Forgotten? Heinlein: Tunnel In the Sky

Tunnel In the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein. Scribner’s & Sons, 1955. Juvenile novel # 9  Published in both hardcover and paperback that year by Scribner’s as part of the Heinlein juvenile series.

The Plot
BACKGROUND: The novel is set in the future, when overpopulation on Earth has been lessened after the invention of teleportation, called the “Ramsbotham jump”, which is used to send Earth’s excess population to colonize other planets. However, the costs of operating the device mean that the colonies are isolated from Earth until they can produce goods to justify two-way trade. Because colonizing requires practical infrastructure, the colonists employ “technology” from the frontier era, such as horses instead of tractors.

THE STORY: Rod Walker is a high school student who dreams of becoming a professional colonist. The final test of his Advanced Survival class is to stay alive on an unfamiliar planet for between two and ten days. Students may team up and equip themselves with whatever gear they can carry, but are otherwise completely on their own. They are told only that the challenges are neither insurmountable nor unreasonable. On test day, each student walks through the Ramsbotham portal and finds him or herself alone on a strange planet, though reasonably close to the pickup point. Rod, acting on his older sister’s advice, takes hunting knives and basic survival gear rather than high-tech weaponry, on the grounds that the latter could make him over-confident. The last advice the students receive is to “watch out for stobor.”

On the second day, Rod is ambushed and knocked unconscious by a thief. When he wakes up, all he has left is a spare knife hidden under a bandage. In his desperate concentration on survival, he loses track of time. Eventually he teams up with a student from another class who tells him that more than ten days have elapsed without contact, he realizes that something has gone wrong with the portal that was supposed to recover them, and they are stranded.

They start recruiting others to build a settlement for long term survival and Rod becomes the de facto leader of a community that eventually grows to around 75 people. Disagreements reveal the need to elect a government for the new town. Rod has no taste for politics or administration, and is happy to have Grant Cowper, an older college student and born politician, elected mayor. Grant proves to be much better at talking than getting things done. Despite disagreeing with many of Grant’s policies, Rod supports him. Grant ignores Rod’s warning that they are living in a dangerously hard-to-defend location and that they should move to a cave system he has found. When a species previously thought harmless suddenly changes its behavior and stampedes through their camp, the settlement is devastated and Grant is killed. Rod is put back in charge.

Heinlein tracks the social development of this frontier community of educated Westerners deprived of technology, followed by its abrupt dissolution when contact with Earth is reestablished when a working temporary gate appears. All of the students go back to Earth willingly except for Rod, who has great difficulty reverting from the status of head of a small, but sovereign state to a teenager casually brushed aside by the adult rescuers. Still, he has no choice.

After nearly two years of isolation, the culture shock experienced by the survivors highlights for them and the reader the pain and uncertainty of becoming an adult, by reversing the process abruptly—Each of the students goes from being a self-responsible member of an autonomous community back to being regarded as a callow youth.

Years later, Rod is briefly depicted accomplishing his heart’s desire; the novel’s ending finds him preparing to lead a formal colonization party to another planet.

My Take
As with the other Heinlein juveniles, this one was well received by SF reviewers. I agree, this is a good one. Heinlein bears down pretty hard with his political and social-cultural agenda, and there have been comparisons with The Lord of the Flies, which was published the same year. However this novel is much more upbeat in it’s portrayal of humans creating a isolated society. For once I remembered reading it many (many) years ago, and enjoyed it.

We now have just two more of Heinlein’s juveniles to go before I do a wrap-up. Next time: Time For the Stars.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
This entry was posted in Books & Reading, Friday Forgotten Books, Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Forgotten? Heinlein: Tunnel In the Sky

  1. tracybham says:

    This one appeals to me, too. I am very glad you are reviewing these, and bringing the whole series to my attention.

  2. Jeff Meyerson says:

    This is on my list too, as I am (very) belatedly catching up on things I should have read decades ago.

  3. TUNNEL IN THE SKY was one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles. I liked the fact that the “hero” took knives to the planet while his friend took a powerful atomic weapon. Heinlein had a lot of fun with that! I confess I don’t remember much about TIME FOR THE STARS so I’ll be looking forward to your review. It may jog my memory.

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  7. g. oliver says:

    Hi, good summary. A couple of plot details i don’t understand (1) who/what promptly killed his heavily-armed classmate (and his guard dog) and took his weapon? (2) Who ambushed Rod the next day, and why? Any ideas?

    • Those go unanswered in the book. I think they’re there to show it’s smarts, not weapons, that let them survive, yet later we do see others depending on guns when they try to take over the “village” they set up.

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