Thursday, January 03, 2019

the last book I read

Orphans Of The Sky by Robert A Heinlein.

Hugh Hoyland and his chums lead a decent enough life: enough to eat, a bit of light-hearted knife-combat training (with the occasional lapse into real-life duelling with the associated stabbings and death, but, hey, just boys being boys and having some TOP BANTZ, innit), a few girls to chase, that sort of thing. Basically it's all good unless you question certain prevailing religious orthodoxies or get murdered to death and eaten by the cannibalistic mutants who inhabit certain areas of the world Hugh and chums find themselves on. This is a world known (and referred to in the religious texts) as The Ship, and comprising, as well as the level Hugh lives on which features various agricultural facilities, other more spartan levels which are just long metallic corridors.

So I'm sure you can see where we're going with this. The religious texts purport to be a set of technical manuals for a large starship but are interpreted by the religious leaders as metaphorical descriptions of an entire universe. Deviation from this worldview (like, for instance, speculating on the existence of stuff "outside" The Ship) is interpreted as heresy and may earn you a trip to the Converter (the nuclear furnace that powers the Ship) as fuel.

Hugh is a clever, resourceful and inquisitive sort of bloke, and is therefore identified at an early stage as potentially troublesome. To minimise his chances of infecting his contemporaries with his fancy book-learnin' ways he is inducted into the guild of scientists, but it quickly becomes clear that even here thinking outside the box (in the most literal of senses, in his particular situation) is discouraged.

A chance to discover more presents itself from an unexpected direction, though, when Hugh is captured by mutants and taken to their leader, Joe-Jim, a creature with two heads. While this does happen, exceptionally rarely, in real life, you, as a seasoned consumer of speculative fiction, will be forgiven for thinking of Zaphod Beeblebrox here. Anyway, Joe-Jim is a bright and resourceful couple of guys and he soon spots that Hugh is a guy of a similar nature; and lucky for Hugh that he does or Hugh would have ended up as dinner for Joe-Jim's mutant henchman, Bobo.

Joe-Jim is also in possession of some information: free of the religious indoctrination and rigid enforcement of cultural rules that Hugh has lived under his whole life Joe-Jim has explored the whole ship, even up to the upper levels where gravity decreases to zero and you can zoom about weightlessly. Even more excitingly, these levels contain a control room where one can not only control the ship (if one only knew how) but see out of a viewing gallery to The Outside, where a gazillion stars demonstrate the falsehood of the religious texts (or, at least, their current interpretation). Hugh is immediately convinced, but finds others less willing to be convinced on his return to the lower levels.

Hugh and his chums eventually resort to further kidnapping activities and bring the ship's chief engineer up to the control room to see the stars for himself. On their return, a spot of judicious mutiny and assassination get the chief engineer appointed Captain, and, Hugh assumes, sanity and proper science will prevail. However, it turns out that Narby, the new Captain, was only feigning being convinced by the stellar light-show, and moreover is a bit keen on consolidating his new power by eliminating various troublesome heretics and mutants. Hugh manages to escape and his party flee to the secret locked chamber on the upper level which he has deduced contains an escape pod. Thanks to his experimentation in the control room he has a rudimentary understanding of the controls and is able to launch the craft, avoid crashing it into the nearest star, and (with a bit of help from the autopilot) land on a conveniently Earth-like planet in orbit around it and emerge, blinking, onto this new world, which, also rather conveniently, contains plant life and small animal life (of the sort which can be stabbed up by trained knife-wielders) but no instantly death-dealing large ravenous carnivores. Nice planet: we'll take it!

As I said in the last book review, Heinlein and Asimov were my guys for science fiction back in the mid-1980s. The Heinleins I read were mainly the late-period ones like Friday (probably my favourite), Job: A Comedy Of Justice and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, though I did also read his most famous book Stranger In A Strange Land, and also I Will Fear No Evil, although its depiction of a male/female mind-share merges confusingly in hindsight with the plot of the Steve Martin film All Of MeOrphans Of The Sky is a re-purposing of some of the author's earlier work in the same way as Earthlight was, in this case by being a 1963 repackaging of two linked short stories first published in magazine form in 1941. So the material is a bit older than Earthlight, but it seems like a much more modern book. Part of this is because Heinlein is the best writer of the so-called Big Three and much more interested in proper characterisation than the other two, and also inclined to include some sex and humour among all the spaceship-wrangling.

The claim is made for Orphans Of The Sky that it was the first novel to depict a "generation ship", i.e. a spaceship specifically designed with the idea that people would live, breed and die on board and that the people who reached the ship's eventual destination would be the (perhaps distant) descendants of the people who first set out. I don't know whether that's true, but the specific treatment of the idea here, where so many generations have passed that people have forgotten the true nature of their surroundings, certainly inspired other similar works. The paranoia about rooting out genetic mutations in the first half of the novel is very reminiscent of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, and the wider theme of someone gradually uncovering knowledge about their true place in the world (not necessarily involving spaceships) crops up elsewhere too, for instance in Inverted World, and can't help but be read as a satire of organised religion.

It's very good, and much more exciting and engaging than Earthlight, which is a little dry and staid for my taste. It would be remiss of me not to criticise the ending a bit, though, not so much for the extraordinary coincidence of having the protagonists escape just in time to slingshot into orbit around, and land on, a conveniently Earth-like planet (well, actually a rocky moon of a gas giant), but for the unlikely yet convenient way in which the (male) protagonists are able to stop off and collect their womenfolk (two of them in Hugh's case, the randy sod) just in time to bundle them off to a nearby planet to restart the human race. This new offshoot of the human race is given the best chance of genetic purity by having poor old Joe-Jim take one for the team and hold off the horde of religious nutters to allow the pod to escape, at the cost of his own life/lives. There's a slightly light-hearted approach taken to wife-beating as well; when the younger and more spirited of Hugh's wives questions the nature of the trip they're about to embark on, he corrects her in a loving yet violent way by punching one of her teeth out. The ladies, eh? Bless 'em.


Dave D said...

Have only read the first couple of paras to avoid spoilers (since I'm now gonna read the book).

But it sounds like like Silo et seq by Hugh Howey. Will do a comparison

electrichalibut said...

the brief synopsis I've just read of Silo also reminds me very much of the JG Ballard story The Concentration City. I've got that in the collection The Disaster Area which I recommend highly.