Tunnel In The Sky

I have a tendency to jump to Starship Troopers as the book that most impacted me when I was a kid, but that’s not really the case. The first Heinlein novel I read that shook up my world view was Tunnel In The Sky, a story about students training to become colonists whose final exam is to teleport to a place about which they have no information and survive for two to ten days… basically until someone comes for them.

This is one of Heinlein’s “competent man” stories and there was nothing I loved more as a kid because the doctrine of these tales is that if you keep your mouth shut and learn everything you can and work hard, you can do anything. A whole generation of awkward boys who felt like they couldn’t manage to do anything right, threw themselves into these fantasies as a kind of salve for their own inabilities.

I was obsessed with this story during my 5th grade year. There was something about the preparedness that caught my OCD for tactical gear and, because I was so bad at taking tests, the self assured way the main character, an African American teenager by the name of Rod Walker, approaches the final exam.

Something goes wrong and his class is stranded on a different alien world than the one intended so the school doesn’t know where to retrieve them. They end up staying there for something like a year (it’s been a long time since I read it) and the students who survive form a kind of tribe and set about the process of surviving.

All of the minutiae of setting up the camp and obtaining food and struggling for dominance fed right into my groove. But there was also another component to many of Heinlein’s “competent man” stories: a competent woman*. He was almost Howard Hawksian in the way he gave agency to some of his female characters.

That more than anything from Heinlein’s work shaped my attitude toward women as partners rather than pretty burdens. When I look back now on 35 years of marriage, my wife and I have always approached life as a partnership, dividing and conquering, using our best skill sets as the speed bumps require and I have to wonder if this is at least partially due to having Heinlein’s work as an early influence.

*Heinlein was a product of his time so there are plenty of offhandedly misogynistic elements to his work, in the same way the competent woman in Howard Hawks’ films was still a second class citizen, but the basic idea of partnership between man and woman rather than master and burden is still there.

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