Posted by: Mish | August 28, 2009

Tunnel in the Sky

In Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein, survival students are sent by gate to an uninhabited planet to take their final exam of which the conditions are this: any climate and terrain on any planet, any weapons and equipment, can team up with others after arriving, and no rules.

“Those were not ‘conditions’ but a total lack of conditions, no limits of any sort! They could dump you through the gate and the next instant you might be facing a polar bear at forty below- or wrestling an octopus deep in warm salt water. Or, he added, faced up to some three-headed horror on a planet you had never heard of” (8).

It’s a standard two to ten-day exam, but when the awaited recall doesn’t happen, Rod and the other students must think of their lives, their future, and the consequences of failure. And as the Deacon warned, they also need to watch out for stobor, “whatever that is”.

Among Tunnel in the Sky‘s themes are human nature and existence, the difficulties of growing up, individualism, politics and government, leadership, and survival of the fittest. In response to Rod’s inquiry about the possible predators that will be faced, the Deacon says:

“I’m talking about the real King of the Beasts, the only animal that is always dangerous, even when not hungry. The two-legged brute… Man is the one animal that can’t be tamed. He goes along for years as peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a leopard look like a tabby cat. Which goes double for the female of the species. Take another look around you. All friends. We’ve been on group-survival field tests together; we can depend on each other. So? Read about the Donner Party, or the First Venus Expedition” (11).

Through the students’ colony, Heinlein portrays how authority forms and is maintained in human society. One can study theory all they like, it doesn’t mean they’ll be good at it or that it’ll work. Through characters and events, it also comments on those who aren’t Caucasian, Christian, and male being deemed as second-class citizens. Also somewhat risky in 1955 when it was published, are the hints of an interracial relationship. I’d say more, but don’t want to give anything away, like how Rod and Jack partner up and-

Aside from Heinlein showing his love for astronomy, math, and science in a few spots, Tunnel in the Sky is more of an adventure story. It’s also one of his dozen novels written for young adults. A good way to describe Tunnel in the Sky is as a futuristic Lord of the Flies, which was coincidentally published one year earlier. The same idea struck two brains, it happens.

Having only read some of Heinlein’s short stories, I was a little indecisive about which of his novels I wanted to read, but Tunnel in the Sky was a perfect first. I really liked it, so much so that I burned the midnight candle and read its 253 pages in two days. Thanks to a friend who wanted to unload some books I have more of Heinlein’s novels on my shelf: Time For the Stars, Starship Troopers, Orphans of the Sky, and Time Enough For Love. Too bad Stranger in a Strange Land wasn’t in the box. I probably won’t read them for the sci-fi challenge, but I look forward to getting to them at some point.

Has anyone read any Heinlein? If so, what did you think?


  • “Rocket ships did not conquer space; they merely challenged it” (28).
  • “Life, all life, has the twin drives to survive and to reproduce. Intelligence is an aimless byproduct except as it serves these basic drives. But intelligence can be made to serve the mindless demands of life” (29).
  • “Intelligence can find solutions where there are none” (29).
  • “Each to his own methods. Survival is an art, not a science” (145).
  • “The only dangerous weapon was man himself” (219).
  • “Everyone of us is beset by two things: a need to go home, and the impossibility of doing it” (244).


  1. I’ve read some Heinlein novels and some short stories, you can find them at my booklog under a tag. I do recommend The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as it’s all about “national” tensions between Earth and Moon colonies, and perhaps it’s worth reading Methuselah’s Children before you tackle Time Enough For Love, as the main char of the latter novel (which I haven’t read) is first introduced in the former.

    I haven’t read the reviewed novel, but if I ever get back to reading Heinlein I will have to try it out. I also look forward to hearing your thoughts on Stranger in a Strange Land, when you get to it, for although I appreciated the significance of the novel I really didn’t like it. That so happened to be the last Heinlein I ever read. *heh*

  2. I can only remember two specific Heinleins that I have read; can remember various scenarios, but the titles are mostly lost in the mists of time.

    Stranger in a Strange Land I recall enjoying, but The Number of the Beast is the one I read over and over again. The maths always seemed to be only just beyond my grasp, and I always thought I would “get” it the next time!

    I was sometimes put off by Heinlein’s take on sex. It seemed that he had various axes to grind, and was maybe pushing his message a bit too frequently and a bit too hard.

    Tunnel in the Sky sounds intriguing, and I haven’t completely compiled my sci-fi challenge list yet…

  3. Vega: Thanks for the tip. I agree that Heinlein was a masterful storyteller. From your review and what I’ve heard from others, it sounds like Stranger in a Strange Land is a commentary about religion, its creation, and its believers. Given Heinlein’s biblical and religious knowledge and that his writing makes one think I’m not too surprised. Your review made me more intrigued to read it, but I have to ask if it’s out right Preachy? There’s only so much of “my word is Truth” I can take and Card basically blew the gasket on that recently. Commentary is fine, preaching, no thanks.

    Sarah: Math and I have never been good friends. I haven’t read enough to get his take on sex, but does it seem to fit the attitude of his time? That would kind of put his axe grinding into context. I know I said it already, but I really liked Tunnel in the Sky. This was hard to review because I felt that if I said anything I’d give something or other away. Welcome back from holiday, it’ll be nice having you join the challenge.

  4. […] sci-fi challenge will hopefully provide the impetus to stick with it.  (Mish has also given me a reason to reinvest in Heinlein, after a parting of the ways following a bad experience with a couple of […]

  5. Tunnel in the Sky fits in with his earlier books, as does Time for the Stars. Orphans in the Sky I think is even earlier. Starship Troopers is the same style, and then Time Enough For Love starts the later Heinlein period, where you have the sex and other issues.

    I’ve probably read them all; I like both young and old Heinlein, but I admit to finding his take on women and sex quite amusing.

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