TUNNEL IN THE SKY impresses me as one of the Dean of Science Fiction’s better efforts. He posits one technological change, a ‘gate’ technology to allow men to walk to other planets, and explores one resulting change in society: it is a frontier society. The frontier society is ready and willing to expose their children to deadly wildness-survival tests on foreign planets as the only way to cope with the challenge of conquering a deadly wilderness.
Like Joss Whedan’s SERENITY, this yarn has the flavor of an SF Western, because the frontier society discovers horses and cattle hold up better than machines during the harsh colonization periods.
My theory? Heinlein wanted to write a rebuttal to LORD OF THE FLIES. A group of students set adrift in the wilderness would not become wild beasts, not if they were properly brought up. They would fight to retain civilization.
WARNING! MANY SPOILERS BELOW THE CUT
The plot concerns a group of students stranded on a far planet when the recall gate fails during a survival test. The story is about their hardships and bravery trying, not just to stay alive, but to retain elements of civilization, since they may well be stranded for many generations, out of contact with Earth. After an initial period alone, Rod teams up with several surviving students, and establishes a permanent campsite. He is the informal captain until another, older student, organizes an election and cunningly ousts Rod from public favor. The campsite evolves into ‘Cowpertown’, and the students evolve into young men and women; they marry and have children.
In terms of Heinlein’s imagery, there is a scene so striking that I am surprised I forgot it. Two boys exploring on foot, armed only with knives, the surface of an alien planet. They walk through forests downstream until they reach the seashore: the sea is crusted with salt and bitter, because the world has no moon. All along the beach, as far as the eye can see, are bones: skeletons of hundreds upon hundreds of creatures picked clean, and no evidence of what slew them. An eerie image, and also foreshadowing for a later scene.
In terms of Heinlein’s craftsmanship, he cobbles together a sturdy tale. Writers take note. These are the tools of the trade.
For example, the opening pages expertly perform the Future Shock necessary to set the tone for any science fiction tale: the first scene is a High School student reading that the final exam will consist of a deadly test where any and all weapons are allowed. The jarring difference between that society and our own is underlined.
The author similarly provoked that sense-of-change so needed in any SF tale by having Rod, the boy’s older sister, be an Amazonian soldier, tough-talking and deadly. This would have been more future-shocking in the 1950, when it was written, than in 2006, when it was read, and, no doubt, when it was set. Nowadays, the shock will be that the warrior women in the tale want to settle down, find a hubby and have babies.
Second example of craftsmanship: The evolution from a campsite to Cowpertown is handled by the deft use of diary entries. One scene is told through her diary entries from the point of view of a girl sweet on Rod. This allows the author to have months pass at the stroke of a pen. Rod is away on a two-man expedition for a better campsite that should have lasted a week: when he does not come back in months, the girl assumes him dead.
I am pointing this out as a workmanlike way of writing the scene. Since it is told from the point of view of a worried love-interest, tension is built. When the next scene is from Rod’s point of view, heading out on his expedition, it has been foreshadowed that will go wrong. When Rod returns to the campsite, he is now the outsider looking in: all the improvements, otherwise tedious to describe, Rod sees all at once and with great interest. The campsite has become a town.
Third example: the second chapter concerns the dire revelation that the main character’s parents will be going into a time warp for twenty years, due to medical conditions. This scene accomplishes two purposes: first, it makes the main character grow up in a hurry, since it parts him from his parents with grim finality. Second, when the lost students are found, and must decide whether to leave their hard-earned home for which they have shed blood, the main character Rod Walker, has no real reason to go home, as he has no parents (or so he thinks).
All this is set up for the climax, which is the disappointment and alienation Rod Walker finds upon going home. During the survival test, by blood, sweat and tears, he and his fellow students had successfully established a civilized colony. Rod, after many a setback, emerged as the Mayor of the colony, the captain of the whole effort. Just as the young men and women of the colony are congratulating themselves on their difficult success, and vowing that this is their home now, the Earthmen open a gate, explain what caused the delay, and start shoving the kids around to send them home.
Rod’s effort to act with the dignity he has rightly earned is pathetic. He is actually the sovereign ruler of an independent planet: he is treated as a dimwitted high school student.
The story is first, a meditation on growing up. One character summarizes the awkwardness of being a teen by saying adults treat babies as members of some strange other species, but teenager are not awarded that privilege: that are treated as second-class adults, judged by adult standards, but without adult power, so that, by the nature of things, they are always on the fringes of power, never quite in control of their lives.
The scene that stuck with me in youth was the one where an artiste of the news media decided how to “interpret” the story of Rod Walker and the surviving students. To the students, of course, their small village was a piece of loving craftsmanship and work. The student held square dances and performed marriages, elected a Mayor, acted with discipline and energy. The news hound decided to depict all this as the downfall into primitive savagery, to the point of painting Rod’s face with warpaint for a photo.
This scene was merely one of several. The parent wake from their time warp eighteen years ahead of schedule, and so, to them, Rod is still a fifteen-year-old, not an man three months away from being voting age. This is done by the author merely to emphasize the disconnect between Rod’s experience, and his parent’s perception. He has grown up, and he cannot fit back into his baby shoes again.
The story is second, a mediation on politics and civilization. The meat of the middle section of the tale concerns the political question of how the students, thrown together by accident, will govern themselves and act like civilized beings.
Heinlein, no matter how radical in other areas, was profoundly conservative about some things. For example, there is quite a striking scene when Rod returns from his expedition to find a better campsite. He is overdue by months, and when he returns, the camp is now a town. He has indeed found a much better site, and logic says they should uproot and move there. However, in a dramatic scene where the townsfolk hold off a stampede by carnivorous pests, the town mayor dies defending the wall of the town. And Rod, the new mayor, out of sheer stubbornness, sheer grit, refuses to uproot and move to better land. The reason? He and his have shed blood here, and they are too proud to be moved from it.
For good or ill, that is the essence of conservatism. We cherish what is ours because we bleed for it. It was sober and realistic of Heinlein to touch on this theme.
As hinted above, what is most interesting about this tale is not the future shock, but the past shock. Heinlein was a visionary writer: he foresaw that the times he lived in were changing. I doubt he foresaw how crazy the Crazy Years of his Future History would be.
One of the scenes most striking to me concerned the efforts of the stranded students to rebuild civilization. There is one scene where the main character threatens to wash out a boy’s mouth with soap for using bad language. It is expressly stated that the purposes for this is to retain standards of civility and civilized behavior.
Compare that to modern, progressive politicians using the f-word on television or on the Senate Floor, and you will see how quickly civility can erode: a single generation can lose it.