Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky

infobox Book |
name = Tunnel in the Sky
title_orig =

image_caption = First Edition cover for "Tunnel in the Sky"
author = Robert A. Heinlein
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series = Heinlein juveniles
genre = Science fiction novel
publisher = Scribner's
release_date = 1955
media_type = Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
pages =
isbn = NA
preceded_by = The Star Beast
followed_by = Time for the Stars

Tunnel in the Sky is a science fiction book written by Robert A. Heinlein and published in 1955 by Scribner's as one of the Heinlein juveniles. The story describes a group of students sent on a survival test to an uninhabited planet. The themes of the work include the difficulties of growing up and the nature of man as a social animal.

Plot summary

A Malthusian catastrophe has been averted only by the invention of teleportation, called the "Ramsbotham jump," which is used to send Earth's excess population to colonize other planets. However, the costs of operating the device mean that the colonies are isolated from Earth until they can build up a sufficient trade surplus to pay for two-way travel. Because modern equipment requires specialized resources that are impractical to bring into the new planet, more primitive settling methods are used — horses and knives instead of tractors and rifles.

Rod Walker is a teenage high school student with dreams of becoming a professional colonist. The final test of his "Advanced Survival" class is to live in an unfamiliar alien environment for between two and ten days. Students may team up and equip themselves with whatever gear they can carry, but are otherwise completely on their own. They are told only that the challenges are neither insurmountable nor unreasonable. Several fail before they even begin by disregarding this information and showing up with spacesuits. The last advice the students receive is to "Watch out for stobor."

On the second day, Rod is ambushed and knocked unconscious by a thief. When he wakes up, all he has left is a spare knife hidden under a bandage. In his desperate concentration on survival, he loses track of time. Eventually he teams up with Jacqueline "Jack" Daudet, a student from another class whom he initially mistakes for a male. When she tells him that more than ten days have elapsed without contact, he realizes that they are stranded.

They start recruiting others for the long haul and Rod becomes the de facto leader of a community that eventually grows to around 75 people. He is outmaneuvered by Grant Cowper, an older college student and born politician who gets himself elected "mayor". Rod is not entirely unhappy to relinquish the responsibility, but finds that Grant is much better at talking than getting things done. Grant ignores Rod's warning that they are living in a dangerously hard-to-defend location and that they should move to a cave system he has found. When a species previously thought harmless suddenly changes its behavior and stampedes through their camp, the settlement is devastated and Grant is killed. Rod is subsequently placed back in charge.

Heinlein tracks the social development of this village of educated Westerners deprived of the rudiments of technological civilization, followed by its abrupt dissolution when contact with Earth is reestablished. After several years of separation, the culture shock experienced by the survivors becomes a metaphor for the pain and uncertainty of becoming an adult.

All of the students go back willingly, except for Rod, who has great difficulty reverting from being the head of a sovereign state to a teenager casually brushed aside by the adult rescuers. However, his teacher (and now brother-in-law) and his sister persuade him to change his mind. His teacher also informs Rod that the warning against "stobor" ("robots" spelled backwards) was intended to instill fear - and thus caution - in the students. The test administrators did not have any specific danger in mind.

Years later, Rod achieves his heart's desire; the novel's ending finds him preparing to lead a formal colonization party to another planet.


As in "Lord of the Flies", which had been published a year earlier, isolation reveals the true natures of the students as individuals, but it also demonstrates some of the constants of human existence as a social animal. Some of the students fall victim to their own foolishness, and others turn out to be thugs. The numerous political crises of the fledgling colony illustrate the need for legitimacy in a government appropriate for the society it administers. The book's rejection of unearned authority meshes with the libertarian character of Heinlein's works. In both its romanticization of the pioneer and its glorification of "Homo sapiens" as the toughest player in the Darwinian game, it presages themes developed further in books like "Time Enough for Love" and "Starship Troopers". Unusual for science fiction at the time, the novel portrays several competent and intelligent female characters. [James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn (2003). "The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction". Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-01657-6 p. 245.] Additionally, the lead character of the novel is black, although this is only implied in the novel. [Robert James, PhD., quoted at http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/faqworks.html]

External links

*isfdb title|id=957|title=Tunnel in the Sky


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