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Book Note: Robert A. Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky

I read this book about 21-Aug-2003. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 1955. This note was last modified Saturday, 08-Nov-2008 09:17:54 PST.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


Another classic juvenile. They're all about kids nearly ready to leave home—sometimes in their own opinion, sometimes by the standards of the society they live in, sometimes even both. This one is about an advanced survival course final examination gone severely wrong. Mine is an Ace 95 cent edition, 82660. That and Ace's code (441) and a US code and a check digit ought to add up to an ISBN, but the ISBN I link above is a modern one that's still in print, more useful.

I mean, severely wrong. A nova disrupts the interstellar transfer gates, and the four classes of students who had been put through individually onto an alien world for a 2-10 day solo survival examination are stranded there for months (it's more in the end, I'm only about 3/4 way through). They have to get together and try to form a colony. At least it's a very attractive world. Except for the stobor, of course (all the classes were apparently warned about stobor).

There's great stuff in this book. Rod's sister is an assault Captain in the Amazons (apparently there's a severe sex imbalance on Earth; and a reverse imbalance among the newly colonized planets). She knows something about fighting, and something about survival on unfamiliar planets.

I know how good a gun feels. It makes you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, 3 meters tall and covered with hair. You're ready for anything and kind of hoping you'll find it. Which is exactly what is dangerous about it—because you aren't anything of the sort. You are a feeble, hairless embryo, remarkably easy to kill. You could carry an assault gun with 2,000 meters precision range and isotope charges that will blow up a hill, but you would not have eyes in the back of your head like a janus bird, nor be able to see in the dark like the Thetis pygmies. Death can cuddle up behind you while you're drawing a bead on something in front.

It's even better than just this quote (page 44, by the way), because she says this part after getting Rod actually feeling some of the good things she describes. She does, in fact, talk him out of taking a gun along.

Then, just 15 pages later, Johann Braun, who went through with a well-trained attack dog and a major energy weapon, is found dead on the ground and his equipment stolen. Kinda emphasizes the lesson about the gun.

On the other hand, I don't actually believe in a college course (offered in some high-schools, too; Rod is taking it in high-school) that includes a final exam that can get you killed. The students are checking out guns from the school armorer, and it's clearly understood that civilization is in abeyance while they're on the planet surviving. Heinlein is partly making a point about education—he talks about the math Rod has had, for example, and it exceeds what I took to get a math major in a good college. But I don't believe in parents letting kids take that kind of risks.

I also don't believe in Rod himself being so little affected by the sight. It's not just a dead person he'd had a semi-friendly conversation with shortly before; he'd also clearly been killed for profit by a fellow student. And Rod hardly blinks an eye.

This book may have one of the most perfectly dysfunctional families in all of literature. No signs of abuse, no signs of ill intention—and the adults completely fail to connect with the children in all conceivable ways. The parents are vague and well-intentioned but very wooly-minded, the mother far worse than the father. The mother isn't even a character in any reasonable sense.

On page 50 there's mention of a "belt canteen", which holds quite a lot of water and has suspenders to hold the weight and a sipping tube to drink from on the move. I don't recall seeing anything like this in the real world until quite recently (the "Camel Back" brand name comes to mind).

On page 69, he checks the Earth time on his watch, but doesn't know if it's morning or afternoon back on Earth, or even what day it is. Hard to find a watch today without those features!

On page 215, they're talking about whether they regret being stranded. Jimmy says "Seriously, Rod, every one here was aiming for the Outlands or we wouldn't have been taking a survival test. So what difference does it make? Except that we've got everything sooner." They all pretty much agree with this. It makes sense given the premise, too. However, I note that in the end every single one of them goes back. Even Rod, though it takes his teacher and his sister (now married, by the way; presumably as a result of Rod giving Dr. Matson her name and rank just before heading through the gate) to talk maneuver him into it.

Heinlein clearly has a great liking for the idea of going out and pioneering, and for being a farmer when doing that. Though I note he never did anything like it himself, and I don't actually see much sign of Lazarus long being a dirt farmer himself, either. He certainly avoids it on Tertius, and he avoided it on New Beginnings too. Myself, I completely fail to get it. I flirted with the edges of "survivalism" for a while, but I decided fairly quickly that if the best I had to look forward to after the collapse of civilization was being a subsistence farmer, I'd rather be at ground zero.

My, I do seem to be long-winded today.

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David Dyer-Bennet