Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

  There are a small number of Heinlein's novels that seem to fall outside the scope of his Future History, and this is one of them. The political events mentioned, and the technologies used, don't fit with the rest of his stories very well, but despite that, this one remains one of my favorites. This is also another one that doesn't get too preachy about Heinlein's political opinions, and bears only a slight resemblance to some of his other works in that way.

One minor point of congruence is the idea of a course that is required in high school or college, before a person is considered worthy of citizenship, or in this case emigration to the frontier worlds. The class in Tunnel in the Sky is Course 401, Advanced Survival. Rod Walker is about to take his final examination in the class as the story begins. The exam consists of being "gated" to a remote planet with a hostile environment, dangerous animals, with only what you can carry on your person.

Rod's parents are not thrilled that he is going to actually follow through with the final exam; they seem to have allowed (indulged) his taking the class only to avoid a fight. Complicating matters is the fact that Rod's father has a deadly disease, and has recently decided to have himself put in stasis for twenty years until a cure can be found. Rod's sister, however, is a member of the fighting Amazon Corps, and she has been appointed his guardian for the duration. She, of course, has no problem with Rod going off to prove himself on a hostile planet, and Rod lays low until the storm of his parents' disapproval subsides.

You can see the similarities here to the Moral Philosophy class in Starship Troopers, led by the irascible Colonel Dubois, and Advanced Survival, taught by the sarcastic Dr. Matson. The parents in both books have similar attitudes, as well.

Unfortunately for Rod's group of students, as well as some other groups of students from various high schools and colleges around the country, something goes wrong with the pickup, which is supposed to occur several days after the initial drop, and they are not retrieved on time. They are left stranded for a couple of years on a primitive world, with only the technology they brought along, plus what they are able to devise from memory and education.

Filled with Man vs. Wild action, as well as some Man vs. Mankind, this is a pretty good tale about people's ability to survive, and even to thrive, wherever they may be planted. It's a touch short on details one could use to eke out an existence in the woods, but long on attitude. Heinlein does touch on a few themes he's played with before, such as "man is the deadliest animal of all", "your most effective weapon is between your ears", and a Churchillian, "Never give in."

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