Retro Review Tunnel in the Sky

4 Apr

Watch out for Stobor!

I really – really – hated The Lord of the Flies.

It wasn’t just the storyline that I found depressingly accurate, although I was grimly aware that I had far too much in common with Piggy. It was the moment when the book was being read to us in class and one of the worst bullies in the school snidely pointed out that I’d be the first to die – or be driven away to starve – if we found ourselves trapped on an isolated island. I am a fan of civilisation, despite its flaws, because my life experience has taught me that civilised behaviour is sometimes little more than a thin veneer covering a very dangerous beast indeed. Stripped of civilisation and socialisation, the strong take what they like and the weak suffer what they must. Societies that are not governed by the Rule of Law – or forget that they need to enforce the Rule of Law – are inevitably governed by the Rule of Force.

Heinlein, apparently, hated The Lord of the Flies too. He believed – and I agree with him – that civilisation is one of mankind’s finest achievements, one we will take to the stars. But, at the same time, he cheats to some extent. The characters – I hesitate to call them heroes – of The Lord of the Flies had no idea that they were going to be stranded, while Heinlein’s heroes knew they were going into a dangerous environment (although they didn’t realise that they were going to be trapped for several years). They had the advantage of training and suchlike – and even a certain degree of age – which others lacked.

Tunnel in the Sky is focused around Rod Walker, a teenage boy who intends to leave the overcrowded Earth and become a colonist on a distant world. Unfortunately for him, he has to pass a survivalist test first; he has to step through a wormhole onto a distant world, taking only a handful of supplies with him, and survive there for a week. Rod – and a number of other students from several different institutions – find the environment very challenging … all the more so as it becomes clear, ten days after they arrive, that there will be no immediate pick-up. They may be stuck on their new world for quite some time.

The remainder of the book is focused on their attempt to build a civilisation – or as close to it as they can muster – and somehow overcome the challenges, both internal and external, that their situation throws at them. They grapple with the problems of somehow getting along, and dividing up the work, while trying to figure out how best to survive an increasingly dangerous environment. Somehow, they make it … and, when the wormhole is reopened, they have grown into a small tribe that – to some extent – actually works, although it splinters when they are – at least briefly – cast back into the roles of children. Rod, forever changed by his experiences, heads out again as quickly as possible.

Rod is, very much, the focus of the story. (A single chapter consists of journal entries from Jackie’s point of view.) Rod is very much an unshaped teenage boy, with all the strengths and weaknesses it implies: he rebels against parental authority, yet is unwilling to cut ties completely; he jumps to conclusions time and time again; he is dismissive, to some extent, of women … yet somehow manages to miss that ‘Jack’, his first partner in survival, is actually a girl. Rod serves as leader without quite understanding the basis on which he is leader (thus discovering that his ‘government’ suddenly has a crisis of legitimacy), then finds himself unsure if he should support the first elected leader or setting off with a small group when the leader proves himself better at talking than actually leading. Rod makes many mistakes, but they are all creditable mistakes. Some reviewers have called him ‘dumb,’ yet he’s better at learning from his mistakes than some other people I could mention. He puts away his sexism when he realises that he’s wrong, for example. He’s also reluctantly accepting when he doesn’t get his own way.

And he’s black. Heinlein never says it directly – the gatekeepers would have had fits – but there are hints scattered throughout the text. This may account for his complete lack of genuine interest in girls; the gatekeepers would not, I think, have been happy if they’d twigged to his skin colour and then realised that he was interested in a girl. Indeed, the entire group is strikingly multiracial as well as multi-religious. Once again, Heinlein was well ahead of his time.

The book, like many of Heinlein’s other works, does not attempt to conceal just how difficult survival on an unsettled world would be. The kids – more like teenagers – face all sorts of problems and shortages, much as the later Farnham family would in Farnham’s Freehold. Indeed, the mere absence of paper makes life difficult for them; Heinlein spares no bones about the importance of record-keeping, even in a relatively primitive hunter-gatherer society. They often have to build the tools to build the tools to build something they find themselves desperately needing, when they don’t have time. More seriously, the shortages of medicine ensure that problems that would be minor on Earth are lethal on their new world.

