Lion of the Blogosphere

Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

How much Heinlein gets wrong about the future! Or rather, the future envisioned by Heinlein seems a lot less likely today than it did in the 1950s.

Heinlein correctly predicted that women would serve in the military, but was wrong about them being separated into women-only “Amazon corps.” Separate but equal? In fact, throughout the book, Heinlein veers between trying to show that girls can do anything boys can do, and then writing stuff which today would be viewed as sexist or even “misogynist.”

The main character, Rod Walker, is said to be non-white, but even knowing that beforehand I missed the hint that’s dropped. Rod’s appearance is never described (with that one possible exception) so the reader can imagine him as being anything they want to. I am sure that when I first read this book when I was in middle school, I thought of him as white, and to be honest, I still do.

Heinlein imagined a future when the Earth was so overpopulated that people were desperate to get off and move to new planets. In the 1950s, the birthrate everywhere was above the replacement level and in some parts of the world very much above it, but today people are more worried about people having too few children and that the population of developed countries are declining (without immigration to solve the “problem.”) Declining population is something I find hard to worry about after reading so many old science fiction novels with dystopian overpopulated futures. If people are having fewer children, it seems like more of a blessing than a problem.

(Global warming also falls into the category of things I don’t worry about, given that when I was a kid no one worried about global warming, but there were a few people worried about the next ice age coming.)

It’s hard to believe that there would be much of a demand to move to frontier planets. Today, it’s perfectly plausible to move to places in the United States like Wyoming or Alaska that are pretty much empty, but where there’s still internet and cellular service, but everyone would rather live in the crowded cities. But in Heinlein’s imagination, everyone would want to leave Earth to live as a farmer or something like that in the boondocks.

In order to be allowed to have a leadership position in these “outland” migrations, one must pass an outlands survival class, which is taught in high school. The final exam for the survival class is to be dropped onto an unknown planet via a stargate (they aren’t called stargates in the novel) and survive alone for up to ten days before being picked up. The survival test is so dangerous that some kids don’t make it. It’s hard to imagine a high school course today where some students die taking the final exam. The teachers in charge of such a curriculum would be put in jail!

In the first few hours on the planet Rod is transported to, he comes across the corpse of one of his fellow classmates. I wonder if that would be acceptable in a modern book markets to teens or pre-teens?

The theme of survival would be repeated again a few years later in Heinlein’s novel Farnham’s Freehold. There are also some other themes in this book that are repeated in future novels. The curmudgeonly Deacon Matis, Rod’s survival teacher, seems like a precursor to the even more curmudgeonly teacher in Starship Troopers. Government is an important topic in this book, a precursor to Heinlein’s more adult book about future government, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The ridiculously satirical treatment of the news media at the end of the book when they are rescued is a precursor to the satirical treatment of the news media in Stranger in a Strange Land. In my opinion, Heinlein’s satire sucks, and his books that have heavy use of satire, like Stranger, also suck.

Another thing that Heinlein does which I think lessons his books is that he uses stereotypical names for his characters. In this novel, the character who is a bad apple is “Jock McGowan,” and the other members of his group, “Chad, Bruce and Dick” also have unintellectual-sounding names. In other novels, he used the name “Duke” for this type of character.

Tunnel still manages to stand the test of time pretty well because the bulk of the story takes place on the planet where the kids and young adults take their survival test and get stranded. Thus we don’t notice the absence of smartphones because no one would take them on a survival assignment to a planet without electricity or cell towers. It’s a pretty enjoyable adventure and survival story, one that someone of any age can enjoy, although I have to admit that when I read this as a teen or pre-teen the book somehow seemed a lot bigger, the planet more mysterious, than it does upon re-reading it as a cynical middle-aged adult.

However, all although the book has some interesting ideas, it’s not as interesting or as mature as Citizen of the Galaxy which I’ve previously reviewed. But still one of Heinlein’s better “juveniles” and a recommended novel if you are looking for classic sci-fi that’s quick and easy to read. Plus there’s some interesting exploration of the values of democracy vs. authoritarianism, how to deal with criminals and miscreants (Heinlein’s futures are not the everyone-get-along future of Star Trek), and what sort of government is needed for when a few high school classes are stranded together on a planet.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

April 9, 2018 at 11:07 AM

Posted in Books

7 Responses

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  1. “In order to be allowed to have a leadership position in these “outland” migrations…”

    “To earn a leadership position in these ‘outland’ migrations…”

    Awful writing, man. Your subject piled up about six prepositions.


    April 9, 2018 at 5:08 PM

    • Yes, as I’ve said, blogging is bad for the self-esteem, people are always waiting to tell you how stupid you are.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      April 9, 2018 at 7:52 PM

      • Didn’t Frank McCourt teach you anything? Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White!


        April 9, 2018 at 10:04 PM

      • No, McCourt was too busy telling jokes and stories to teach grammar.

  2. Nice review! I remember the interesting discussion on the strong basis of political authority being in overt consent in the book…


    April 9, 2018 at 9:19 PM

  3. In the first few hours on the planet Rod is transported to, he comes across the corpse of one of his fellow classmates. I wonder if that would be acceptable in a modern book markets to teens or pre-teens?

    Ya mean a book like Hunger Games, in which the plot revolves around having a group of teens and pre-teens kill each other in the arena?


    April 10, 2018 at 12:06 AM

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