Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Orphans of the Sky is one of Robert Heinlein lesser known novels, even though it’s one of his best.  It’s hard to talk about the novel without giving away its big idea, but it’s not likely I’ll convince you to read it without telling.  This short novel is made up from two novelettes first published in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction, and it might be the first fictional account of a generation ship, that is a starship that travels so slowly, that it takes generations to reach its destination. 

In Orphans of the Sky, the characters do not know they are in a starship, but think of the ship as all of reality.  They can’t see outside.  They have forgotten most of what civilization gave them, so they are primitive, superstitious people.  Heinlein uses this as a beautiful setup to attack our own superstitions.  I don’t want to spoil the joys of the story by giving away the plot, but if you need to know more, read the first link to Wikipedia above.  The important thing to know is Orphans of the Sky makes major contributions to the genre science fiction.  It’s central speculation, made in 1941, is probably the most creative since H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, 1895.

Stories about interstellar travel in science fiction have mostly taken the fantasy route of faster-than-light (FTL) travel.  Whereas, Orphans of the Sky dwells well within humanity’s technical ability to get people to the stars.  It will still be an amazing engineering challenge to build a starship miles long, that rotates to create artificial gravity, and is design to function for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  A trip might have to last as long as from now back to Shakespeare, or Christ, or Aristotle.  If worldly societies can change so much in those time periods, imagine what life in a starship might be like and how it could change.  This is a brilliant idea, and Heinlein imagines his characters in a post-apocalyptical world inside the ship.   It’s strange that Orphans of the Sky wasn’t printed in book form until 1964 since it is so innovative in a genre that loves far out ideas.

Although, the novel is only about 150 pages, Heinlein does an amazing amount of speculation.  Besides the big new science fictional ideas, Heinlein imagines how society would change if it evolved backwards, for example he has women treated like they were in the Old Testament.  There are scientists but no science.  One of the most enchanting aspects of the story is how concepts we take for grant in our world are turned into strange superstitions in the world of Heinlein’s forgotten starship crew.  Heinlein knew how thin the veneer of civilization is that covers our nations.  He also plays with what we know now could be completely wrong.

Orphans of the Sky is not a literary masterpiece, but heavy duty pulp fiction from the golden age of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction.  It’s all action, with little characterization, but what characterization there is is very vivid and sharp, especially the mutants.  For my third reading of this story I listened to the Audible Frontiers audiobook edition that is beautifully read by Eric Michael Summerer.  Audible Frontiers goal is to put great SF and fantasy into audiobook editions.  If you love classic science fiction and hanker to experience it again through a dramatic reading, it’s worth joining Audible to get these audiobooks.  They are also available through iTunes.

Orphans of the Sky would make a wonderful sense of wonder film, and I’m surprised it’s cinematic potential has been ignored.  Movie producers often strike pay dirt with SF, but they seldom select innovate classics to explore new science fictional themes.  They beat the dead horse of alien invasion over and over again.  There’s so much more to science than strange invaders.

JWH – 12/13/9

13 thoughts on “Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein”

  1. Okay..so I read the opening and then quit reading before you “told”. As one who wants to read all these books I don’t need convincing, it means enough to me to know that you like and are recommending this one. Its one I have on the list to try and track down through Half Price Books over the holiday break.

  2. How odd, I also re-read Orphans of the Sky last month, having just stumbled upon it at the library. It must be some kind of meme perhaps?

    It really is both good and bad. As a story it’s pure schlock – it’s pulp fiction. It also has several plot holes big enough to drive a generation ship through. (Full disclosure: I’m also not -gasp- a particular fan of Heinlein.)

    On the other hand, the stories’ speculations and clever turn-abouts on science, religion, and belief are very engaging (more so than the story itself). This is what makes it all for science fiction to me — and this story does this clever trick exceptionally well.

    It’s truly a little-known ‘classic’ and should be read by all.

  3. By far one of my favorite of Heinlein’s works when I was a kid — I wish he violated one his own rules of writing (no rewrites) and expanded in the 60s… It’s way too fast a story and lacking details to make a true classic. But I love it still! 🙂

  4. Funny thing about Heinlein. He can be perhaps my favorite SF writers, and at other times cringe-worthy. Sometimes, he still reads fresh. For instance I think “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” still reads well, despite the rather antiquated science. Or he can feel dated, or, even worse, sound like a creepy old guy trying to be “hip.”

    And I found “Orphans” to be a book with a great premise. Love the turning of science into a religion. That feels dated. Notably on how it treats it’s female characters. So I thought it was just average but well written juvenile SF. But it was a fun, quick, pulpy read. Sort of like the Burroughs John Carver Mars books.

    1. I’ve always loved Orphans of the Sky, even though it’s just a couple of pulp stories from the early 1940s. I agree with Joachim that it’s a shame that Heinlein didn’t revised and expand the story when Putnam published it in the early 60s.

  5. I have read this book 4 or 5 times just because it is a joy to read. This would make a fantastic movie. I have pictured this in my mind many times.
    Paul Janus Finnegan

  6. I’m currently trying to build a team of professional and enthusiast screen play writers to polish a realistic screen play based on Orphans of the Sky movie. The complexity of this project is way beyond Gravity movie. I’m in contact with Robert Heinlein’s Foundation to build such interests team and hopefully make this movie reality a few years down the road.

      1. Thanks. If you or anyone else would like to join the screen play writing team, please let me know. It’s a huge effort to make this novel depicted realistically from technological and psychological points of view and also as close as possible to the original book. I hope to achieve it by forming a team of 4-5 members taking into account all the complexity.

  7. As it happens, I recently re-read “Orphans of the Sky”, and read “Time Enough for Love”, and used the information in them to fill in as much information as Heinlein gives us for when the story is set and what exactly became of the ship, its crew, and those who left it. I love piecing together as much information as I can about a fictional history like this one. “Orphans” is a gripping story in its own way, and I’m glad Heinlein revisited it briefly several centuries later.

    1. I read Time Enough for Love when it came out, but I’ve completely forgotten it. Does it explain what happened to the ship in Orphans of the Sky? I need to research that. The idea behind Orphans in the Sky is one of the greatest science fictional ideas ever. I’m not sure it’s original with Heinlein, but his story was where I first encountered it.

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