Generation ships have always fascinated me. As a child I designed my own with predictions of social ramifications etc. for stories that never materialized except as amorphous plot-less constructs in my mind. Heinlein again weaves magical fodder for the imagination using all his time tested plot devices.
The setting is a gigantic generation ship five miles long and two thousand feet across inhabited by men who think that this is “the world” and mutants (who happen to know more than the “normal men”). The ship is hurling aimlessly across space because of a distant mutiny where the officers were killed. The normal humans (who are farmers) live on the inner levels and are part of an interesting society.
Hugh (the main character) is selected to be a member of the scientists who, not knowing the true nature of their world, still maintain the essential activities concerning its maintenance. However, Hugh gets captured by the mutants while on a “mutant hunting party” and eventually learns the secret of their world.
Heinlein loves to write about strong, young, intelligent, male characters and he certainly does not fail here. However, I felt that the world/society he had created was barely explored and the readers imagination had to fill its ample and prodigious holes. The memory I have of the book is much better than what I actually felt while reading because I create what Heinlein left out.
Heinlein does present the interesting issue of the mutants knowing more about their world than the “normal men” and how only a child, who was almost condemned as a mutant to the matter converter because of his abnormally large head, can discover the secret to his world. That is a powerful message that should be presented in novels whose primary audience (although adults such as myself still enjoy them) is young teenagers. Intelligence, perseverance, and curiosity always prevail in Heinlein’s worlds.
All in all, the world Heinlein creates, although not explored in depth, is the main appeal to the story since the plot feels hurried (there is so much for only 128 pages) and the style very unpolished. If you are interested in stories of the social and mental ramifications of Generation ships explored in more depth then check out John Brunner’s Lungfish, in the collection Entry to Elsewhen, and Ursula Le Guin’s short story collection Birthday of the World, but go ahead and read this novel.