Orphans of the Sky

Orphans of the Sky is a science fiction novel by American writer 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.

Orphans of the Sky
First US edition
(publ. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1964)
AuthorRobert A. Heinlein
Cover artistIrv Docktor
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
PublisherVictor Gollancz Ltd (UK)
Publication date
Media typePrint (Paperback)
Followed byTime Enough for Love 


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 1951 Dell printing of "Universe"

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.


Avram Davidson described Orphans of the Sky as "a modern classic", praising "the magnitude and magnificence of Orphans' concepts" despite expressing disappointment in "the limitations of its conclusion".[1] Damon Knight said "Nobody has ever improved on Universe, although a good many reckless people have tried, because Heinlein said it all."[2] Algis Budrys said that "Many hands have worked at improving Heinlein's impeccable statement of this theme", with none succeeding until James White's The Watch Below.[3]

Links to other Heinlein stories

A paragraph at the start of the novel shows an excerpt from "The Romance of Modern Astrography", explaining that the ship was part of the "Proxima Centauri Expedition, sponsored by the Jordan Foundation in 2119". (A timeline produced by Heinlein to link different stories in his Future History places the launch of the Vanguard in the early 22nd century.[4]) A discovered ship's log begins in June 2172, a few days before the mutiny breaks out.

In Heinlein's later novel Time Enough for Love, the Vanguard is briefly mentioned as the sister ship of the New Frontiers, which was commandeered by the Howard Families in the novel Methuselah's Children. It is revealed that the vessel had been bound for Alpha Centauri, but never landed colonists there. The Vanguard has been discovered, with its crew long dead due to some unexplained failure in its mechanisms, and its records destroyed or illegible. Its path is traced back, and the descendants of Hugh's people are found, flourishing as highly intelligent savages, on a planet which scientists dub "Pitcairn Island". This was apparently the only star where settlement was possible on the Vanguard's path. This conversation takes place in 4291, and it is mentioned that the settlers have been there for 800 years.

Another reference to Heinlein's Future History is a passage describing Joe-Jim's enthusiasm for the works of "Rhysling, the blind singer of the spaceways", a poet and the central character of the Heinlein story "The Green Hills of Earth".

Radio adaptation

"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). These versions have several drastic changes to the story, especially in their conclusions in which Hugh is killed showing the crew of the Vanguard the true nature of the Ship.

Scientific basis

Two-headed humans do exist – one variation of conjoined twins.[5]

The physics of The Ship are also correct: it spins to give artificial gravity, which is absent at the centre.[6] The ship's "Converter" reflects an early 1940s viewpoint of atomic power, with atoms of any element "ripped apart" in an unspecified manner.

The notion of a giant planet with a habitable moon went against theories of planetary formation as they stood before the discovery of Hot Jupiter planets. It was thought that planets large enough to have an Earth-sized moon would only form above the "snowline", too far from the sun for life. It is now believed that such worlds can migrate inwards, and habitable moons seem likely. The existence of exomoons has not been confirmed, though there are candidates.[7]


The idea of a generation ship goes back at least to the 1920s, but Heinlein popularised it.[8] It has been used extensively since then, along with other ideas such as passengers in deep sleep and an automated craft carrying frozen embryos.

See also


  1. ^ "Books", The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1964, pp.37–38
  2. ^ Knight, Damon (1956). In Search of Wonder. Advent.
  3. ^ Budrys, Algis (August 1966). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 186–194.
  4. ^ Timeline for Heinlein's Future History
  5. ^ Conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel
  6. ^ Why Don't We Have Artificial Gravity?
  7. ^ NASA Supercomputer Assists the Hunt for Exomoons
  8. ^ Bernal, John (1929). "The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul". Retrieved 2018-01-19.

External links

Captive Universe

Captive Universe is a science fiction novel by American author Harry Harrison, which was first published in 1969.

Farnham's Freehold

Farnham's Freehold is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein. A serialised version, edited by Frederik Pohl, appeared in Worlds of If magazine (July, August, October 1964). The complete version was published in novel form by G.P. Putnam later in 1964.

Farnham's Freehold is a post-apocalyptic tale. The setup for the story is a direct hit by a nuclear weapon, which sends into the future a fallout shelter containing Farnham, his wife, son, daughter, daughter's friend, and domestic servant. In writing the novel Heinlein drew on his experience of building a fallout shelter under his own house in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the 1960s.

Future History (Heinlein)

The Future History, by Robert A. Heinlein, describes a projected future of the human race from the middle of the 20th century through the early 23rd century. The term Future History was coined by John W. Campbell, Jr. in the February 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell published an early draft of Heinlein's chart of the series in the March 1941 issue.Heinlein wrote most of the Future History stories early in his career, between 1939 and 1941 and between 1945 and 1950. Most of the Future History stories written prior to 1967 are collected in The Past Through Tomorrow, which also contains the final version of the chart. That collection does not include Universe and Common Sense; they were published separately as Orphans of the Sky.

Groff Conklin called Future History "the greatest of all histories of tomorrow". It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series in 1966, along with the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Lensman series by E. E. Smith, the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien, but lost to Asimov's Foundation series.

Generation ship

A generation ship, or generation starship, is a hypothetical type of interstellar ark starship that travels at sub-light speed.

