This is a book divided into two parts. A novelette and novella that combine to create something that one can only tenuously describe as ‘whole’. Sure the two parts share the same characters, the same setting, but the feel entirely apart from each other.
Part One (The novelette “Universe”) feels rudderless. An exercise that didn’t come to much, but stands well enough on its own so as not to be completely unprintable. It plays with allegory, bigotry, and fundamentalism in a way that is on point, but it makes a couple of bafflingly temporal and narrative shifts.
The ‘sciencing’ (for lack of a better term) of Huey (The main character), but his kidnapping by the muties takes place in a single unremarkable paragraph. This is jarring, lazy, painfully ineffective. The entire story shifts on this moment and to have it relegated to something less than a footnote shows a narrative fatigue/boredom that suggests Heinlein realized that beyond the core idea surrounding the story there wasn’t much going on. There were no true characters driving the plot forward.
It’s bad enough that when Huey (again, main character) is imprisoned, he passes his main character powers to a previously unmentioned childhood friend who briefly replaces him with virtually no conflict with the naturally distrusting muties and no shift in the direction of anything that might be misconstrued as a personality trait.
Fortunately, by the second part (The novella “Common Sense”) Heinlein manages to figure out what he’s actually about and the story develops a sense of direction and while the characters don’t get any more refined, the story congeals into an intermittently competent if paint-by-numbers space opera.
“An apostate scientist, a kidnapped scientist, a dull peasant, a two-headed monster, an apple-brained moron — five knives, counting Joe-Jim as one; five brains, counting Joe-Jim as two and Bobo as none — five brains and five knives to overthrow an entire culture.” ― Robert A. Heinlein, Orphans of the Sky