Fiction Reviews

Orphans of the Sky

(1941/1965) Robert Heinlein, Mayflower-Dell, 3/6 (18 pence), pbk, 111pp, No ISBN

(1941/2001) Robert Heinlein, Baen Books, pbk, 224pp, ISBN 978-0-671-31845-1


I recently rediscovered this little gem of a forgotten classic thanks to the comparatively new genre YouTuber Grammaticus Books in his video Heinlein's Forgotten MASTERPIECE !!!. He made such a good case that I went to see if I had Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky in my library and I discovered I had: I must have read it the best part of half a century ago. The edition I have is from 1965 and I see that Baen published an edition in 2001. However, the story was first published over two editions of Astounding way back in 1941, with Dell publishing it in the US as a book in 1951.

This provenance is important as it makes this novella one of the earliest examples of an SF story that examines the concept of an interstellar generation ship.

In Orphans of the Sky we quickly learn that we are on a huge generation ship that is spinning to create near-Earth gravity in its outer decks which its central core sees zero gravity. We also learn that there are hostile mutants aboard and that the crew are divided into castes.

I do not want to spoil the plot for you suffice to say there is a history to uncover, which is what the central protagonist does.

There have, of course, been many novels featuring generation ships including Brian Aldiss' 1958 novel Non-Stop and Harry Harrison's 1969 novel Captive Universe. I specifically mention these two as I can very easily imagine that Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky at least in part inspired both works. Indeed, as Harry and Brian were close friends, I can equally imagine them having a conversation discussing Orphans of the Sky.

Of course, over the years there have been many different takes on the Generation Ship concept including Stephen Baxter's short story ''Mayflower II' in his 2005 collection Resplendent and J. P. Smythe's Way Down Dark (2015). But I think that Orphans of the Sky has got to be a contender for the book that inspired a number of 20th century takes on the concept.  It is in desperate need of a new edition.

Jonathan Cowie


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