Tunnel in the Sky
Copyrighted in 1955, Tunnel in the Sky is the 9th of the Heinlein juveniles and it is noteworthy in several respects. First, while it is set in the future and on another planet, the bulk of the novel isn’t really science fiction at all, it is more of a survival tale. Second, while some of the story involves Robinson Crusoe type details on improvising basic technology, a major portion of it is social and political commentary made through the actions and statements of the characters. And third, the protagonist, Rod Walker, is black.
In this future, the Ramsbotham Jump has made interstellar travel as simple as passing through a doorway: on one side you are on Earth, step to the other side and you are on another planet in another star system. This is how Rod Walker and his classmates travelled to another planet for the final exam of their high school course in survival. What they didn’t know was that a fluke in the form of a stellar nova, short-circuited the gate they had just passed through and left them stranded. A trip that should have been several days long, lasted for two years. Heinlein turns how Rod and the others survived their stay on this strange planet into a fascinating tale.
While the clues are often subtle, this is probably the Heinlein juvenile with the most social commentary. Sex and race are irrelevant to the job of surviving on this dangerous planet and Heinlein treats them that way. After having spent several days alone, and after having been ambushed and robbed by an unknown assailant, Rod met Jack Daudet, who allowed Rod to share his own shelter in a cave. A few days later while hunting, they met Jimmy Throxton who joined them as well. It is after Jimmy was there that Rod discovered that Jack was really Jackie: a girl. Heinlein uses this clever plot twist to drive home the point that men and women are equal, and particularly so in this extremity.
Gradually their colony grew with students similarly stranded until it reached a population of about 75. They constructed a village with a stockade to keep out predators and Rod emerged as the ex officio leader of the group. At this point it was decided that they needed some sort of government so the group elected a mayor for the settlement. The mayor-elect was an older student who proposed holding the election in the first place. Heinlein uses this micro-society to explore the advantages and disadvantages of democracy and those of the very concept of government itself, while Rod discovered that politics trumps ability every time.
Heinlein treats race, sex and ethnicity as irrelevant in this book. While this is a diverse group, the surnames of the characters are the only clues we have to place any of them into an identity group. One character, Caroline Mshiyeni, has a clearly East African surname and was seen by the other members of the group as natural girlfriend and possible wife for Rod. In the context of 1955 society, the implication here is clear: Rod must be of African descent himself. At that time, what was termed miscegenation, or interracial marriage, was not only frowned upon by the society that would be reading this book, it was illegal in about a dozen states. Therefore, looking through the lens of the mores of the mid-1950’s, the implication is that Rod is black. To drop a subtle clue like this is typical of Heinlein. He could not state that his main character was black. His editors would have rejected the story out of hand. But he could imply it to the readers sharp enough to pick up the clues. Similarly, as I noted earlier, while he could not state that men and women were absolute equals; with the Jack to Jackie transformation he could show it to be true.
The story also depicts how the young people strived over the two years or so that they were stranded on that planet to build a decent society and civilization. They dealt successfully with outlaws and crime, made the tools and equipment necessary for life, planted and raised crops, hunted in an organized way and married. They formed a government, however imperfect and dealt successfully with an environmental threat that could have consumed them.
This book moves right along and has the constant tension created by the “man on the edge of survival” situation Rod and his fellows find themselves in. Tunnel in the Sky is an optimistic book about the strength, resilience and basic decency of human nature. While there were villains and low life characters, they were a minority and were ultimately killed or exiled by the strong and decent majority. It is telling that at about this same time William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was published. His book placed a group of young people in a similar survival situation, but with much less exemplary results: they degenerated into predatory animals. Naturally, Golding’s dark book was a success among the cynical critics. On the other hand, if you are looking for an upbeat page turner for the weekend, this is your book.