Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Microreview [book]: Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein

I often romanticize the notion of sitting down on a lazy Sunday with a classic SF novel I bought for under $2 at a used bookstore. Several attempts to go through with this, though, have foundered on an iceberg of hack writing, outdated social norms and the naive optimism about science, technology and "progress" that permeates so much pre-New Wave SF. So it was with some trepidation that I began Orphans of the Sky, a novel structured as two novellas by Robert Heinlein, an author I know primarily (and not positively) from the militarist novel Starship Troopers to the more interesting, but tediously smug Stranger in a Strange Land.

Orphans of the Sky tells the story of Hugh Hoyland, an illiterate peasant living on a generation starship whose inhabitants have long-since forgotten the purpose of their voyage (or even that they are on a voyage). The "crew" live on the high-weight decks of the ship, and are organized into a highly stratified and rigidly patriarchal society dominated by "scientists," who are really priests of a sort, and whose religious texts are the ship's technical manuals. The lower-weight decks are the home of "the muties," a group named either for their descent from the plotters of a long-ago mutiny or for the frequency of genetic mutations among them (which don't exist among the crew because they commit infanticide whenever a mutation occurs).

Hugh, being an intelligent young person, is promoted to the position of scientist, and quickly falls in with a group of hyper-rationalists that want to supplant the more superstitious officers ahead of them and then wipe out the muties. Before the plan can be realized, though, Hugh is taken captive by Bobo, a short, none too bright but fierce mutie, and Joe-Jim Gregory, his two-headed dilettante master. In captivity, High comes to learn of the ship's real nature, and its mission to reach the star system of Far Centaurus. He returns to the high-weight decks to "convert" the ship's officers, setting off a complex chain of political events that result in a crisis the ship has not seen since the days of the original mutiny.

So How Was it?

Perhaps it was the depressed expectations, but I actually enjoyed Orphans of the Sky a lot more than I expected to. It is written in the hack style, but it's fairly efficient and clean and thus perfectly suitable to that idle Sunday. It's unfortunate that Heinlein switches between third-person restrictive and third-person omniscient, especially as the latter appears directly addressed to an audience of Earth-bound contemporaries to the central characters, who presumably would never hear of their story. I found this annoying.

Then there's the whole "dated social norms" thing. I'd imagine that if someone were to write the character of Bobo today, they would not describe him as a "pinhead dwarf moron." This is partially mitigated by the fact that Bobo is possibly the most relatable and likable character in the book, but only partially. And gender relations in the book, for that matter, are positively neolithic. Heinlein does provide an explanation for this--the crew live in a highly-stratified priest society, and severe oppression of women is an integral part of its power structure, as it was for many historical analogues. But even as Hugh and his associates grow enlightened about many things, they never even consider the women except as an afterthought. And over in mutie country, whose residents are meant to be wildling-style "free folk," there's really only one woman--and she's an old crone who makes knives for everyone else and appears in exactly one scene. Maybe there's a touch of realism there, given how long it's taken/is taking real actual human societies to treat women as equal citizens, but the sausage-fest dynamic is seriously dated and seriously corny.

If you can give Heinlein a "that was then/this is now" pass, or can rationalize the misogyny in Orphans of the Sky as the intellectually justified function of the societies he is describing, then you'll probably find the rest of the book to be an enjoyable and at times thought provoking adventure story. I particularly liked how he resisted making either the crew or the muties "the good society"--actually, they are both terribly unfair. And there's a relatively interesting take on post-revolutionary politics that, while not quite up to Animal Farm standards, is still more subtle and nuanced than most Cold War-era parables about communism.

In the end, though, while this did satisfy my urge for a quickly-digestable SF classic, the good stuff isn't good enough for me to look past all the frustrating anachronisms.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for it only cost $1.75 and I bought it at my favorite SF specialist second-hand bookshop; +1 for being a solid all-around adventure story that had some intelligence and thoughtfulness to it.

Penalties: -1 for the distracting switches to third-person omniscient; -1 for the near total absence of women characters; -1 for not even giving them a tiny modicum of subjectivity when they do appear.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10. "Average" or "Mediocre." Take your pick.