Review The Man Who Sold The Moon/Orphans of the Sky

24 Jun

It’s neither your business, nor the business of this blasted paternalistic government, to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do.

The trouble with any detailed examination of Heinlein’s shorter works, which are often compiled in larger volumes, is that there is a great deal of duplication. Life-line, Heinlein’s first story, is reprinted in at least three separate volumes – and it is far from the only one to have been duplicated. Indeed, as the compilation volumes are put together by theme, it would be surprising indeed if there weren’t more duplications. I have therefore put my comments on some of the stories within The Man Who Sold The Moon/Orphans of the Sky under other titles.

Heinlein, an engineer, was fascinated by the impact of new technology and ideas on society. Both The Man Who Sold The Moon and Orphans of the Sky have social impact as a common theme, although – on the surface – they don’t seem to go together. Baen Books put them together when republishing the two books as one and I think they work together fairly well. They are not the best of Heinlein’s works, but they are among his most significant.

The Man Who Sold The Moon is a collection of short stories and novellas focused on the common theme. Let There Be Light features a partnership between a male and female scientist who stumble across a method of generating free electric power. Unfortunately, vested interests are keen on keeping the method a secret, as it will imperil their grip on power. The duo therefore release the information into the public domain, giving it to everyone. It’s a very simple story, in places, but its notable for its underlying assertion that there are some people who will fight to stop progress and for the female scientist, radical in its day. (That said, they do wind up getting married at the end of the story.)

The Roads Must Roll is an odd little story. Near-future America is dominated by the ‘roads,’ effectively giant railroads moving everything from cargo to passengers from place to place. The roads are so important that shutting them down will prove disastrous. Unfortunately, a handful of road engineers – convinced that their importance to society gives them the right to dictate to others – go on strike, shutting down a couple of roads. They have to be defeated before the whole system collapses.

Interestingly, Heinlein goes out of his way to make it clear that the strike is unreasonable, both in the sense the strikers are already well-paid and in just how much damage it will inflict on the country. However, he also points to the ideology behind the strikes, an invented political movement – ‘Functionalism’ – that is used to justify anything. As he puts it:

Concerning Function: A Treatise on the Natural Order in Society, the bible of the functionalist movement, was first published in 1930. It claimed to be a scientifically accurate theory of social relations. The author, Paul Decker, disclaimed the “outworn and futile” ideas of democracy and human equality, and substituted a system in which human beings were evaluated “functionally”—that is to say, by the role each filled in the economic sequence. The underlying thesis was that it was right and proper for a man to exercise over his fellows whatever power was inherent in his function, and that any other form of social organization was silly, visionary, and contrary to the “natural order.”

Heinlein uses Functionalism to point out the fundamental flaw in every revolutionary movement from Communism to Radical Islam, without mentioning any particular ideology by name:

Functionalism was particularly popular among little people everywhere who could persuade themselves that their particular jobs were the indispensable ones, and that, therefore, under the “natural order” they would be top dog. With so many different functions actually indispensable such self-persuasion was easy.”

It’s an interesting point – and one with much relevance to modern-day life. The people who join revolutionary groups are almost always convinced that they will come out on top – and they’re almost always wrong.

The Man Who Sold The Moon is the story of the man who laid the groundwork for the first missions to the moon, doing everything in his power to realise the lunar dream. DD Harriman, a man obsessed with reaching the moon, raises money and organises the first flights to the moon, intending to eventually go there himself. Unfortunately, the house of cards he’s built is dependent on his presence … and he can’t go, not if he wants the moon to be colonised. The man who settles the moon is forever denied the chance to visit himself. It is, in many ways, a bittersweet tale.

It touches on many interesting points. Harriman flatly refuses to pay off a woman who sues his company on spurious grounds, pointing out that buying her off will simply lead to more lawsuits and a constant outflow of money. He talks about the importance of investing in the future, although his detractors are not entirely wrong to point out that, if they fail to recoup their investment, they’re screwed; he talks about the importance of going well by one’s employees, insisting that the company has to take care of them. Harriman wins a great deal of personal loyalty and it serves him well. Sneakily, Heinlein also points out that corporate small-print often provides an excuse for not doing something.

