For years, a good friend has been recommending Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky to me and for years it’s sat on my to-be-read shelf, silently accusing me of neglect. One excuse I’d used was I was part of a sci-fi/fantasy book group that read a novel by Heinlein to start the year and I figured we’d eventually get around to Tunnel.
But the book group became extinct and the book just kept sitting there, expectantly. So, I finally dusted it off and cracked the cover.
If you follow my reviews, you know that I’m not a huge fan of Heinlein. I know he’s an influential writer in the science-fiction genre, but I find that I enjoy less of his output than most people do. Part of it could be that my first entry into the universe of Heinlein was some of his later works, which I’ve come to understand aren’t the best entry points or examples of what makes him so well regarded.
I will also say that I find his “juvenile” novels to be far more entertaining and readable than some of his novels intended for more “mature” readers. And that’s the case with Tunnel in the Sky.
With Earth exploring the universe by a series of gates, young Rod Walker wants nothing more than to leave Earth behind and explore a new horizon. Signing up for a survival course, Rod and his classmates’ final assignment is to take a trip through the gate to an unexplored, unknown world and survive for up to a week. Encouraged by his older sister (who is a member of the military and took the course during his school years), Rod sets out on the assignment, but soon finds something has gone wrong. Cut off from Earth and hopes of returning home, Rod and his classmates set out to not only survive but also to create a society for themselves.
Tunnel in the Sky is a tale of two halves. The first half that chronicles Rod’s desire to travel through a gate and his fascination with them as well as the first steps toward surviving on this unknown world are fascinating, compelling and page-turning. It’s one Rod and his classmates realize that they’re stranded and they have to begin creating their own society and structure that things come to a bit of a halt and the second half of the novel feels like it’s a bit more of slog to get through. Part of this is that the action from the first half slows down as Heinlein’s characters engage in philosophical debates about the nature of government and its role in the group’s survival. It’s not quite as eye-rollingly bad as some other Heinlein installments, but it still made the second half of the book seem a bit less entertaining and interesting than the first.
I will say the final chapter or so makes up for this with some interesting developments for Rod and company. To say more might ruin the novel for those of you who haven’t read it yet, so I won’t do that. I will say the novel ended on enough of a high point that I walked away fairly satisfied with the book as a whole and recalling more of the fondness I had for the first half than the pitfalls of the second.
Once again, a Heinlein juvenile proves more mature than some of his later, longer works that are targeted more at adults. I will admit I’ve missed my yearly visits with Heinlein (whether good or bad) and I may have to try visiting him again sooner rather than later.