Mon
Nov 14 2011 3:00pm

Beware of stobor!: Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky (1955) was originally published as a juvenile, but I first read it in a Pan SF edition clearly aimed at adults. But these things are tangled; I was a teenager at the time. Some of Heinlein’s juveniles are more juvenile than others — this is one of the more mature ones. This is a future Earth with massive overpopulation, and with faster than light gates providing instant transportation between points. Gates between different places on Earth are kept open and you can walk anywhere. Gates to other planets are expensive to run, and food and fissionables are scarce. Still, other planets are being colonized rapidly by pioneers, some voluntary, some not so voluntary. Rod Walker needs to do a solo survival trip to qualify for any off-Earth job, and he’s taken the course in high school to save time in college. Of course, that’s when things go wrong.

It seems obvious that Tunnel in the Sky is a direct response to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Indeed, I imagine Heinlein putting down Golding’s book and heading straight for the typewriter grinding his teeth and muttering “Revert to savagery my ass!” The two books make a perfect paired reading — they have such opposite views of human nature. Which one you prefer will depend on your views on humanity. For me Tunnel in the Sky is a frequent re-read, and I doubt I’ll ever read Lord of the Flies again.

Heinlein’s characters have learned the trick of civilization. He knows that people can be savage — Rod is attacked, robbed, and left for dead on his second day on the alien planet. There’s talk at the beginning about man being the most dangerous animal. But Heinlein also believes that people can co-operate. His stranded kids, who are aged between sixteen and twenty-two, start to rebuild technology, get married and have babies, practice square dancing and treasure the Oxford Book of English verse — while hunting for game and wiping out predators.

It’s interesting that Heinlein doesn’t begin the book with Rod stepping through the gate and beginning the test. It’s the part of the book that’s memorable and effective — Robinsonades are always appealing. There are the challenges of learning the environment, and the political challenges of building a society. But while Heinlein was always easily seduced by pioneering, he’s doing something more. This is a novel of how Rod grows up, and of how growing up isn’t always comfortable, and it needs the beginning and the end to do that. Heinlein shows us a great deal of the world Rod is leaving, before we get to the world where he’s going. We get Rod’s parents and sister and teacher and the whole context of the world he comes from. The best part of the book may be the challenge of being stranded on an alien planet, but the whole book is better for having the shape and structure it does.

I want to give Heinlein props for several things here. First, he doesn’t duck the FTL = time travel issue, the gates can also be used for forward-only time travel, and they were invented by somebody trying to invent time travel. Also, we have a lot of SF with very standard FTL resembling Napoleonic sailing ships. It’s nice to see something where you can walk between planetary surfaces.

Next, many of his juveniles are deeply lacking in females — Tunnel in the Sky is much better. The main character, Rod, is male, but there are two significant female characters, Jack and Caroline. Caroline is the best character in the book, and some small parts of the book are her clever and funny diary entries. It very nearly passes the Bechdel test. In addition, while many of the girls get married and have babies, there’s no coercion along those lines. Caroline remains unattached, and nobody tells her she should be having sex and babies for the good of the human race.

But while the gender stuff is really well done for 1955, it’s still considerably old fashioned to a modern reader. Helen Walker, Rod’s sister, is an Amazon sergeant — but she’s eager to retire and get married if anyone would have her. She later carries through on this, so she clearly meant it. Caroline also says she wants to get married. Rod is forced to change his mind about girls being “poison” and disruptive to a community, but we have very conventional couples. There’s a lot of conventionality. Although women work, Grant doesn’t want girls to stand watches or hunt in mixed gender pairs. He does back down. But when Rod makes his exploration trip, it isn’t Caroline he takes with him. And while it was certainly progressive to have women in the military at all, why are the Amazons segregated?

As usual, Heinlein is good on race up to a point. Jack is French, and Caroline is a Zulu. There’s a girl mentioned called Marjorie Chung. It’s also worth noting that Rod is very likely African-American — Caroline is referred to as a Zulu and has a Zulu surname. Rod’s surname is the very American Walker. But when describing Caroline to his sister he says “She looks a bit like you.” The point where this stops being good is that while Heinlein goes out of his way to have people of many ethnicities they are all absolutely culturally whitebread American. You can be any colour as long as it makes no difference at all. If Caroline’s a Zulu and Jack’s French, they are still both entirely culturally American. It’s a very assimilated future, even if China has conquered Australia and made the deserts bloom.

