Lion of the Blogosphere

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.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 15, 2016 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Books

16 Responses

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  1. Sounds like an allegory for the US, where the country is the space ship and the productive citizenry are killing each other in a battle for status. In the end only the worst elements who were opportunistic enough to survive will be left to deal with the remnants of a technologically advanced civilization.


    December 16, 2016 at 6:37 am

  2. It’s been decades since I’ve read that book so I don’t remember most of it, but I’m a long time Heinlein fan. I think is view of women changed or became more pronounced after his second marriage since after that a lot of his work had strong female characters who were often smarter and more accomplished than the men.

    Mike Street Station

    December 16, 2016 at 6:42 am

    • I believe it was Asimov who said of Heinlein after his death that he was married several times and his views changed to accommodate who he was married to at the time.


      December 16, 2016 at 8:35 am

  3. Off topic: As promised (, the Golden Glow investment thesis, final update for Christmas.

    (20 Nov)
    DJIA (INDEXDJX:.DJI): 18,868
    FTSE Russia Index (INDEXFTSE:WIRUS): 234

    (16 Dec)
    DJIA: 19,852 (+5.2%)
    WIRUS: 270.26 (+15.4%)

    Actual investment outcome:

    US index fund: +2.20%
    Russia index-like fund: +14.35%
    Total gain: +8.27%

    Well, quite a bit better than I’d expected, actually. Best Christmas wishes to the beneficient Donald and Vlad.


    December 16, 2016 at 8:44 am

  4. The stock market is doomed. This bull market can’t last forever. Next crash is just around the corner.

    Lot’s of frustration and anger at NeoGaf and DKos for Obama handing over the keys to Trump. They think Obama should just stay on and refuse to cede power. One NeoGaffer sets them straight:

    “I can understand the desire to make sure Trump doesn’t become president at any cost, but I think this is being unfair to Obama. If Obama did do something along the lines of saying “I will make sure Trump doesn’t become president” at today’s press conference, he would basically be throwing the entire system of US government out the window, potentially irrevocably. And it’s not like if he said that that Trump, the GOP, and all the people who voted for Trump would just roll over and say “OK, we’ll go away.” You may be confident that in any resulting conflict your side will win, but that is by no means guaranteed. I think these are things that Obama recognizes, and he doesn’t seem eager to invite a potentially violent civil war that could result in an even worse scenario for people concerned about Trump than a Trump presidency will be. I, for one, respect him for that.”

    Greasy William

    December 16, 2016 at 10:14 am

    • To be honest, I wish every night that these lefty schmucks try and start a civil war. Please let it happen.


      December 16, 2016 at 10:55 am

      • What do you call today’s press conference? Obama said the Russians hacked the election, and that Trump embraced it.

        I realize this might not be as important as an old Robert Heinlein novel, or a Christmas video about Jews, but still.


        December 16, 2016 at 6:12 pm

      • I realize this might not be as important as an old Robert Heinlein novel,

        You dare trivialize nerd hobbies?

        The Undiscovered Jew

        December 16, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    • Nobody knows what the market gonna do. We just saw is with Trump’s victory. Put most of your money in index funds and invest the minor part in things that you think that you understand. If you don’t understand anything, stay fully indexed. Lose the password to that account, don’t you try to time the market, because you can’t. This is a common sense approach after 20 years on Wall Street. I do maintain a significant cash position though. Not easy to do so when the market is rising, but this is my thing. Incidently, I’m up over 200% on SBRCY which I’d kept telling you mates to buy for the last couple of years. I’m up 40% on OGZPY, if we include two yearly dividends, which I’d picked up and the best is still to come with Russian stocks. Bottom line: follow common sense, don’t let emotions take over, avoid fancy footwork. Indexing is the key, the rest is for fun and games. At least this is what I think.


      December 18, 2016 at 10:32 pm

  5. I know who Heinlein is, but I’ve never read him or read any science fiction. I’ve started reading horror over the past couple of years. Thomas Ligotti and Brian Evenson are great. I didn’t realize that genre fiction could be so good. What science fiction should I read?

    Horace Pinker

    December 16, 2016 at 11:18 am

    • I think that Citizen of the Galaxy is the best of Heinlein’s earlier “juvenile” works (featuring a young male main character).

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      December 16, 2016 at 11:49 am

    • Philip K. Dick


      December 16, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    • Jack Vance, Orson Scott Card, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Roger Zelazny.


      December 16, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    • I think that Citizen of the Galaxy is the best of Heinlein’s earlier “juvenile” works (featuring a young male main character).

      And his vision of how to treat criminals was interesting:

      What Percent of Black Men Commit Crimes?

      According to estimates based on incarceration data 29% of all black males will be incarcerated at some point in their lifetimes. As surprising as this statistic is (Jared Taylor was surprised when he first heard of this, and he was certainly not expecting beforehand to learn blacks are law abiding) the criminality rate of blacks could be worse because not all criminals go to prison.

      Under two, cautious, assumptions – first that 5% of black males commit crimes but are never caught; second that 5% commit a crime, are caught, but are not punished with jail for it – the percentage of all black males who may be expected to eventually spend at least some time in prison is 39%. More modest assumptions about what percentage of black men commit crimes but do no jailtime, for whatever reason, will easily push their expected criminality rate to 45%, perhaps over 50%.

      The Undiscovered Jew

      December 16, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    • Thomas Ligotti is a real talent. Talented SF / Fantasy writers include Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance. Wolfe and Vance are literary enough that they get praise from places like The New York Times, but their books are fun adventure stories. Vance and Wolfe are also essentially right-wingers who won’t annoy you by advocating feminism or socialism, like a lot of literary SF writers.

      I think almost all the early Heinleins are great; maybe my favorite is Time for the Stars; Sailer was talking about it recently.


      December 16, 2016 at 11:41 pm

      • Probably my favorite Heinlein novel is Time Enough for Love, which is more a series of vignettes. It was also the beginning of Heinlein going off the rails with the incest stuff.

        Mike Street Station

        December 18, 2016 at 1:52 pm

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