Requiem, the sequel (although it was actually written first) is the story of Harriman actually making the flight to the moon, right at the end of his life. It is one of Heinlein’s few truly emotional stories, all the more so as Heinlein doesn’t try to force emotion. Harriman is both a giant of a man and an aging man, threatened with losing control of his life to his heirs (who try to declare him senile) and desperate to make one final bid to reach the moon. His death, just after they land, is genuinely tragic, but it is also a triumph. Harriman got to leave the world on his own terms.

(Life-Line and Blowups Happen will be discussed in the Expanded Universe review.)

Orphans of the Sky features what may well be the first generation starship in science-fiction, on a voyage to a nearby star. Unfortunately, something went badly wrong and there was a mutiny, resulting in the near-complete destruction of the ship’s records. By the time the story takes place, the ship is divided into two sections: a tribe of pureblood humans, ruled by the ‘Captain’ and gangs of mutants, one of which is lead by a two-headed man. Neither side realises that there is a world outside the ship’s walls. To them, the ship is all there is – and ever will be.

The hero of the book, Hugh Hoyland, is born into the human tribe. Being more intelligent than most of his peers, he is recruited into the scientists – an inner group who keep things running – and then, after a raid into mutant territory goes badly wrong, he finds himself a prisoner (and a slave) instead. This actually works out in his favour, as he befriends the two-headed mutant and, more importantly, discovers the truth behind the ship. They’re approaching their new homeworld.

This does not go down well with his former masters and he is sentenced to death for heresy, only to be rescued, in the nick of time, by the mutants. Forging an alliance between the mutants and rebellious (and ambitious) scientists, he helps mount a coup to unite the two tribes and guide the ship to its final destination. But the new government falls apart and a handful of people are forced to flee the ship, landing on the new world even as the ship itself is condemned to remain drifting through space forever. (Later, Lazarus Long would claim to visit their planet.)

Orphans of the Sky showcases just how a restrictive society can restrict a person’s mind, from being unable to comprehend that there might be a world outside their walls to being practically conditioned to slavery. (Hugh accepts his servitude without demur, an unusual trait in a Heinlein hero.) The social tensions that eventually rip the ship and crew apart cannot be suppressed indefinitely, particularly when they are faced with something that is – by their lights – blasphemy. (An Outside Context Problem, as Iain Banks put it.) Matters are not helped by ambitious people on both sides using the crisis as an excuse to gain power, then turning on the others. They are more interested in their own power than saving their people.

The book also shows the flaws in tribal societies. There is literally no room for freethinkers, let alone open debate … to the point that several factions are plotting revolution just to get control of the levers of power. But the tribe has no choice. The dictates of survival are paramount. And yet, when the ‘good guys’ gain power, they hold purges themselves. Hugh and his allies are not always good people. Indeed, Hugh is pretty much a domestic abuser in his later days.

Heinlein cheats, in some ways, to get his heroes to the planet. He gives a catalogue of their lucky breaks during the final section of the book … but then, without those strokes of luck, the story would end badly. And yet, with only a handful of living humans, there is a good chance the colony will end badly in any case. Genetic inbreeding will get them, even if they’re lucky enough to avoid mutant births (caused by a radiation leak during the mutiny.)

Overall, the collection of The Man Who Sold The Moon and Orphans of the Sky is well worth a read. Heinlein might not have reached towering heights – yet – but the stories open one’s mind, make you think … and lead directly to other, younger works.

One Response to “Review The Man Who Sold The Moon/Orphans of the Sky”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard June 24, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    Nit. In Time Enough For Love, we learn in a conversation with Lazarus Long that the Vanguard had been discovered dead drifting in space and that the planet that the survivors landed on had also been discovered.

    At no time did Lazarus Long said that he had visited that planet. For that matter, it wasn’t Lazarus who told of the discovery of the Vanguard & the planet. Another “Howard”, Justin Foote tells Lazarus about the Vanguard & the planet.

    Oh, the descendants of the survivors, even after 7 centuries, were still in the hunter-gather phase, very “savage” and very intelligent. 😉

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