However, religion is treated very well. The count of books is “6 Testaments, 2 Peace of the Flame, 1 Koran, 1 Book of Mormon, 1 Oxford Book of English Verse”. “Peace of the Flame” is the holy book of the fictional neo-Zoroastrian sect that the Walkers belong to. What we see is quiet religious practice that is in no way Christian, treated respectfully and effectively. I like that Koran. It’s never mentioned who it belongs to. Bob Baxter is a Quaker, and in training to be a medical minister — again this is quietly accepted. Religion is so often entirely absent from SF set in the future unless it’s the whole point of the story, it’s nice to see it treated this way, as a natural small part of the way some people organize their lives.

I love the stobor — both the imaginary stobor they are told to watch out for to keep them alert, and the ones they build traps for. I love everybody saying they wouldn’t go back — except Bob, who sensibly wants to finish his medical training. I love the end, where the whole experience is just a newsworthy sensation to crowded Earth. I really like the way it doesn’t have a conventional happy ending — that everyone does leave, and that Rod has to fit himself into a space he has outgrown to get the education he needs to do what he wants to do. I also like that there’s sex and romance but only off to the sides — Rod and Caroline don’t get caught up in it. I know Heinlein did this because it needed to be suitable for children in 1955, but now that it’s obligatory for protagonists to have sex and romance I’m starting to value books where they don’t.

There’s a lot that’s absurd, of course. The overpopulation — Rod lives in Greater New York, by the Grand Canyon. The idea that this overpopulation could be relieved by emigration — it seems like it would be news to some people that the population of Europe is higher than it was in 1492. The idea that opening the gates is expensive so taking horses and wagons makes sense for low tech colonization — this is just silly. Yes, horses reproduce and tractors don’t, but there’s absolutely no reason not to take along a tech base and farm more efficiently. But this is far from the focus of the book — they’re managing even more primitively because they got stranded on a survival test, and that makes perfect sense.

I don’t know how it would strike me if I read this now for the first time. I suspect I’d find it thinner — Jack is barely characterised at all, an awful lot of her characterisation is in my head and not on the page. But I think it would still catch me up in the essential niftyness of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again, and even the absurdities are vividly written — the description of Emigrants Gap is lovely. It’s possible to learn a lot about incluing and how to convey information to a reader by examining how Heinlein did that.

There’s a Locus Roundtable pouring scorn on the idea that Heinlein juveniles have anything for today’s young people. All I can say is that it’s twelve years since I read this aloud to my son and he loved it, maybe times have changed since then.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

47 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
I don't have children, so can't use a direct argument. I think that Heinlein's worldview is now dated enough that it woul be an effort for today's young readers. I think I'd give them to someone who already loved SF and fantasy, but for a gateway drug, I'd be more likely to hand over Scott Westerfeld.
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
This is one of the few Heinlein juveniles I can happily reread, and oddly enough, part of it is because of the relationship between Rod and his parents. (And, to a lesser extent, between him and his sister, and the two of them vs. their parents, which is again different than their individual relationships.) There was something fascinating when I read it as a preteen of the idea of outgrowing your parents, and outgrowing their ideas, without it being a hostile reaction to an abusive setup. I liked the middle ground that came of acknowledging that sometimes people grow, and change, and think differently because of their different experiences, and...well, you cope. Or you don't, and they move on without you.

The science and adventure and all were great fun too, though I remember finding the bit about the Chinese colonists sort of uncomfortable; I would have to go back and reread to have any sense of why, exactly, but it bugged me at the time. But really, the way people learn to relate to each other was the fun part. Building a society was always the most interesting part of the "suddenly, no civilization around us!" sub-genre.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
This vies with Citizen of the Galaxy for my favorite Heinlein juvie; sometimes it's one, sometimes the other. As for the overpopulation thing, remember that this was just before the Green Revolution in agriculture and a lot of people were worried about a Malthusian crash. It comes up elsewhere in Heinlein, too. I seem to remember we talked about this in the discussion on Farmer in the Sky.

