Re-Reading “Tunnel in the Sky”

I’ve only read Tunnel in the Sky once before, probably in the late 1980s when I first discovered Heinlein. I remember having liked it then, but with some vague misgivings. Reading it again, I can better put my finger on what I did and did not like about the book.

What I liked:

  • The premise of the story. It’s almost shocking to realize that there was a time when the idea of high-school students being dropped on an unexplored planet to fend for themselves for two to ten days – no rules, no adult supervision, no possibility of intervention, and with death as a very real possibility – as a school sanctioned activity, could be presented as a realistic scenario. While in the 1950s this might have been stretching the Boy Scout ethos a bit (a point Patterson makes in his bio of Heinlein), today this element would belong less to science fiction than outlandish fantasy: long before Rod Walker had a chance to apply his chronic, paralyzing angst to the decision of whether or not to go through with the test, Patrick Henry High School would have been sued into insolvency by the first pair of grieving parents to find a lawyer capable of circumventing any liability waivers they or their mulched-by-alien-pirhana-dogs offspring may have signed. I imagined how right-thinking busybodies and helicopter parents would react if you proposed something analogous to this today, and got a good chuckle out of it.
  • Elements of the plot and world that seemed to prefigure/inspire later SF and other media (something else Patterson touches on, I discovered after I wrote this post). For example the titular tunnel, which is essentially a Stargate without the water ripple or the kawoosh effect (luckily for Rod, since he would have been disintegrated by it at one point in the book), but with what amounts to an iris in one case, and subject to the same sorts of misalignment problems presented in the Stargate movie and the first few episodes of the SG-1 series. Also from the Stargate franchise, you have the similarity of the marooned ‘duplicate’ crew of Destiny having to start over with nothing on an unfamiliar planet after their gate is disrupted by a large stellar event, quickly coming to grips with the situation and starting a new government, building the tools to make the tools to make the tools, etc., recovering the ability to make iron (albeit bog iron in the case of SG:U, which is more believable as it mirrors iron development in a number of real-world cultures) — of course, since SG:U was subject to the influence of John Scalzi, I suspect it was more of a lazy knockoff of Heinlein than inspired by him. For another example, stasis fields of varying time-distortion effects – while Heinlein’s stasis fields never reach complete time stoppage like Larry Niven’s do, his description of how they were invented bears some similarity to Niven’s account of their invention in the Known Space universe. And of course, there’s the presentation of the dishonest and manipulative news media at the end of the story, in which journalists are shown to be more concerned with titillating images and lurid stories than presenting the truth of what they’re covering.

What I didn’t like about the book:

  • Rod Walker. What an insufferably neurotic and insecure character. I kept expecting him to learn from his experiences and develop new confidence and grow into his role as ‘mayor’ of the group of survivors paralleling his growth into adulthood. But he just…didn’t. His dinner scene with his family after his return is little different from the dinner scene before he left – he managed a community of 70-odd individuals for more than a year, yet he still can’t stand up for himself against a self-absorbed father who is completely detached from reality, relying once again on his older sister to intervene. (Of course, one can read the portrayal of his parents and his home life as the genesis of those neuroses and insecurities – Rod is barely recognized as an autonomous individual by his parents, everyone is expected to walk on eggshells around his codependent and psychologically delicate mother, his father uses her fragility as a weapon to control the others, the parents are so self-absorbed that they planned to use all of their financial resources to go into stasis for twenty years to await a cure for a disease they never mentioned the father had and without even telling their minor child who they are leaving behind penniless and parentless, etc.)
  • The other characters. Nobody really had any depth, and few were even likable. Heinlein seemed unable to decide whether Grant should be a villain or not, presenting him at first as a sweet-talking sociopath, morphing into Napoleon from Animal Farm, before abruptly turning him into a well-meaning but incompetent leader who sacrifices himself for the survival of the others to atone for the consequences of his lack of foresight and bad decisions. The same with Roy, who is at first Grant’s henchman in Animal Farm tyranny and dislikes Rod for being Grant’s rival, then abruptly becomes pals with Rod (all through the downriver expedition, I expected the newly-chummy but intermittently-sullen Roy to metaphorically unmask and literally stab Rod in the back). And as noted above, the parents are horrible people, as is their “family friend” who is tacked on at the end.
  • The unresolved romantic issues between Rod and Caroline. Yes, I know the reasons why they didn’t end up together (racial sentiments in 1955 would have made the book unsellable, or at least seem so to his publisher, even though – if you pay close attention – both characters are actually black), but it’s unsatisfying that their relationship simply…ends. And isn’t resolved even in the epilogue.
  • The numerous abandoned plot, character, technology, or world elements. While it didn’t quite reach Star Trek levels, it was frustrating to have some element built up only to see it dropped abruptly without further development or used in an inconsistent manner. The Deacon was missing parts of three fingers, but later on a character informs us that it was better for Grant to have died from his injuries because unlike on Earth, they lacked readily available replacement/donor limbs. In the first few days, before anyone even knows they’re marooned, one of the students is stalking and killing the others, yet this whole matter is dropped abruptly after Jack explains how she acquired Rod’s knife – wouldn’t someone in that situation at least be a bit put off by the thought that a fellow student who (if Johann and his dog count as the first victims) was murdering the others within the first few hours of the test, for no other reason than to take their gear? If the point was to hit the theme about humans being more dangerous than any alien predators they might encounter, the opportunity was wasted by leaving that thread so poorly resolved. Likewise, why spend so much time on the downriver expedition and the discovery of the beach of bones and the abandoned cliff dwellings without then following up on the significance of those things? Yes, I can connect the dots and guess that the dopey joes stampeded the herds to the salt sea and then ate them on the beach while the animals were trapped and weakened from thirst, but the cliff dwellings and the implications of their existence were completely wasted…we’re teased with the idea of sentient aliens, and then that idea is developed no further and their fate is left unresolved. So many Chekhovian guns are hung on the wall and left unfired at the end of the story that I have to wonder if there isn’t a much, much longer original version from which the published version was haphazardly cut.

Overall, not Heinlein’s best work. But not his worst, either, as it’s still a passably entertaining read (if you don’t read it closely enough to frustrate yourself the way I did). According to Patterson Heinlein wrote the book in one month, and I think it shows in lack of attention to detail. From what Patterson relates of Heinlein’s writing practices, Tunnel in the Sky reads as if he had a bunch of well-developed world-building material on hand and a solidly-developed gimmick, and hastily strung a story around it all to meet a deadline.