Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science Fiction
God I love good science fiction. A while ago I started stocking up on some works by classic science fiction authors but, apart from Childhood’s End, they’ve been lying around on my Kindle gathering pixels as my time was taken up by works of far-lesser quality and various tasks associated with adulthood. Opting to do away with responsibilities for a night or two I read Orphans of the Sky. For me this was a literary orgasm – it’s the perfect combination of hard science, flights of fancy and philosophical questions that the only reason I ever put it down was because my brain threatened mutiny if I didn’t get some sleep. If you haven’t already read this I cannot emphasise enough how much you need to run to a book store or Amazon to get a copy.
In 2119 the spaceship Vanguard left Earth on an inter-generational journey to Alpha Centauri to explore the star system and discover whether there were any habitable planets. At some unremembered point that has now become a heroic legend a mutiny broke out on the ship, killing off most of the senior officers and leaving the remaining crew unable to pilot the ship to its destination.
At the time the book takes place the purpose of the ship has long-since been forgotten, and to the descendants of those that survived the mutiny the Vanguard has become the entire universe. What is known about the mission to Alpha Centauri has now become a religion with the shadowy Jordan (named after the foundation that funded the mission) attaining god-like status. The ship’s society is headed up by “officers” (with the Captain being the equivalent of an elected monarch) and “scientists” (who are the keepers of Jordan’s faith and teachings). Most of the ship’s inhabitants live in the lower decks of the ship, with the upper decks housing the ‘muties’ (people who are born deformed as a result of the ship’s radiation shields no longer working).
The story centres on Hugh Hoyland, an apprentice scientist who is far too knowledgeable and inquisitive for the society he lives in but who is shockingly naïve by our standards. After exploring the upper decks Hugh is captured by Joe-Jim Gregory, dicephalic conjoined twins who have a rough understanding of what the ship actually is and what its original purpose was. After being shown the flight deck Hugh gradually comes to understand that the ship can actually move and that there is something far greater beyond the walls of their narrow existence.
This understanding threatens the established order of the lower decks, and Hugh and Joe-Jim must try and find a way to convince the inhabitants of the Vanguard that there is the promise of a far greater existence than they ever thought imaginable. Success will mean that the ship can finally reach its destination, while failure means that the last shred of proof of the ship’s true purpose will be lost forever as those who cannot accept the truth seek to destroy all the evidence which supports it.
The Writing Style
What I really love about this era is the seemingly-constant clarity with which the authors wrote. Orphans of the Sky tackles some very complicated subject matter, but Robert Heinlein wrote it in such a way that it’s incredibly easy to follow and grasp. Also, and this is something not every sci-fi author gets right, whatever piece of information or complex theory is pondered it’s there for a reason and will play some part in the story later on.
The general description of the ship and the brief backstory to the events of the novel are very good, but the key aspect of this book are the characters, and it’s on them that the story lives and dies. Thankfully every character, likable or otherwise, is well written, and the very strange society they grew up in is completely enmeshed with their thinking. Hugh, for example, behaves in ways that can only be described as paradoxical (to us) – he suffers a near mental break when he sees stars for the first time because he has no concept of unlimited space, but once he’s come to accept their existence he sees no reason why he can’t pilot the ship without any experience or real understanding of how it works. The officers, on the other hand, are steadfast in their refusal to accept anything outside of their own perception of the world, even when the truth of the matter is staring them point-blank in the face. It’s a fantastic social commentary that’s as true now as it was back in the 60s, and just goes to show that human nature remains the same irrespective of its surroundings.
I’ve read a lot of science fiction in my time, particularly of this sub-genre, but this grabbed me like very few books ever have. I sat there silently screaming at characters because the answer to all their problems is so blindingly obvious to the reader, which then gave way to personal considerations of just how dangerous ignorance (particularly willful ignorance) can be. On the other extreme I also sat their silently screaming at Hugh a lot of the time, telling him that he couldn’t do half the things he thinks he can without the necessary know-how. Whether any actual person could pull off the things he does is another question entirely, but this lead to further personal considerations of what can be achieved if you stop telling yourself you don’t know enough to do them (Hugh Hoyland is the ultimate example of faking it until you make it).
My only issue with this book is its rather rushed ending, but even by the way the narrative is structured you can tell that the whole point of the story isn’t where the characters eventually end up, but rather about the bravery it took to get them there.
My Final Rating: 10 / 10
Buy Orphans of the Sky at Amazon.com