Science Fiction Book Club, 1963, 160 pages
The Jordan Foundation sponsored the Proxima Centauri Expedition in 2119, in attempt to reach the nearer stars of the galaxy. But that was far in the mythic past. The original purpose of the Ship's epic voyage has long been forgotten, and for generations the giant spaceship, lost between the stars, is the only world that the people aboard have known. A strange civilization has evolved, with its own superstitions, savage religion, rigid class structure and mutant outcasts. Then, one young man discovers the truth about the Ship and changes everything, forever....
Orphans of the Sky was first published as a novel in 1963, but it was stitched together from two short stories Heinlein wrote in the 1940s. So while it technically postdates his juveniles, it's actually one of his earlier stories.
The cover above is Baen's 2001 reprint. I love Baen covers. They are so awesomely cheesy in their awfulness. That cover does kinda sorta actually depict characters in the book, but Jim-Bob the two-headed mutant is never implied to be a buff, sexy dude who sits around in leather pants exposing his manly chest, and the four-armed knife-maker (the only female character in the book with a speaking part) is certainly not implied to be a hot blonde, or in any way attractive. It looks more like "Total Recall" or "Glory Road" than what it is, an early spaceship story set on a lost interstellar colony ship.
The 1970 Berkley edition looks more like the Heinleins I remember reading, and is more evocative of the theme of the story — a ship lost in the vastness of space and time, its inhabitants unaware of where or even who they are.
The tropes are all well worn by now, but this book was, if not the first, then one of the first stories about a generation ship whose inhabitants have forgotten that they are colonists aboard a starship.
The "crew" of the Ship has never known anything but the Ship, a massive multideck vessel which to them is literally the entire universe. They have no conception of movement, or there being anything "outside" the Ship. They have long since lost their understanding of the ship's technology and origins, even as they do the rote things necessary to keep its systems running. "Scientists" are now basically bards reciting holy writ passed down without understanding. And in the upper decks of the Ship dwell "muties," mutants who are descended (supposedly) from mutineers.
Hugh, a young man on track to become a scientist, is captured by a band of muties led by a particularly intelligent two-headed leader named Jim-Bob. Jim-Bob, with a library of his own which he actually understands better than the so-called crew does, shows Hugh the stars and the true nature of the Ship. When Hugh goes back to tell his fellow crew members the truth, it goes over about as well as you'd expect. What follows is more than one mutiny and betrayal, as Hugh tries to make everyone understand that the Ship is not only moving, but that it's about to arrive at its destination.
In this sense, Orphans in the Sky begins to resemble more the Heinlein juveniles that followed, a young man's adventure.
There is less politicking than in some of Heinlein's novels, and he avoids didacticism for the most part. If there is a message here, it's that truth and pursuit of knowledge is a virtue, and that bravery is doing so even in opposition to those who would rather keep it suppressed. Hugh runs into officers and crew members who either refuse to believe the truth of what the ship is because it would make everything they believe false, or who choose not to believe it because they benefit from the status quo.
Hugh is a bit naive, but he's not exactly a starry-eyed idealist and he quickly figures out where he went wrong in just running to the powers that be and trying to convince them that up is down and the universe is inside out. He has some blood on his hands by the end, but in fairness he isn't given much choice.
As usual, Heinlein's rocket science holds up much better than his biology. There aren't even any Heinleinian women here, just "wives" who are little more than chattel and don't have a single line of dialog. (Heinlein does seem fond of making a point of mentioning how the women never speak while the men are doing important man things.) This was not one of his more progressive stories, and it's clearly one of his early works. While not one of the better ones, it's also far from the worst. It's a quick classic adventure that has left its fingerprints on every story of lost generation ships that followed.
Also by Robert A. Heinlein: My reviews of Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones, I Will Fear No Evil, and Farnham's Freehold.
My complete list of book reviews.