Notes for Heinlein’s ‘Orphan of the Sky’

Heinlein, R. (1963) Orphans of the Sky. New York: Gollancz.



  • Making sense of the GS controls:



Although they anticipated no such hiatus in technical culture as took place, they did their best to make the controls simple, self-explanatory, and foolproof. The sophisticated fourteen-year-old mentioned above, oriented as he would be to the concept of space travel, would doubtless have figured them out in a few hours. Hugh, reared in a culture which believed that the Ship was the whole world, made no such quick job of it.

He had to learn to operate the distance finder, a delayed-action, longbase, parallax type especially designed for the Vanguard, and had taken readings on a couple of dozen stellar bodies before it occurred to him that the results he was getting could possibly mean anything. The readings were in parsecs and meaningless emotionally. The attempt with the aid of the Sacred books to translate his readings into linear units he could understand resulted in figures which he felt sure were wrong, obviously preposterous. Check and recheck, followed by long periods of brooding, forced him unwillingly into some dim comprehension of astronomical magnitudes.

(Heinlein, 1963, p51)



  • The puzzle of the Ship and the heresy of ending the Trip



Colloquial and simple gestures


‘What’s on your mind, Bud?’

‘How do we – Look, we finished the Trip; see?

We’ve got the Ship touching a planet, like this –’ He brought his two fists together.

‘Yes. Go on.’

‘Well, when that’s done, how do we get out of the Ship?’ (Heinlein, 1963, p52)



  • Extraordinary luck and the danger of showing women the stars … extraordinary sexism



‘All right. But,’ he added, with sound intuition,

‘it’s a mistake to show the women. You’ll scare ’em silly – they ain’t even seen the stars.’ Luck, sound engineering design, and a little knowledge. Good design, ten times that much luck, and a precious little knowledge. It was luck that had placed the Ship near a star with a planetary system, luck that the Ship arrived there with a speed low enough for Hugh to counteract it in a Ship’s auxiliary craft, luck that he learned to handle it after a fashion before they starved or lost themselves in deep space. (Heinlein, 1963, p63)

Luck and reflections on losing one of Hugh’s wives: The other wife, the unnamed one, kept out of his sight after losing a tooth, quite suddenly. But he got no answer that did not require him to use some, at least, of the precious, irreplaceable ancient books for fuel. Yes, even though they stripped themselves naked and chucked in their knives, the mass of the books would still be needed. He would have preferred to dispense with one of his wives. He decided to ground on one of the moons. Luck again. Coincidence of such colossal proportions that one need not be expected to believe it – for the moon-planet was suitable for human terrestrial life. Never mind – skip over it rapidly; the combination of circumstances is of the same order needed to produce such a planet in the first place. Our own planet, under our feet, is of the ‘There ain’t no such animal!’ variety. It is a ridiculous improbability. Hugh’s luck was a ridiculous improbability. (Heinlein, 1963, p64)

Escape on a lifeboat with its own converter ‘Do you suppose – Do you think that maybe this part of the Ship could move?’ ‘Naturally. The whole Ship moves.’ ‘No,’ said Hugh, ‘no, no. I don’t mean that at all. Suppose it moved by itself. These controls and the little Converter – suppose it could move right away from the Ship.’ ‘That’s pretty fantastic.’ ‘Maybe so – but if it’s true, this is the way out.’ ‘Huh?’ said Joe. ‘Nonsense. No door to the Outside here either.’ ‘But there would be if this apartment were moved away from the Ship – the way we came in!’ The two heads snapped simultaneously towards him as if jerked by the same string. Then they looked at each other and fell to arguing. Joe-Jim repeated his experiment with the controls. ‘See?’ Joe pointed out. ‘ “Launching”. It means to start something, to push something away.’ (Heinlein, 1963, p66)

The Death of Bobo ‘Good Bobo! Strong Bobo!’ The dwarf grinned as if he heard and understood, but made no attempt to reply. His master pulled his head a little to one side; the blade bit deep, snicking the jugular vein without touching the windpipe. ‘Good Bobo!’ Joe repeated. Bobo grinned again. When the eyes were glassy and breathing had unquestionably stopped, Joe-Jim stood up, letting the head and shoulders roll from him. He shoved the body with his foot to the side of the passage, and stared down the direction in which the others had gone. They should be back by now. He stuck the salvaged blade in his belt and made sure that all his weapons were loose and ready. (Heinlein, 1963, p74)

Sexism and abuse onboard, advocated for all Heinleinian men of action Ertz and Alan wore armour, as did Hugh. The women did not – none had been built for them. Joe-Jim noted that Hugh’s younger wife bore a fresh swelling on her lip, as if someone had persuaded her with a heavy hand. Her eyes were stormy though her manner was docile. The older wife, Chloe, seemed to take the events in her stride. Ertz’s woman was crying softly; Alan’s wench reflected the bewilderment of her master. ‘How’s Bobo?’ Hugh inquired, as he settled JoeJim’s armour in place. ‘Made the Trip,’ Joe informed him. ‘So? Well, that’s that – let’s go.’ (Heinlein, 1963, p74)

Seeing the GS for the first time from outside + sexist aside Then with a rush of superstitious awe he realized that he was looking at the Ship itself, the true Ship, seen from the Outside. In spite of his long intellectual awareness of the true nature of the Ship, he had never visualized looking at it. The stars, yes – the surface of a planet, he had struggled with that concept – but the outer surface of the Ship, no. When he did see it, it shocked him. Alan touched him. ‘Hugh, what is it?’ Hoyland tried to explain to him. Alan shook his head, and blinked his eyes. ‘I don’t get it.’ ‘Never mind. Bring Ertz up here. Fetch the women, too – we’ll let them see it.’ ‘All right. But,’ he added, with sound intuition, ‘it’s a mistake to show the women. You’ll scare ’em silly – they ain’t even seen the stars.’ (Heinlein, 1963, p76)

Conclusion with sexist aside and gentle mocking of the males The sun had crossed a sizable piece of the sky, enough time had passed for a well-fed man to become hungry – and they were not well fed. Even the women were outside – that had been accomplished by the simple expedient of going back in and pushing them out. They had not ventured away from the side of the Ship, but sat huddled against it. But their menfolk had even learned to walk singly, even in open spaces. Alan thought nothing of strutting a full fifty yards away from the shadow of the Ship, and did so more than once, in full sight of the women. It was on one such journey that a small animal native to the planet let his curiosity exceed his caution. Alan’s knife knocked him over and left him kicking. Alan scurried to the spot, grabbed his fat prize by one leg, and bore it proudly back to Hugh. ‘Look, Hugh, look! Good eating!’ Hugh looked with approval. His first strange fright of the place had passed and had been replaced with a warm deep feeling, a feeling that he had come at last to his long home. This seemed a good omen. (Heinlein, 1963, p79)