Also, Heinlein explicitly said elsewhere that Rod Walker is black. He just couldn't get away with having an openly non-white main protagonist, especially in a juvie. The fact that he was able to hide clues to that fact and get Caroline into the story (and she's really the brains in the outfit) says a lot about his skills as a writer and the cultural assumptions of his publishers. That's probably another reason why there's no romance between Rod and either of the girls. Somebody would have recognized one or the other as an interracial relationship and the shitstorm would have been huge.
JennyC
4. JennyC
I recently listened to the Full Cast Audio production, and their website makes a biggest deal of the fact that the Rod on the cover is black as Heinlein intended. It didn't make a bit of difference within the story. I was far more interested in Jack, who is undeveloped as you mention. It is as if Heinlein was through with her once Rod became a girl.

Personally I thought the imagining of a future with the same morality as the 1955 Heinlein was writing in to be a bit unbelievable. It is true they managed to create a social structure and not revert to lawless animalistic anarchy, but seriously? Each couple needing their own 'home' to the detriment of a protective wall? Surely teens trained in survival wouldn't get that so wrong.
Clark Myers
5. ClarkEMyers
#4 - Debateable - it wasn't Little Commune on the Prairie either.

See also the Plymouth Colony for commune and not getting a wall up until the second winter - not exactly par for say a Roman Legion. These were high school students with a high school course not folks who trained with Tom Brown in the pine barrens and such. High school students probably never learned to conquer the gag reflex while eating live cockroaches to impress each other - trained in survival is I suggest much too strong a word. Further a part of the author's intent was I think as mentioned to suggest that a haphazard selection would shake down OK. (cf Rio Bravo as a reaction to High Noon)

Granted that in a longer story more individual diversity would appear; it makes sense to me that that all the active characters act like students at about the same level at the same school.
Though there be more than one high school (3?) and the one college group still the group was arguably selected to have much in common. It is after all a world where teens can get literally anyplace on their own planet willing to accept them and home for dinner.

If I wanted to to take issue with willing suspension of disbelief it would be the lack of commercial development someplace else on the planet (given pressure to emigrate and so to develop - then again there may be a very large number of such congenial planets) with notice of the students and with the lack of a chaperone in the background. CF Picnic on Paradise
JennyC
6. Brian J.
I read it long, long ago, but the part that really stood out/"stuck" for me was the invasion by the sensationalist media to warp their experience into fiction & sleaze in order to titillate the masses... Also, Heinlein's "society" that evolved amongst the survivors, where the power-hungry individuals ascendency is so typical of human nature...and where worthy individuals whose efforts make societies work are forced out by the so-called "leaders" and their mindless sycophants. This, like other thoughtful middle-era Heilein products, is "good stuff."
Pamela Adams
7. Pam Adams
Brian J,

