Tunnel in the Sky

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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 on 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. However, the costs of operating the device mean that the colonies are isolated from Earth until they can justify two-way travel. Because modern technology requires a supporting infrastructure, more primitive methods are employed — for example, horses instead of tractors (which cannot reproduce themselves).

Rod Walker is a high school student who dreams of becoming a professional colonist. The final test of his Advanced Survival class is to stay alive on an unfamiliar planet 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. On test day, each student walks through the Ramsbotham portal and finds him or herself alone on a strange planet, though reasonably close to the pickup point. Rod, acting on advice, chooses to equip himself with hunting knives and basic survival gear rather than high-tech weaponry, on the grounds that the latter is dependent on the infrastructure required to maintain it and can easily become a crutch. 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. Rod disagrees with Grant's policies, but loyally supports the man who beat him. 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 nearly two years of isolation, 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 his warning against "stobor" ("robots" spelled backwards) was just a way of personalizing the dangers of an unknown planet - to instill fear and caution in the students.

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