I read quite a bit of Heinlein when I was much (much!) younger, and for some reason Universe was one of the short stories I passed on at the time. After hearing about it recently — from Stephen Colbert of all people — I thought I’d give it a try.
As with all of Heinlein’s stories, the premise is tantalizing: a ship that’s been travelling through space for so long that its occupants have completely forgotten what a ship even is. They believe they are living in a static, unmoving world bordered by the upper and lower decks. Radiation leakage and loss of gravity have led the inhabitants of the upper decks to evolve into mutants, whereas what little technological knowledge remains has been twisted into religious dogma.
The story is well-developed, though highly predictable, and it was often frustrating to see interesting concepts squandered by Heinlein’s inherent need to fall back on unlikeable male stereotypes. His penchant for violence (and brutality) is clearly on display here, though it was the callous treatment of women that made me the most uncomfortable.
Orphans of the Sky is a product of its time: the early forties had a very different idea to how women should be portrayed, especially in sci-fi. Some of the main character’s wives (yes, wives plural) don’t even get a name. It's something that’s difficult to overlook and sapped some of my enjoyment from the end of the story.