As I recall, the 'power-hungry' people were in charge early on, but changed to a more representative government when it became clear that there were problems. (Wasn't it the college students who wanted to be in charge?) Later, there was a problem with free riders wanting the advantages, but not the work, and the group decided to throw them out.
Andrew Love
8. AndyLove
It seems obvious that Tunnel in the Sky is a direct response to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Indeed, I imagine Heinlein putting down Golding’s book and heading straight for the typewriter grinding his teeth and muttering “Revert to savagery my ass!” The two books make a perfect paired reading — they have such opposite views of human nature.
It always seemed obvious to me too, but was there enough time for Heinlein to respond quickly enough to a book published in September of 1954 that he could get "Tunnel" published in 1955?
Clark Myers
9. ClarkEMyers
#7 - Not my recollection that things
changed to a more representative government when it became clear that there were problems......
IIRC the election was about as representative as any - after some speeches that we are told changed what would have been the result a priori to the actual results a posteriori - and things changed to a more effective leader in the same form of government but no more and no less representative after the martyred death of the somewhat demagogue. I'd make the case that Rob learned to govern less - impose less rather than more day to day - a common lesson in Heinlein's writing even in the disliked Number of the Beast - combined with a willingness to swing a big stick from time to time.
JennyC
10. AlBrown
Tunnel in the Sky is one of my favorite books. But I must disagree with Jo on one point. The horses and wagons make perfect sense. Why take a vehicle when you will be lightyears from the nearest repair shop? Take 100 vehicles and 100 horses to your new planet, and at the end of a decade, you will be lucky to have 10 vehicles still working, but will likely have more than 100 horses. I am sure that they would use all the knowledge they can to farm better than our ancestors did. But they would want technology that could be supported at the other end of their journey, and that technology would be simple.
And regarding the role of women, Heinlein may feel reactionary now, but was very progressive in what he described. We forget how much things have changed in the past few decades. When I joined the Coast Guard in the early '70s, women were confined to a woman's reserve contingent, while now they perform every role that men do.
And when we look at his use of ethnicities, we need to remember that Heinlein grew up in a highly segregated world, and his views on this were considered radical at the time. Folks my age still remember a world before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it wasn't a very pretty sight.
Michael M Jones
11. MichaelMJones
This was always one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles, for a variety of reasons. I think, in part, I was fascinated by the character of Jack, who definitely came off in my mind as one of those Heinlein female protagonists who's just as fierce and capable and compent as any guy. The bit where we're informed that Jack is actually a girl, and Rod's forced to rethink his impression of her has always stuck with me.

I'll confess that the revelation that Rod was black, and has always intended to be thus, is one of those things that I periodically relearn, and every time it floor me in a good way. For all that characters like Rod Walker and Johnny Rico are written in his standard "white-bread American" style, it's nice that Heinlein was creating these characters of color back in a time when that sort of thing was decidedly out of the ordinary.

I'm still of the opinion that it's worth giving the juveniles to a new generation of fans. Sure, they're horribly dated in a lot of ways, but the themes and stories remain timeless and entertaining.
JennyC
12. Styx
Thanks for the review. Tunnel in the Sky was my gateway drug to SF . A class mate passed it to me saying 'I know you like astronomy, maybe you would like to read this?' Never looked back.
JennyC
13. a1ay
The point where this stops being good is that while Heinlein goes out of his way to have people of many ethnicities they are all absolutely
culturally whitebread American.

They are all actually American, though, aren't they? I don't think there's any suggestion that Caroline, Jack etc are meant to be from different countries.

Another point: is there significance in the fact that Heinlein is portraying a racially-mixed society here with a leader called Ulysses Grant Cowper? (as in, named after General Ulysses S. Grant)
David Levinson
14. DemetriosX
@13 a1ay: Caroline, at least, is specifically described as Zulu, not black or Negro or whatever Heinlein might have used in 1955. IIRC, her father is an ambassador or something.

Most of the characters in Heinlein's juveniles tend to be pretty mid-20th century American culturally. Part of that may have been an economic choice. The target audience for these books was mid-20th century American teenage boys and either he decided to make the characters as familiar to them as possible so that they could learn the lessons he was teaching through identification, or the publisher insisted. The only time I can think of him directly addressing the idea of differing cultural mores is in Space Cadet, specifically in the "Pie with a Fork" chapter. But that was also a set-up for events later in the book.
JennyC
15. a1ay
14: ah, I'd forgotten that. Thanks.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
16. tnh
a1ay:
"Another point: is there significance in the fact that Heinlein is portraying a racially-mixed society here with a leader called Ulysses Grant Cowper? (as in, named after General Ulysses S. Grant)"
It's probably not all that significant. Naming a child after an admired historical figure is an old American naming trope, as in Tecumseh Sherman or George Washington Outerbridge. Heinlein assumed that people would continue doing so in the future, so along with Ulysses Grant Cowper he has characters named Andrew Jackson Libby, Daniel Boone Davis, and Woodrow Wilson Smith. At most, it tells you who that character's parents admired.
JennyC
17. Kimmako
I gave this to my son (12yo) this past summer to read. He devoured it. Not so much with Citizen of the Galaxy, my other fav. I probably should give him Starship Troopers. We've already disavowed the movie version of that to him.
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
a1ay -- as well as Caroline being specifically Zulu, Jack is from a highschool in France.

