Friday, August 17, 2007

Heinlein Centenary -- Tunnel in the Sky

I must have read this one at about the time it came out in paperback, probably around 1956 or '57. At the time I thought it was tremendously exciting. I didn't even notice that it wasn't so much a science fiction novel as a survivalist novel, and I'm sure I didn't notice the polemics. Now, I notice stuff like that, and it's too bad because it detracts from my enjoyment of the novel.

The title, like The Door into Summer, is great, one that's sure to grab your attention when you're a kid. Well, it grabbed mine. But the tunnel between worlds is just the set-up. It's there at the beginning and at the end, but that's all.

The idea is that high school kids taking a class in survival are sent through the tunnel to an unpopulated earth-like planet where they have to survive on their own for up to ten days. Except that in this case the gateway doesn't reopen, and the kids have to create their own society, more or less from scratch and what they've learned. (Lord of the Flies was published around this same time, I think, maybe a bit earlier.) When they set up the government, they give Heinlein plenty of space to pontificate, but he pulls it off pretty well.

When I read this the first time, I was amazed at the kids' survival skills, and I knew that in their situation, I'd last, oh, maybe 15 seconds. Fifty years later, I'm pretty sure I was wrong. Even now, I wouldn't last more than ten seconds.

One thing about these kids: they're a very diverse group. And nobody even notices. That's pretty remarkable for a book published back in 1955. Radical, even. If Heinlein did nothing else, he's probably responsible for easing if not erasing the prejudices of some of his readers. And the women are just as capable as the men. In some cases considerably more capable. Radical stuff, indeed.

11 comments:

Victor Gischler said...

Bill,

I remember as a teenager reading 6-7 Heinlein books in a row and loving them. I think THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS was my favorite, but TUNNEL was right up there too.

VG

Bill Crider said...

When you're the right age, Heinlein is hard to beat.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I would last less than a minute on Heinlein's "survivor" world. When I read TUNNEL IN THE SKY as a kid, I was wowed by the different approaches the kids took to prepare for their experience. The hero just takes a couple of knives, some other kid takes an atomic cannon!
--George Kelley

Bill Crider said...

And this being a Heinlein novel, you can easily guess which one lasts longer.

Todd Mason said...

There just was always Something about RAH that put me off...not just that he lectured, since Sturgeon did too, but How he lectured. It probably helped/hurt that I read adult fantastic fiction along with juvie nearly from Jump, so that I liked Gordon Dickson's juvie SECRET UNDER THE SEA much better than such Heinleins as TIME FOR THE STARS, and was more blown away by the best folks influenced by Heinlein--Sturgeon, Leiber, Knight, and when I started reading the magazines regularly, John Varley most obviously--then by Heinlein himself. That I was early exposed to the earliest self-indulgent novels, STRANGER and GLORY ROAD, didn't help. MISTRESS didn't come till later, directly as a result of the dullness of the self-indulgent passages of the earlier-encountered novels, and even given how impressive and clever the short work was (but, again, compared to Sturgeon, Leiber, Knight and a number of others in that compass, RAH was outclassed...not by any means always in ingenuity, but in nearly ever other way). FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD was persuasive in not having attempted a Heinlein novel since. His egalitarianism, as there, was always Highly Qualified, and the self-celebrating big-daddy opening chapter of that novel is as off-putting as anything that follows.

TM said...

Well, STARSHIP TROOPERS might be the earliest of the blatantly self-indulgent novels to be published.

Bill Crider said...

Oddly enough, when I read Starship Troopers as a kid, I thought it was an action-packed thriller. Re-reading it on the release of the movie (Doogie Howser, S. S.) a few years ago, I was amazed to discover that it was mostly a lecture.

Randy Johnson said...

Tunnel In The Sky was my first exposure to Heinlein and the genre in particular. I was lost forever. Thank God! As I look back, in my mind anyway, it was a sort of science fiction take on Lord of The Flies.

Brent McKee said...

Bill, I agree with you entirely about Starship Troopers. As a kid it was a great adventure yarn, and I suspect kids today may still read it like that. In fact I even have the original Avalon-Hill game. But thinking back on it, in light of the movie (an let me just say, why did it have to be Dinah Meyer's character who died and Renee Richards' who lived :-() You realise that he's pushing an agenda pretty hard. I think I like Heinlein a lot better after he discovered sex. He was still pretty far to the right but you could usually ignore it for the scenes of Lazarus Long doing it with his mother.

Bill Crider said...

That's Denise Richards, Brent, though the shower scene might have been even more interesting, sociologically speaking, had Renee be in it. Heinlein would have approved, I'll bet.

Anonymous said...

Although in some cases the women are as capable as the men, it should be noted the Heinlein does not have the women pereform the same dangerous tasks as the men. The night when the Stobor ("robots" spelled backwards) first attack Cowpertown in full force, Carol is forced to go into the cave with the "women and married men" even though it is quite clear that her spear could not only have helped, but could also have saved lives. But as to whether or not the polemics detract from the reader's enjoyment, I would disagree. Maybe it is just because I am a 1-- year old, but I enjoy it when Heinlein condemms contemporary social mores. If you want a really radical RAH book, try Starship Troopers. Written in 1959, ST explicitly attacks the United States Constitution, supports copral punishment, mocks 20th century pyschology (especially concerning children), and promotes the death penalty. Not your standard novel from the '50s.