I am beginning to think that a selection of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile science fiction books should be required reading in every Middle School class. Even though the science in these stories is outdated, in some cases badly so, and the social mores reflect the period in which they were published, the 1950’s, although that may not actually be a bad thing, I think the young reader can still learn a lot from Heinlein’s stories. They may not be able to learn much about science or space travel. Events have overtaken Mr. Heinlein in that respect. They will, however, learn quite a lot about virtues that will never go out of date. They will learn from Heinlein’s heroes the importance of self-reliance, honor, courage and rational thinking. They will learn that doing the right thing, even at the risk of their lives is better in the long run. Reading Heinlein may even help young readers to resist the politically correct brain washing and mediocrity they are exposed to in our public schools. I can imagine one of Heinlein’s older, wiser instructors telling a contemporary student that the universe does not care about his fragile self-esteem and that it does not hand out ribbons just for showing up.
Tunnel in the Sky, published in 1955, is typical of Heinlein’s juveniles.
It features a strong, intelligent young man, Rod Walker, as the protagonist. Rod wants to join the movement to colonize other planets, accessed through gateways that transport travelers instantly across the galaxy. In order to be a colonist, Rod must take and pass a class on survival taught by the famous explorer “Deacon” Matson. For the final exam, the class, along with similar classes from other schools, is to be dropped on an uninhabited planet for ten to fourteen days. Whoever manages to survive passes. Unfortunately, something disrupts the gate and the students are stranded. They must manage to survive for far longer than they had expected.
This may be Heinlein’s response to Lord of the Flies published the previous year. Unlike the younger children in William Golding’s tale, the high school and college age youths do not descend into savagery. They build a colony with a government. They attempt to recreate modern technology as much as possible and by the time they are rescued they have begun to smelt iron and to domesticate the native plants and animals. The young colonists do have trouble with students who refuse to do their share of the work and with dangerous animals, but they manage to overcome their difficulties. After their settlement is destroyed and their first mayor is killed by migrating animals, Rod becomes the new mayor. There is some talk of moving to a safer location that Rod had discovered earlier but he refuses to consider it, stating that they are men and they will not be moved by a bunch of dumb animals. Instead, they develop ways to defend their settlement by the time of the next migration.
I should say something about Heinlein’s supposed racism in this book. At the beginning of the story, Rod visits a gateway to watch pioneers going out to colonize new planets. First, there is a long line of Asians, poverty-stricken refugees being forced by their authoritarian government to travel to a new world. They are followed by proud pioneers from North America. I do not believe that Heinlein intended to make any sort of statement about the relative merits of Asians and Americans but was extrapolating a likely future based on circumstances at the time of publication. In 1955, most of Asia was desperately poor and overcrowded and it seemed likely to remain so for generations. I should note that it is hinted throughout the book that Rod is African-American, though at the time of publication Heinlein was unable to say so outright.
I enjoyed reading Tunnel in the Sky when I was in fifth grade and enjoyed it no less rereading it as an adult. Robert Heinlein knew how to keep his readers interested.
- The Many Robert Heinleins We Remember (jameswharris.wordpress.com)
- Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein – Book Review (edraby.wordpress.com)
- Reconciling Robert Heinlein’s Ideological Range: A Coherent But Original Writer (reason.com)