Andy Love: In 1955 there was time, assuming he wrote it quickly. Now, no, it wouldnèt be possible.

AllBrown: If you are going to a planet with 100 vehicles or 100 horses and locking the door behind you, by all means take the horses. But there is no reason to do that and not keep contact with technological civilization. Say they want your cattle, as in the book, you can raise cattle much more effectively with vehicles as today, than with horses only, as a century ago. So they would have more cattle even if they insisted on never sending out an engineer.
David Levinson
19. DemetriosX
@18 Jo: I think you're forgetting that farming still wasn't anywhere near as mechanized in 1955 as it is today. There probably weren't any farmers still using animals, but there were likely plenty who had at some point in their lives. And Heinlein himself had undoubtedly seen a lot of it growing up and as a young man.
C Smith
20. C12VT
I first read this book as a teenager, and I remember being really disappointed by the ending - I wanted them to stay! As an adult, I can appreciate why the book had to end the way it did much better.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
21. tnh
DemetriosX, there are farmers in the United States using horses to this day, and they aren't all Amish. There are a lot of circumstances in which horses are still the appropriate technology.
JennyC
22. AlBrown
Johnny Rico, like many of Heinlein's characters, may have acted like a typical American kid, but he was revealed to be of Phillipino descent. Probably a nod to the Phillipinos Heinlein served with in the Navy, who in those days were relegated to being cooks and stewards. Yet another example of the ethnic diversity of his characters.
Roger Powell
23. forkroot
tnh@21
To your point - a few years ago my mother visited Prince Edward Island (ok, so it was Canada .. not US). There she saw a local harvesting seaweed with a Clydesdale dragging a harvesting basket through the surf. He told her that a horse worked much better than any mechanical power, what with the corrosive conditions etc.
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
Sure, there are things horses are better for. But this is not an argument about that, it's an argument about pioneers cutting themselves off from technical civilization completely because... because... because it would be more fun to be like C.19 pioneers. It just fails plausibility.
Dorothy Johnston
25. CloudMist
bluejo--

The colonists aren't cutting themselves from most technology voluntarily but because using the waygates is expensive. It's also clearly stated in the opening section that food is never sent off planet. Exporting food in the form of wheat, livestock, etc. back to Earth is the quickest way for the colonists to pay off their initial startup debt. So why add to that initial debt by using expensive machinery that, when it has to be repaired, incurs more debt by opening the gate to send in the repairman/woman. The technology curtailment is only temporary -- I got the impression from some of Rod's thoughts that it takes maybe 20 to 30 years to pay off the initial debt. After that, the colonists can afford to start importing modern equipment.
Andrew Love
26. AndyLove
In 1955 there was time, assuming he wrote it quickly. Now, no, it wouldnèt be possible.
Thanks. Wouldn't it be great if "Grumbles from the Grave" had a letter from Heinlein about his reaction to Golding?
john mullen
27. johntheirishmongol
This is one of those I drag out every few years and reread. I've always liked the idea of matter transmitters , of challenging kids to be better, or stobors, of pioneering in general. I suspect that you may be right about Lord of the Flies. Heinlein thought better of the human race. And I don't reread Lord of the Flies either...simply too depressing.

Yes, the book has a culturally American turn, but the rest of the world has become much more that way then we have become like them. I don't think the trend has finished, just adjusted and changed with our newer mores. It is still our movies, books, and television that dominate. Personally, I am fond of our culture.
JennyC
28. James Davis Nicoll
Exporting food in the form of wheat, livestock, etc. back to Earth is the quickest way for the colonists to pay off their initial startup debt. So why add to that initial debt by using expensive machinery that, when it has to be repaired, incurs more debt by opening the gate to send in the repairman/woman.

Productivity. A mechanized farm is going to produce more per person-hour than a non-mechanized farm. This is one of the reasons why since 1900 America has gone from about 40% of its workforce tied to the land to about 2%.

