Orphans of the Sky

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Orphans of the Sky is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, consisting of two parts: "Universe" (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1941) and its sequel, "Common Sense" (Astounding Science Fiction, October 1941). The two novellas were first published together in book form in 1963. "Universe" was also published separately in 1951 as a 10¢ Dell paperback. These works contain one of the earliest fictional depictions of a generation ship.

Synopsis[edit | hide | hide all]

The gigantic, cylindrical generation ship Vanguard, originally destined for "Far Centaurus", is cruising without guidance through the interstellar medium as a result of a long-ago mutiny that killed most of the officers. Over time, the descendants of the surviving loyal crew have forgotten the purpose and nature of their ship and lapsed into a pre-technological culture marked by superstition. They come to believe the "Ship" is the entire universe, so that "To move the ship" is considered an oxymoron, and references to the Ship's "voyage" are interpreted as religious metaphor. They are ruled by an oligarchy of "officers" and "scientists". Most crew members are simple illiterate farmers, seldom or never venturing to the "upper decks" where the "muties" (an abbreviation of "mutants" or "mutineers") dwell. Among the crew, all identifiable mutants are killed at birth.

The story centers upon a young man of insatiable curiosity, Hugh Hoyland, who is selected as an apprentice by a scientist. The scientists ritualistically perform the tasks required to maintain the Ship (such as putting trash into its energy-converter to generate power) while remaining ignorant of their true functions.

On a hunt for muties, Hugh is captured by them. He barely avoids getting eaten, and instead becomes the slave of Joe-Jim Gregory, the two-headed leader of a powerful mutie gang. Joe and Jim have separate identities, but both are highly intelligent and between them, have come to a crude understanding of the Ship's true nature.

Having become convinced of the Ship's true purpose, Hugh persuades Joe-Jim to complete the Vanguard's mission of colonization, having noticed that there is a nearby star that Joe-Jim remember as growing larger over the years. Intent on this mission, he returns to the lower levels of the Ship to convince others to help him, but is arrested by his former boss Bill Ertz and sentenced to death. He is viewed as either insane or a previously unrecognized mutant - he was a borderline case at birth, with a head viewed as too large.

Hugh persuades his old friend Alan Mahoney to enlist Joe-Jim's gang in rescuing him. He shows the captured Bill and Alan the long-abandoned command center and a view of the stars. Convinced, Bill then enlists the captain's aide, Phineas Narby, to Hugh's crusade.

Inspired by one of Joe-Jim's favorite books, The Three Musketeers, they manufacture swords, superior to the daggers everyone else has, and overthrow the captain and install Narby in his place. They embark on a campaign to bring the entire Ship under their control. But then things go wrong ...

Tropes used in Orphans of the Sky include:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: When Hugh learns the Vanguard is actually a space ship, he decides to teach himself how to pilot the ship. According to all common sense of astrogation, no single person can learn the necessary skills to fly a ship by himself, especially one of the size Hoyland was on. However, because all knowledge of this common sense was never printed in text, he never realized this and thus taught himself all the skills. In the final chapter, not realizing the difficulty of managing a landing and the sheer danger his life is in, he successfully lands a ship's boat on a planet. To be fair, the boat's controls were designed with untrained pilots in mind.
  • And Man Grew Proud: What little the Crew remember of Earth has become a religion:

In the Beginning there was Jordan, thinking his lonely thoughts alone.
In the Beginning there was darkness, formless, dead, and Man unknown.
Out of the loneness came a longing, out of the longing came a vision,
Out of the dream there came a planning, out of the plan there came decision--
Jordan's hand was lifted and the Ship was born!