Second Heinlein collection in this book (the first being The Man Who Sold the Moon). Now we have two related 1940s novellae fixed-up into a single novel in the 1960s. Oh, science fiction publishing, you are so fun.
Orphans of the Sky is one of the ur–generation ship tales. Heinlein immediately seizes on the possibility that something could go so disastrously wrong during the voyage such that the entire crew forgets it is on a ship. For all intents and purposes, the Ship is now the universe. Anyone, like Hugh, who challenges this worldview is accused of heresy. (There’s a nice little shout-out to Galileo’s trials and tribulations with the Catholic Church.) This plot was executed most memorably for me in “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” an episode in the third season of the original Star Trek.
There’s something about generation ships that doesn’t really apply to me as a motif. I really didn’t like Journey into Space, and I wasn’t crazy about this book either. As far as the writing goes, it is pretty much what I expect from Heinlein now—a lot of conversation, a lot of scientific speculation and libertarianism disguised as the desire for open scientific inquiry.
The plot is mediocre. Lots of repetitive actions culminating in an all-too-predictable betrayal and a mad dash towards near-certain death. It goes through the motions, follows certain forms, and so it is minimally fulfilling in that barest of ways. While it is true that this is among the first (if not the first) story of its kind, I suspect that others who have since picked up on these themes have used them better, or in more interesting ways, or with better characters.
I also can’t forgive the level of misogyny in this book. Heinlein’s sexism in The Man Who Sold the Moon is problematic, sure, but mostly for its erasure of women—he does at least feature a single woman scientist, even if she is objectified. But in Orphans of the Sky, women play a far smaller and worse role. Women of the Ship, it seems, exist to be wives and breeders. Hugh “selects” two women, graciously “allowing” the first to keep her own name because she behaves. The other, however, is “wild as a mutie” and bites Hugh, so “he had slapped her, naturally, and that should have been an end to the matter” and then “had not got around to naming her.” Later on Heinlein talks about how she is better behaved after Hugh knocks out a tooth! Because there’s nothing like trivializing domestic abuse, amirite?
If you’re a diehard Heinlein completist (I’m not) or you have a particular fascination with the subgenre of generation ships (I don’t), you should probably read this. Otherwise, give it a miss.