Since such a ship might take centuries to thousands of years to reach even nearby stars, the original occupants of a generation ship would grow old and die, leaving their descendants to continue traveling.

Heinlein Prize for Advances in Space Commercialization

The Heinlein Prize for Advances in Space Commercialization, generally known as the Heinlein Prize, was founded in 1988 to reward individuals who make practical contributions to the commercialization of space. The Heinlein Prize, offers a cash award of $500,000 to one or more individuals for practical accomplishments in the field of commercial space activities rewarded by the International Aeronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany.Trustees for the award emphasize that the prize, which will be given as often as annually, is for effort by an individual or group of people, not government or corporate sponsored activities, and is intended to be worldwide in scope. The prize is awarded in July.

The Heinlein Prize honors the memory of Robert A. Heinlein, one of the most popular science fiction writers of the 20th century. The trust was established soon after his death in 1988 by his widow, Virginia Gerstenfeld Heinlein, whose estate will fund the prize.

Interstellar ark

An interstellar ark or generation ship is a conceptual space vehicle designed for interstellar travel. Interstellar arks may be the most economically feasible method of traveling such distances. The ark has also been proposed as a potential habitat to preserve civilization and knowledge in the event of a global catastrophe.

Such a ship would have to be large, requiring a large power plant. The Project Orion concept of propulsion by nuclear pulses has been proposed. The largest spacecraft design analyzed in Project Orion had a 400 m diameter and weighed approximately 8 million tons. It could be large enough to host a city of 100,000 or more people.

Metamorphosis Alpha

Metamorphosis Alpha is a science fiction role-playing game. It was created by James M. Ward and originally produced by TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. It was the first science fiction role-playing game, published in July 1976.


"Moonbat" is a pejorative political epithet used in United States politics, referring to liberals, progressives, or leftists (especially the far-left), a possible parallel to the pejorative "Wingnut" attributed to American conservatives, and right wing politics.

Non-Stop (novel)

Non-Stop is a 1958 science fiction novel by Brian Aldiss. It was the author's first novel. Originally published by Faber & Faber, it was published in the U.S. by Criterion Books as Starship in 1959. The novel has been frequently republished in the UK and US and translated into French, German, Danish and other languages. The Signet and Avon US paperback editions were also published under the title Starship, but American publishers Carroll & Graf and Overlook Press have used the title Non-Stop.

Robert A. Heinlein bibliography

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988) was productive during a writing career that spanned the last 49 years of his life; the Robert A. Heinlein bibliography includes 32 novels, 59 short stories and 16 collections published during his life. Four films, two TV series, several episodes of a radio series, and a board game derive more or less directly from his work. He wrote a screenplay for one of the films. Heinlein edited an anthology of other writers' SF short stories.

Three non-fiction books and two poems have been published posthumously. One novel has been published posthumously and another, an unusual collaboration, was published in 2006. Four collections have been published posthumously.

Heinlein's fictional works can be found in the library under PS3515.E288, or under Dewey 813.54. Known pseudonyms include Anson MacDonald (7 times), Lyle Monroe (7), John Riverside (1), Caleb Saunders (1), and Simon York (1). All the works originally attributed to MacDonald, Saunders, Riverside and York, and many of the works originally attributed to Lyle Monroe, were later reissued in various Heinlein collections and attributed to Heinlein.

Space stations and habitats in fiction

The concepts of space stations and habitats are common in modern culture. While space stations have become reality, there are as yet no true space habitats. Writers, filmmakers, and other artists have produced vivid renditions of the idea of a space station or habitat, and these iterations can be categorized by some of the basic scientific concepts from which they are derived.

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is a novella by Robert A. Heinlein. It was originally published in the October 1942 edition of Unknown Worlds magazine under the pseudonym of "John Riverside". It also lends its title to a collection of Heinlein's short stories published in 1959.

The Watch Below

The Watch Below (1966) is a science fiction novel by British writer James White, about a colony of humans stranded underwater in a sunken ship surviving due to air pockets, and a water-breathing alien species in search of a new home. The two generation ships encounter each other in the Earth's ocean.

The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein

The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein is a collection of science fiction short stories by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1966.

It includes an introduction entitled "Pandora's Box" that describes some of the difficulties in making predictions about the near future. Heinlein outlines some of his predictions that he made in 1949 (published 1952) and examines how well they stood up to some 15 years of progress in 1965. The prediction was originally published in Galaxy magazine, Feb 1952, Vol. 3, No. 5, under the title "Where to?" (pp. 13–22).

Following the introduction are five short stories:

"Free Men" (written c. 1947, but first published in this collection, 1966)

"Blowups Happen" (1940)

"Searchlight" (1962)

"Life-Line" (1939)

"Solution Unsatisfactory" (1940)In 1980, the entire contents of this collection, with an updated version of "Pandora's Box", were included in Heinlein's collection, Expanded Universe.

Time Enough for Love

Time Enough for Love is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, first published in 1973. The work was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1973 and both the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1974.

Virginia Heinlein

Virginia "Ginny" Heinlein (April 22, 1916 – January 18, 2003), born Virginia Doris Gerstenfeld, was an American chemist, biochemist, engineer, and the third wife of Robert A. Heinlein, a prominent and successful author often considered as one of the "Big Three" of science fiction (along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke).

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