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Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. HeinleinDel Rey Books edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsTunnel in the Sky was released the year after William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and is fundamentally a rebuttal to it. Robert Heinlein isn’t interested so much in how civilizations collapse as in how they’re salvaged and rebuilt in times of desperate need. In this novel’s not-too-distant-future, Earth is suffering from a textbook Malthusian overpopulation dilemma, but one whose most dire consequences have been averted by the invention of gates to other, Earthlike worlds. (I don’t think many people were yet using the word “wormhole” in 1955.) Galaxy-wide colonization is now going full steam ahead.

Students who wish to go on to careers in colonial management are trained in survival skills. The final exam is an exercise that plops them into the midst of untrammelled alien wilderness, which they must survive by their wits until they are picked up after a number of days. The exercise can literally be lethal. The only one who gets to vote you off the planet in this game is the Grim Reaper. Rod Walker is a high schooler preparing to undertake the survival test with the rest of his class, much to the chagrin of his parents, who have good reasons to wish he’d postpone it until college.

Rod steps through the gate into a deceptively tranquil environment, but quickly finds himself well over his head. But something is even more wrong than he or any of his classmates knows. As he finds and teams up with more and more of them, it becomes obvious that the scheduled completion and pickup time for the test has come and gone. Either something has gone wrong with the gate, or there’s some other disaster to blame. The crucial issue is that survival in this world is no longer a test, it’s the real deal. For all the students know, they may be picked up tomorrow, or not for years. Or ever.

I don’t know that Heinlein is offering any innovative anthropological insights here, but he’s told an uplifting adventure about young people rising to the occasion and building something out of nothing. Rod and his classmates learn by their bootstraps to live off the land, and the group dynamic coalesces into a burgeoning colony town complete with a constitution and elections. All the boilerplate political problems arise: questions of who will lead, and what manner of government will oversee the little village that the students are creating. Can the same kind of democracy that worked, more or less, for early America work as well here, where the question of daily group survival outweighs good old rugged individualism? How does a leader instill confidence and persuade others to follow him, especially when those people come from a free society that makes them disinclined to follow orders or accept authoritarianism? (In the 1950s, with World War II still a fresh memory, I suppose it was still easy to hold the naive belief that anyone, especially from America, might be immune to authoritarianism.) The threat of rebellion and schism arises more than once, but in sharp contrast to William Golding’s cynicism, Heinlein has his young colonists doing their utmost to isolate the bad apples and deal with potentially explosive situations with an eye to fairness and the health of the community at large.

The climax is perhaps inevitable, but also a little too abrupt, with the theme of “you can’t go home again” drawn in broad strokes. But mostly this early Heinlein juvie is, like the best of this legendary bunch, not “juvenile” at all, but an intelligent exploration of one of Heinlein’s favorite themes: the capacity of humanity to meet the challenges of the universe head on. (Also, despite the master’s latter-day reputation for senile sexism, Heinlein here has his female characters just as capable, if not moreso, than the males.) You’ll often hear the Heinlein juveniles described as ideal entry-level SF, strong stories that are worth recommending to young readers just starting out in the genre. Decades later, teens have their own generation of novels to serve that purpose. But a book like Tunnel in the Sky is one that, whatever about it may have since become dated, still might have much meaningful to say to young readers making its discovery.