More productivity, more food to sell, the faster they can pay off their debts (assuming a poorly structured deal that actually allows them to pay off their debts rather than dangling the illusion of that possiblity in front of them while keeping them firmly under the thumb of their bankers). Well, assuming they don't produce so much food that they depress the price but if they can do that, it's not an argument for crappy technology but rather fewer farmers.

An olden timey, low productivity farm produces little in the way of surplus (obviously). Which Earth might prefer, come to think of it.

There is the slight problem in Heinlein's worlds and many other authors' worlds that pioneers have virtue but other ways of life, particularly anything involving a city, do not, so using a system that denies 98% of the population the infinite joys of bailing or spring-time rock picking or dealing with a very angry sow who doesn't want you to touch her piglets is by definition bad.
JennyC
29. James Davis Nicoll
(...) it's an argument about pioneers cutting themselves off from technical civilization completely because... because... because it would be more fun to be like C.19 pioneers. It just fails plausibility.

Not least because it's not what the pioneers did, given a choice.

There's a nice side-detail in Deadwood's commentary (I think) where the creator of the show asserts that Deadwood, an illegal mining settlement in the Dakotas, was among the first communities in the US to get phones, I think because being able to talk directly to Washington make it easier to bribe strategically placed politicians.
Clark Myers
30. ClarkEMyers
There’s a lot that’s absurd, of course. The overpopulation — Rod lives in Greater New York, by the Grand Canyon. The idea that this overpopulation could be relieved by emigration — it seems like it would be news to some people that the population of Europe is higher than it was in 1492. The idea that opening the gates is expensive so taking horses and wagons makes sense for low tech colonization — this is just silly.
Quite agree with the absurdity as described and as written. Equally absurd in 1955 and today. Among other absurdities - some of which are addressed in Farmer in the Sky - is the notion that farming with and maintaining animals is simpler or easier - particularly given the backgrounds of the immigrant population.
Imagine a young adult from the overpopulated urban regions being asked to work harvest by harnessing a 12 horse hitch. Or just driving to an inch Regency Romance style with a team to pull the McCormick reaper. To say nothing of the most demanding and overall hardest work of harvest - feeding the harvest crew. See e.g. Will Jenkins/Murray Leinstar for the romance of Exploration Team or Andre Norton's first in scouts but give some thought to Le Tourneau or the simpler Rome Plow (which was maintained quite well under adverse conditions) in jungle clearing.
No question that people in the American south were then commonly using (non-speaking) mules Happy Valley style. It's been a long time since I got around much but time was folks in poor countries would use Rototiller equivalents even to pull farm wagons to town - primitive technology can trump animals in a poor economy. Horse logging frex today is a luxury used to be easier on the ecosystem and combines well with helicopter and other high lift technology. Just the same it's not a money saver it's a ground pressure and industrial pollution saver - but remember as recently in American life as the days of Cheaper by Dozen and Belles on their Toes horse feed and especially manure was a major pollution concern too.
Other, less gifted perhaps, writers will hand wave no metal through gates or otherwise hand wave. I'd say Mr. Heinlein simply palms the card and waves his hands. And I'd say it works well enough for the intended audience and for me.
Clark Myers
31. ClarkEMyers
#29 - I trust that's entirely kidding - voice long distance with electrically powered amplification en route was entirely a product of the 20th century. Boomtowns in general are of course a good market for luxury goods. See e.g. Manaus for life on that frontier.
JennyC
32. Graeme Smith
I still have Tunnel on my shelf. And I still remember my combination smart-a$$ and (later) come-uppance moment when I first read it. Because (and I'm sure I wasn't the only too-clever-by-half teenager) I saw 'beware of stobor' and thought 'hah! That's robots, spelt backwards, that is. It's all a training test!'

Well. I was still going through Ian Livingstone's books at the time, and impressed with myself for working out the spell to cast fire - 'Erif, erif! Ekam erif!'

Yes. I'm old :-P.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
33. tnh
Jo --

I think the tractor-building tech base would be easier to get through a gate now than it would have been in the 50s.

