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