Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein
**WARNING: SOME SPOILERS** (Although you probably are not going to read the book anyway because it’s one of Heinlein’s more obscure novels and if you haven’t read it by now you’re probably never going to, but nevertheless you’ve been warned. Do I have any readers who never read Robert Heinlein and are unaware that he’s considered the dean of science fiction? I have fond memories of reading Heinlein’s novels when I was a teenager, and perhaps even when I was a pre-teen.)
Although this novel has a publication date of 1963, it’s actually a re-print of a two-novella series first published in 1941. That makes it pretty darn old science fiction, and one or Heinlein’s very earliest works, predating his so-called “juvenile novels.”
On one level, it can be read as simple plot-driven pulp fiction, without much in the way of character development, very reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs. However, the story has a deeper level as an anti-religious screed, as well as other musings about the nature of society, government, and their relation to technology.
If Heinlein simply said, especially back in 1941, “hey, don’t you know that Christianity is just a bunch of myths and you’re stupid for believing in any of it,” he would have had eggs thrown at him, or a lot worse. So instead, he creates a story with a fictional religion in which the reader can obviously see the folly of it, but it’s different enough from Christianity so that it doesn’t cause any cognitive dissonance. Thus he teaches us to doubt our own religious beliefs.
The story takes place on a huge spaceship that was originally set for a 60-year voyage to a nearby star system, but along the way there was a mutiny in which 90% of the ship’s population ultimately died, including everyone who knew how to pilot the ship, leaving the ship adrift in space for hundreds of years.
During that time, a culture developed with a new religion, one in which “Jordan” (which was the original name of the spaceship project) is the god who created the Ship, the only world known or imagined by the Crew who sink back to a pre-technological level of civilization where few know how to read. The priests of this society are called “scientists,” and although they have old scientific textbooks, they don’t understand most of them, and they make the books the basis for their religion.
The scientists are very intolerant of heretics, so when the main character, Hugh, is captured by the “muties,” lives among them for a long time, and then comes back eager to tell the real truth about how they are on a spaceship, he is sentenced to death for his heresy.
Another one of the deeper themes of the book is Heinlein preaching against bigotry. For the Crew fear the “muties” and some desire to wipe them out (while others believe that Jordan has a purpose for them and they shouldn’t do that), but we discover that the leader of the muties (short for either mutineers or mutants as many of them are), the two-headed Joe-Jim, actually knows more about the true nature of their environment than the Crew, and that the muties aren’t bad people at all, no worse than the Crew, but they are geographically underprivileged because they don’t have access to the decks where the food is grown.
To the modern reader, this anti-bigotry theme seems rather trite because, unlike in 1941 when racial discrimination was widely practiced, today we believe that racial discrimination is the most evil thing in the world.
Another interesting aspect of this book is what some reviewers have called “casual misogyny.” The women are barely mentioned at all, and they are portrayed as chattel for the men, and considered little above animals as far as their intelligence or usefulness. Hugh takes two wives later on in the novel (yes, Heinlein was into polygamy even at the very earliest stage of his writing career), and one is wild and he has to physically discipline her, which included punching her so hard in the face that he knocked out a tooth.
I think that it’s not merely gratuitous misogyny (because in his later books Heinlein has a lot of respect for his female characters), but Heinlein is demonstrating that without literacy and understanding of science and technology, society would regress to a pre-civilized barbaric state in which, historically, women had few rights and were basically slaves to their physically stronger husbands.
The book was a quick and enjoyable read. The regrets are that the book could have spent a lot more time exploring the culture of the spaceship, and as with a lot of Heinlein novels there really isn’t a very satisfactory ending.