Like The Lord of the Flies, the book also focuses on both group politics and the problems with forming and maintaining what is – in effect – a government. It isn’t easy. Rod’s most dangerous mistake, in my opinion, was taking government and society for granted … and then nearly losing everything when pitched into a struggle for supremacy against someone who was smart (or predatory) enough to realise that the old system is no longer valid because the enforcement mechanisms (the police, for example) are gone. Later, as the group grows bigger, they find themselves wrestling with the franchise and the questions that go with it; what do you do, for example, when a relatively small ruling class is drawn from the same group? Heinlein may have minimised the problem when the group is still small enough to allow for a degree of open air meetings – the scenes read faintly absurd because of it – but they are issues that apply to our society too. It also shows how reluctant democracies are to grapple with a real problem that only a few people can see – too many of the group are nearly killed when their colony suddenly finds itself in a very dangerous place indeed.

The colony also does have one advantage over The Lord of the Flies – it includes both young men and young women. Heinlein nods to the problems this might cause, when the numbers are uneven, although he doesn’t take the colony down the road of men fighting over women (or vice versa). Instead, with roughly equal numbers of males and females, the colonists pair up and start to marry instead. (I imagine the gatekeepers insisted on the couples actually marrying.) The book, like the remainder of Heinlein’s juveniles, is clean – no sex – but it is clear that the couples are actually breeding.

Heinlein is also devious enough to prove that the women deserve respect – from Rod as well as us – before telling us that they’re actually women. Jack/Jackie becomes a likeable and competent character well before we realise she’s female, a cunning way to avoid Rod’s (and the reader’s) prejudices getting in the way. Heinlein was fond of this tactic; it appears several times within his juveniles. Proving that one deserves respect is much more effective, whoever you are, than demanding respect.

Heinlein doesn’t show us much of the wider world, although there are some snippets that hint that it is a more tolerant and accepting place than ours (or his). No one bats an eyelid at what might be an interracial match in the colony, while there are hints that homosexuality is no longer considered taboo. That said, it is also massively overcrowded and America may be locked in a cold war with China, which has apparently occupied Australia and much of the Far East.

Like the rest of Heinlein’s juveniles, Tunnel in the Sky offers quite a few lessons for modern-day readers. First and foremost, the importance of maintaining civilisation and dealing with those who freeload (i.e. people who take and give nothing back) and those who refuse to follow society’s laws. Second, perhaps just as important, the urgent need to strike a balance between holding politicians to account and, at the same time, giving them time to actually get something done. And third, the importance of combining long-term thinking with hard-nosed pragmatism; the former to help us aim for a better world in the future, the latter to keep us alive in the present. And fourth, perhaps, the importance of understanding just how your technology actually works.

Overall, Tunnel in the Sky is a fairly decent read. It is a little choppier than most of Heinlein’s juveniles, with a time-skip in the middle that I found annoying, but the characters are human, the situation is both readable and educational and the hero is a decent boy who grows into a man. And it is also a good example of how to do diversity right.

16 Responses to “Retro Review Tunnel in the Sky”

  1. PhilippeO April 4, 2018 at 10:44 am #

    ??? And it is also a good example of how to do diversity right.

    You just said at beginning that Heinlein is limited by gatekeepers at that time and only managed to smuggle hint through books. How can that be “do diversity right” ?

    • Howard April 4, 2018 at 1:05 pm #

      Because the people in the story are judged by what they do. Not their skin color.

      • Shrekgrinch April 4, 2018 at 8:26 pm #

        That’s not what the Left is pushing for ‘diversity’. Try getting/keeping a job in Silicon Valley after you’ve outed yourself as voting Republican. Doesn’t matter how good you are.

        ‘Diversity’ is all for anything BUT.

      • Ihas April 5, 2018 at 3:07 am #

        Sounds like keeping any job in Texas after outing yourself as an Atheist.

      • chrishanger April 5, 2018 at 4:38 pm #



      • Pyo April 5, 2018 at 5:15 pm #

        And that’s “diversity done right”? So Weber Honorverse which once or twice mentions how sexually liberated the future is but out of dozens and dozens of introduced characters (totally coincidentally of course) doesn’t manage to (for example) feature a single gay person is “done right”?

