Orphans of the Sky
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.
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. Narby never believed Hugh and was only playing along as a means to gain power. Once in control, he treacherously sets out to eliminate the Muties. Joe is killed in the fighting. Jim sacrifices himself to hold off their pursuers long enough for Hugh, Bill, Alan and their wives to get to a highly automated lifeboat. Hugh manages to land on the habitable moon of a gas giant. The colonists disembark to uneasily explore their alien surroundings.
Links to other Heinlein stories
No dates are given, but a timeline produced by Heinlein to link different stories in his Future History places the launch of the Vanguard in the early 22nd century. An unknown number of centuries have passed between this and the main events of the novel.
In a much later novel Time Enough for Love, the Vanguard is briefly mentioned as the sister ship of the New Frontiers, the ship stolen by the Howard Families in the story Methuselah's Children. The Vanguard has been discovered with its crew long dead, some unexplained failure in its mechanisms. Its path from Earth is traced back, and the descendants of Hugh's people are found, flourishing as highly intelligent savages. This was apparently the only possible star where settlement would have been possible on the Vanguard's path.
This happens 22 centuries in the future, and it is mentioned that the settlers have been there 700 years. So the events of Orphans of the Sky would have happened after the ship had been in space for about 13 centuries.
"Universe" was also performed as a radio play on the NBC Radio Network programs Dimension X (on November 26, 1951) and X Minus One (on May 15, 1955). This version has several drastic changes to the story, especially in its conclusion wherein Hugh is killed showing the crew of the Vanguard the true nature of the Ship.
- "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky", an episode of the original Star Trek with a similar premise.
- Non-Stop (originally titled Starship) by Brian W. Aldiss
- Captive Universe by Harry Harrison
- "Proxima Centauri" by Murray Leinster
- "The Book of the Long Sun" by Gene Wolfe
- "Metamorphosis Alpha" an RPG by James Ward
- "The Starlost" a Canadian-produced science fiction television series devised by writer Harlan Ellison and broadcast in 1973
- Orphans of the Sky title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Audio transcription of "Universe" as performed on NBC's X Minus One at OTR Network.