Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Pocket Books
Format: Paperback
Genre: Science Fiction


The final exam for Dr. Matson’s Advanced Survival class was meant to be just that: only a test. But something has gone terribly wrong… and now, Rod Walker and his fellow students are stranded somewhere unknown in the universe, beyond contact with Earth, at the other end of a tunnel in the sky. Stripped of all comforts, hoping for a passage home that may never appear, the castaways must band together or perish. For Rod and his fellow survivors, this is one test where failure is not an option.


This is not an action-packed read, but Heinlein’s 9th juvenile is, nonetheless, a thoughtful look at what happens when you throw several groups of youngsters, of varying ages, into a deadly and hostile situation, without adults, and then see how they survive. This is most definitely not Lord of the Flies territory. Far from it. Heinlein takes us on a different journey, mostly seen through the MC, Rod Walker, who has dreams of becoming an Outlander.

And like many his age, he has to pass a ‘survival’ test first before being able to train and work towards leading colonists to other worlds. The Malthusian overpopulation of Earth has been averted by the invention of teleportation, called the “Ramsbotham jump”, which is used to send Earth’s excess population to colonize other planets.

What Heinlein shows us in Tunnel in the Sky is an alternative Lord of the Flies and, instead of kids devolving and becoming savages, our young adults choose to survive and work together. He then shows us how they overcome being cast adrift on an alien planet, with little if anything in the way of survival gear, other than their own wits and knowledge.

Heinlein cleverly uses Rod, Jack, Jimmy and Caroline, as well as the entire cast, to showcase a variety of personality types, always focusing on the working together aspect, rather than being negative. So that, in the end, we feel every success and failure, as if we’re there, with them, struggling against not only their own nature, but the savage backdrop of the planet itself.

The other thing with this book is that so many miss a number of points that go a long way to say Heinlein was neither racist nor sexist. First of all, Tunnel in the Sky features a cast of racially diverse characters from as young as 14 through to 23 from—junior high to collage age. Also, women are as equal in ability and parity as their male counterparts and, if you read carefully, are, in fact, smarter. Especially when you consider, all the errors and mistakes are made by the guys.

Then there is Rod Walker’s mother (who is a strong female role model) also his sister, Helen, who is a Captain in the ‘Amazons’ an all-female military assault unit. Then there’s the two very important supporting characters to Rod in the guise of Jack (Jaqueline) Daudet and Caroline Mshiyeni, who is described as ‘tough as they come, smart, strong, and confident.’ Who, in turn, goes on to become Captain of the Guard and Rod’s second in command. While Rod himself—a young 15 year old black kid—goes from being Captain of his small group too, by the end, Mayor of Cowpertown.

At 262 pages, Tunnel in the Sky is a quick read and, while for the most part aimed at maybe a younger audience, is still an interesting read from an adult point of view. My only quibble and it’s a small one, is the language. The use of ‘dear’ and ‘swell’ through out really dates this to the 50s but then, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something to remember if you want to leap in and read this one.

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