Book Review: Orphans of the Sky, Robert Heinlein (first published as a serial in Astounding Stories, 1941)

4/5 (Good)

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.

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: Orphans of the Sky, Robert Heinlein (first published as a serial in Astounding Stories, 1941)

  1. Don’t necessarily disagree with your review of this one. Fairly early in his career,

    Generation ships have fascinated me as well. I particularly liked Ellison’s Phoenix Without Ashes(not the abomination that aired of which I couldn’t sit through watching), but the novelization Bryant did. Trek’s better than the usual third season episode was fun as well. Of course the Khan episode lead to my favorite of the Trek films.

  2. I’ve not read Ellison’s work…. I’ll definitely pick up a copy.

    Have you read Aldiss’ Non-stop?

    But yes, there aren’t too many novels about Generation ships out there besides a few describing the arrival of a Generation ship at a potential colony planet.

  3. The mutants were at the “inner levels”. The center of the cylindrical ship where the gravity was low. Was Heinlein’s story more about understanding the physics of how reality worked than about how the society worked.

    It is a matter of the literary versus the scientific perspective of science fiction.

  4. This is a good story. Though the second half is not as interesting as the first. You said he was the one of the SF greats. Who do you consider the others? And were just mentioning the Golden Age greats? Van Vogt and Asimov plus him and the post war Sturgeon are part of that era. Later would be Bester,Pohl,Kornbluth,Dick,Ellison,Ursula Le Guin,and maybe some of Ballard’s early short stories.

    • I rather not argue about it or go into that much detail. I have read 25 + of his novels and many many short stories so this is not an argument from ignorance.

      You have read enough of my reviews to know who I am enjoy and why…. 😉

      • Sure. Was not trying to argue with you. Only wanted ask who you thought were the big names? I was curious who would be on the list. It was not to debate you. Honest.

        • Well, that is a tall order to come up with such a list! Especially, is it is bound to frustrate a lot of fans of the more established “greats”. I, as you can probably tell, am interested in championing some lesser known authors who might not have been as acclaimed and not for lack of skill….

        • If you are interested in my more current dislikes and likes — please consult my review INDEX organized by rating and newer reviews — I have to admit that many of these older ones are of authors I no longer care to read (Ben Bova, Robert Heinlein, Van Vogt, Silverberg’s early work, John Brunner’s early work, etc.).

  5. I came here having been searching online for a book I started reading in school in the 1970’s – certainly pre 1979 because I borrowed it off a school friend and had to return it before finishing it because school finished! Trouble is I can’t remember the author or book title… It has many similarities to Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky but I have this and it’s not it. Generation ship, normals and mutants who don’t believe they are on a ship; it had crashed years before onto a frozen world and eventually 2 colonists (a normal and a mutant?) get out through a breach in the ship wall into the icy world. And that’s all I can recall. Any ideas?

  6. Pingback: Orphans of the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein | gaping blackbird

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