        I get the idea that (in general at least, although the entire “done right” is frankly incredibly presumptuous; as if anyone of us had the authority to judge thousands of instances of potential ways to do it with one such simple statement…) one shouldn’t be “clobbered over the head” with some sort of “diversity morality”. Characters and their points should fit “naturally” in the plot.

        But having to actively hide it (whether it’s the skin color or gender or sexuality or disability or…) is the same as highlighting it randomly for no reason, just on the opposite of the wrong spectrum.

        Sure, Heinlein probably can’t be blamed for doing it. But calling it “right” is still weird.

      • chrishanger April 15, 2018 at 8:01 am #

        Heinlein did not let an attitude that boils down to “I’ve got a character who isn’t a straight white male. Aren’t I daring?” overwhelm his writing.


      • PhilippeO April 7, 2018 at 10:41 am #

        But they judged by what they do BECAUSE OF existence of gatekeeper censorship.

        If Heinlein mentioned that they are minority or woman, what happens ?
        – young man wouldn’t read it.
        – even among those who read it, who the character are will be more important than what character do.

        It just human nature, people remember Geordi LaForge because of 1) Blacks 2) Blind before remember he 3)engineer

  2. Ann April 5, 2018 at 1:38 am #

    Rule of Law vs Rule of Force.

    Too many people equate rule of force with one male’s physical strength but enthnology and primate studies indicates that its a coalition that exercises strength not an individual. Its the ability to make an alliance between other people that is most important as few individuals will be stronger than a group and no individual can do as many things as a group.

  3. Ihas April 5, 2018 at 3:10 am #

    Lord of the Flies is one of a few books I read only once and that still leaves a strong impression on me. And I have a bachelors in English Lit. So love it or hate it, it’s undeniably a powerful work.

  4. Anarchymedes April 5, 2018 at 3:50 am #

    Societies that are not governed by the Rule of Law – or forget that they need to enforce the Rule of Law – are inevitably governed by the Rule of Force.

    Now convince me that the Rule of Law is not just a fancy term for the Rule of Force, especially when it’s the force of the mob of weaklings. Anything can be institutionalised.

    • chrishanger April 5, 2018 at 4:39 pm #

      It isn’t, at least ideally.

      The Rule of Force means that a mob can rule as easily as a guy with fists; the Rule of Law grants rights to everyone.


      • Anarchymedes April 6, 2018 at 8:15 pm #

        The Rule of Law says everyone has rights, you mean? Like the red light says you must stop (but doesn’t really stop anyone), or the speed limit sign says you can’t go faster, but (thank God!) doesn’t slow you down. The only laws that can’t be broken are those of physics: all other laws need force, or they’re pathetic. So, who – or what – truly rules, at the end of the day?

    • Ihas April 5, 2018 at 4:43 pm #

      I’ll try to maybe half convince you with a couple of examples that may be exceptions to the rule. Mentally challenged folks receive government assistance, as do battered women needing shelter. I don’t recall any mobs of mentally challenged people or battered women with torches and pitchforks. If you believe in the concept of the social contract in which rule of law is used to implement a system of rewards and penalties for certain behaviors, then maybe there is an implicit assumption that the society beats a certain responsibility to assist those who cannot thrive in that system. Some reasons, it seems, are more sympathetic than others.

      • Pyo April 5, 2018 at 5:09 pm #

        Doesn’t mean the reverse is true, anyway. We live in a society of law because humans fundamentally are social people. It wouldn’t have been “good” for our evolution if force was all that mattered.

        Taking care of our young, old, sick etc. has been part of human society way before anyone institutionalized anything. Sometimes people were more weird about, sometimes they cared less, sometimes they had odd exceptions, sometimes they arguably cared more than we nowadays do. Law is a necessity for modern society, but not necessarily for any human society.

      • Anarchymedes April 6, 2018 at 8:07 pm #

        I don’t recall any mobs of mentally challenged people or battered women with torches and pitchforks.

        Come to Northern Australia and see what happens in the remote Aboriginal communities.

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