Tunnel in the Sky

Posted March 1st, 2015, by Marie C. Collins

A revivew of Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (1955)

tunnel in the sky 1I was so surprised to learn that Robert A. Heinlein wrote a YA novel called Tunnel in the Sky that I had to read it. Pulling from the book jacket, the story features a group of kids who are stranded in an unfamiliar environment and have to fend for themselves for an indefinite period of time — inviting comparison with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But in this case, an interplanetary stranding is at the heart of the challenge. Here’s the full teaser:

“It was just a test … just a test … just a test
But something had gone wrong. Terribly wrong. What was to have been a standard ten-day survival test had suddenly become an indefinite life-or-death nightmare.
Now they were stranded somewhere in the universe, beyond contact with Earth … at the other end of a tunnel in the sky. This small group of young men and women, divested of all civilized luxuries and laws, were being forced to forge a future of their own … a strange future in a strange land where sometimes not even the fittest could survive!”

I was stunned to find that this book is NOT dated in the egregious ways that so much other vintage sci fi is (i.e., sexist, racist). To my delight, it features three strong female characters and — judging by surnames only — a multinational cast of characters. This is a pet peeve of mine — I prefer that authors NOT gratuitously mention skin color but am okay with other cues — so I was doubly pleased. Plus the story is first rate. It makes use of space travel via what seem to be wormholes (though Heinlein calls the portals “gates” and “tunnels”). And the “what if” scenario is very compelling.

The story is dated in some minor ways. Heinlein makes heavier use of narrative in some areas than you are wont to find in current books in the age category, for instance, though what he has to say is relevant. And of course, some of the dialogue reflects its gosh-oh-gee 1955 origins — but not to a degree that would put off readers today, in my opinion, probably because the very legitimate survival issues the characters are dealing with are so interesting that these bits of dialogue become only superficially distracting. Also, the characters Heinlein creates show he clearly respects young people’s intellects and decision-making abilities, and perhaps this also helps makes the book a good read 60 years after it was written.

As I mentioned, the storyline invites comparison with Lord of the Flies — which I thought about several times while reading the book. Since Lord of the Flies was published only a year before Tunnel in the Sky, this is likely not an accident — especially when you consider how differently Heinlein’s tale goes. I not saying more on this, to avoid spoilers, but reading the books together would make for interesting discussion based on a side-by-side comparison.
tunnel in the sky 2
After reading the book, I did some digging on Heinlein’s multicultural cast. As it turns out, due to associations some readers make while reading Tunnel in the Sky, Heinlein’s widow was eventually asked whether her late husband had intended the main character of the book, Rod Walker, to be black (see footnote 70 of this Wikipedia entry). She confirmed that he did, and as a way of honoring this recognition, an audio version of the book was produced in 2011 with a cover that depicts Rod as Heinlein intended.

2011! Readers, to my eye, this detail captures in an astonishing way the slow eradication of race bias in our culture. In 1955, this forward-thinking author envisioned a multicultural future and carried the vision throughout the story by giving intelligence, strength, skill, and leadership to ALL of his young creations. In fact, the footnote I point to above states that the most telling cue to Rod’s race in the story is the fact that other characters seem to subtly pair Rod with another character, Caroline, who is more tellingly dark-skinned. However, Heinlein himself does not pair them! He explicitly states that Caroline is interested in another character.

Neither Heinlein’s vision, nor his standing as a best-selling author, impacted the marketing of this book by the publishing industry of his time. Others either could not recognize the relevance of these details, or worse, actively tried to bury them — perhaps due to their own beliefs or what they thought the American public would accept. The original cover slapped on the book erases what Heinlein had the courage to see — both in what it depicts and what it omits. Let that be a lesson about judging books by their covers!

I have always admired Heinlein, but he officially just became my favorite sci-fi author of all time.

Note: As it turns out, Heinlein actually wrote 13 novels for young adults (his output makes my head spin!). Acc. to Wikipedia, “[H]e embarked on a series of juvenile S.F. novels for the Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing company that went from 1947 through 1959, at the rate of one book each autumn, in time for Christmas presents to teenagers.” The books are known as the “Heinlein Juveniles” and are sometimes numbered, but the numbering is not meant to suggest a series. Looks like I’m going to have to read them all!

By all means, give Tunnel in the Sky a read and let me know what you think!

Are you a Heinlein fan? Who’s your favorite sci-fi author?

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