Heinlein’s ‘Orphans of the Sky’ explores, questions origins of religion

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Robert Heinlein frequently pokes at religion in his books, questioning and analyzing it, but “Orphans of the Sky” is a truly unique and frighteningly real story that explores and questions the origins of religion.

The story takes place on a colony ship that was on its way to another world when it is seized by mutiny. The bulk of the crew is killed, the ship stops moving and the remaining people on board are split into two factions: the crew and the cannibalistic “muties.” After several generations, both groups forget everything about the mission or that there is even anything that exists outside of the ship. There are no windows, so there is no way to see outside. The ship is their whole world and the idea that anything could be “outside” or that the ship moves is unfathomable, much like humans on earth once thought the earth was flat or that the sun moved around us and that anything else was heresy.

The book follows the long and strange journey of Hugh Hoyland. Hugh longs to be a Scientist — the learned members of the crew who read books and tend to important ship-related duties. Hugh is captured by muties, but instead of being killed, he becomes the servant and, eventually, friend of Joe-Jim, a two-headed mutie.

Joe-Jim allows Hugh to read books he’s never seen before and gives him access to new parts of the ship he’d never seen, such as the control room. He sees the stars for the first time. He learns the truth: their entire belief system that the ship is all there has ever been is wrong. He goes back to try to spread the truth to the crew with disastrous consequences. Some people will fight to the death to keep their beliefs, even in the face of evidence that it is all a lie.

In addition to exploring the concept of religion, Heinlein also delves into prejudice, sexism, social standards and conformity. His heroes are as flawed as his villains, something that adds realism, versus a story where the heroes are 100 percent good.

Overall, the book packs a lot of punch for such a short book and it is just as relevant a story today as it was when it was first published about 50 years ago.

Karen Ingram is a junior in English. Please send comments to edge@kstatecollegian.com.

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