More classic scifi: RA Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY

20120423-204008.jpg Tomorrow, at dawn, you are going to be shoved through a doorway that opens into a world you have never seen. You do not know if the world you are about the enter will be tropical or arctic, desert or jungle. You may emerge in a dawn-history swamp snarling with giant reptiles; you may slither on the ice of a world gaunt beneath the fading light of an aged and lonely sun…

Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons* in 1955, TUNNEL IN THE SKY is part of Heinlein’s “young adult” series of books. Since the accidental discovery of gate travel, an overpopulated Earth was shipping its hungry citizens off as quickly as it can, colonizing the Universe (or dying, trying). A degree in an off-planet career path, like colonial lawyer or emergency doctor or expeditionary leader, would mean the difference between being a subordinate, a working-class member of the group, or someone trusted with a leadership position.The bulk of the characters in the book are 17 or 18 years old, with a few in their early twenties and a few more about 15. The only adults are shown, briefly, at the bookends of the story. A group of 100 or so students, from three high schools and one college, are about to take the final exam in their Outworld survival course. With no one to guide them, they’re on their own – and the price for failure is death.

Instead of surviving for ten days and being called home, the kids find themselves waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Eventually they gather together to make a new society for themselves, since the old one seems to have forgotten all about them. Though there are elements of Lord of the Flies, this is a kid-friendly book, and Heinlein keeps the death and gore down to a warning level. You see enough to take their predicament seriously, but not enough to turn this into horror. In fact the narrator, Rod, has an easy-going way of talking and thinking that keeps the story from becoming too scary and helps propel it into an adventure story. Think Swiss Family Robinson, instead.

How does the book, 57 years old, come across to a modern reader?

There is some off-stage sex, because a couple of children are born and some marriages are made, but Heinlein assumes you know the biology involved and never mentions it. This is in keeping with his YA audience, but at the same time it allows him to skip an area where most 1950s novels would have a “woman as object” perspective. There are male characters who want to keep things “civilized”, aka, make the women folk do the cleaning and the men do the heavy lifting, but at the same time the narrator thinks that’s a bit silly and his trusted hunting partner is a woman. He has a moment toward the beginning when he holds some foolish opinions about girls, but the author has him learn from his mistakes. Overall, by putting the group into a pioneering/survival setting he shows all of the kids as useful and important – including the girls. The few people who make trouble, can’t integrate into the group, get into fights, etc, are all boys.

The book passes the Bechedel test, even under the constraint of being a tight first-person narrative (with only the occasional handwritten note, by a girl, Caroline), because there are many named women, they talk to each other about a variety of subjects, and it is usually not about boys. I have to mention that it isn’t just on the wild planet that the women get some equality. Heinlein makes his future Earth follow a logical progression, and by the time we start our story there are more women than men, at least in North America. There are women-only fighting military squads, and the narrator’s sister is a sergeant. He takes her advice about what to bring on his trip, and in other ways shows she’s a respected and capable person. It isn’t “gee you’re ok for a girl” faux equality, but genuine respect which is not predicated on gender.

There isn’t much discussion of race in the book. There is some negative thinking about a group of Asians at the beginning, but the framing of the scene makes it clear that being Asian isn’t the problem as much as it is being a soldier forcing poor and elderly citizens to immigrate at hight speed through a gate. There’s racial variation in the kids that go on the survival trip, but it isn’t discussed outside of a few descriptions. When they have to think up a government, for example, they toss around the idea of limiting it to kids of a certain age, but never even mention that anyone considered limiting the rights of people of color (or women, either).

The whole feeling of the book is a combination of “we’re in this together” and “there’s no place for useless people in the world but everyone is capable of contributing”. It is a great introduction into Heinlein’s work and that whole classic scifi feeling that space was the next frontier.

* Thanks to a reader for the correction.

3 thoughts on “More classic scifi: RA Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY

  1. FYI. Tunnel in the Sky was first published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. It’s 57, not 67. And there’s been some discussion that Heinlein may have put enough hints in the book to suggest that Rod Walker was black. The suggestions are subtle and open to debate. See this FAQ

    Heinlein had a lot of editorial restrictions which he bristled at when writing these YA novels.

    By the way, Tunnel in the Sky is one of my all-time favorite books. I’m glad to see people are still discovering it, especially the young. I hope it becomes a classic someday.

    • I know that Caroline is specifically described as being a Zulu girl, and that Rod later tells Helen that Carol looks a little like her (only taller), so I can see that as being a hint, but on the other hand he’s taken care to point out when a character was black in his other books, so who knows?

      I think I read this the first time when I was in my early 20s, but it might have been a bit later. I was introduced to Heinlein through his adult books and then went back and read whatever I could get my hands on.

      • It would have been a whole lot more impressive for the time if Heinlein had said right at the start of the story that Rod was black. Hell, it would have been more groundbreaking if Caroline had been the protagonist. I guess Heinlein was still doing pretty good for 1955. In 1963 he did come out with a science fiction book with a female protagonist, Podkayne of Mars, but that was after he left Charles Scribner’s Sons and went to Putnam.

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