who are done away with in the “Converter”), and hunt them for sport as well as for necessity. The Muties are even more “native” then the humans and live a semi-united, yet cannibalistic, existence. (I theorize that their social ills might have sprung from the way they were forced to live by the more domineering humans.)
Hugh becomes a slave to a powerful, two-headed “gangster lord” Mutie named Jim-Joe, and is forced to look at the world through different eyes. In fact, his whole world is turned upside-down as he gains new knowledge about the world around him (thanks to the amusing Joe-Jim, who decides to instruct the young man). Reading and learning are celebrated as a means to overcome racism, and important lessons are shown on overcoming differences to achieve a common a goal.
I need to add a warning about language and a stray mention of sex to my content list. These two things and the violence make this a book suitable for mature audiences only. Taken with a grain of salt, you may be able to enjoy this book, but then again, it may just leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. I do not think I would read it again, but it did give me some food for thought. It would definitely be an interesting book for a literary discussion!
Robert Heinlein was an excellent author and his earlier works are “generally” acceptable, but his later works were not. At some point, Heinlein began to add explicit material and prolific language. Just be aware of this before you read Heinlein. – Matt Gardenghi