The remaining question is unanswerable within the context of the novel: whether that horse-importing colony had a reliable power grid and mining/smelting operations set up yet. I agree that tractors will become cheaper and more productive at some point, but with transport costs so high, that won't be the case until inputs are locally produced. That would make horses a logical interim technology.

On the other hand, that's not what Heinlein actually said. You're right about what he did say.
JennyC
34. (still) Steve Morrison
If Heinlein did intend this book as a counterblast to Lord of the Flies, that would be amusing. The reason: Golding's book was itself intended as a response to another book, a Victorian juvenile by R. M. Ballantyne called The Coral Island. (The main characters have very similar names, although Golding replaced "Peterkin" with "Simon".) Golding decided to write about what he thought would really happen to a group of kids marooned on a desert island – but his vision was far more pessimistic than Ballantyne's, or even Heinlein's!
David Levinson
35. DemetriosX
@30 ClarkEMeyers:
time was folks in poor countries would use Rototiller equivalents even to pull farm wagons to town
They still do this where I live in rural Germany, though it's more to get around the village. It's not so much related to the economy as it is that it's cheaper in terms of gas and kids can drive them without the (rather large) expense of a license.
JennyC
36. James Davis Nicoll
I'd hate to have tried to outrun the local dog packs on our little tractor. It was hard enough on a bicycle.
Clark Myers
37. ClarkEMyers
Appropriate technology? The VeloDog series of handguns helped young bicyclists survive in a hostile environment I suppose.

I'd say to reach any useful conclusion on the tractor technology issue demands a consensus definition of tractor. Given the graying of fandom I suspect the common mental image is a Fordson (likely blue) or a Farmall (likely red) tricycle style for row crops. Perhaps a green Steiger now a red CaseIH for large acreage factory farming?

A current factory farm tractor (or combine what have you) is full of microprocessors with flat screen displays in an airconditioned cab. Lots of ram and rom with GPS to track yields with fine granularity and apply varying amounts of expensive fertilizer to different spots across large monocrop fields and so on and so forth.

The current technology - to say nothing of the future technology which approaches magic - is much much more than the Fordson/Farmall - semi-conductor technology (think Intel chip fabbing and flat screen displays) is maybe harder to get through the portals than iron and steel working.

Shades of Campbell's Forgetfulness maybe a society would avoid the forgotten intervening technology and revert to animals until semi-conductor equivalents arrive - black smiths (maybe SCAdian style) or CADCAM and CNC machining (lots of handwaving with universal fabricators in more recent stories) with a don't mess with Mr. Inbetween attitude. In any event I find the story rushes along with only subtle incluing that leaves room for a lot of the background to form in my mind so to be different across readers. Different views of technology and so of the in story reality.

One of many changes between the short by today's standards - I am always reminded of catching a paperback set of the Alexandria Quartet shelved with paperback SF and asking the librarian if the default was all tetralogies are SF and vice-versa? - and more cardboard character stories of the pulp era as opposed to maybe the trade paperback era et. seq. is a general tendency to leave out details -
Jack is barely characterised at all, an awful lot of her characterisation is in my head and not on the page
Baen's submission guidelines include I think a suggestion not to bother them with works as short as the Heinlein YA (though I suppose if as good an exception might be made) so that extra details of plot and story must be in the mix:
now that it’s obligatory for protagonists to have sex and romance I’m starting to value books where they don’t.
and that's some of what I read genre for.
Chuk Goodin
38. Chuk
I loved TitS. I first read it back in grade one and liked it more than Red Planet (which I also liked & was the first Heinlein I remember reading.)

I agree that a lot of his voice wouldn't really resonate with modern readers. Also, I remember Rod telling Helen that Caroline looked a bit like her and I knew Caroline was black but never made the connection.
Pamela Adams
39. Pam Adams
I think Caroline was the best part of Tunnel. She went across wearing shorts and barefoot, but carrying a duffle bag, from which she kept producing useful items.
JennyC
40. Dr Hoo
Still my second favorite Heinlein (Juvie or otherwise) behind only Mistress. The scene that sticks in my mind 20 years after my last reading of it is the arrogant guy who comes loaded for bear with guns and an attack dog and doesn't last through the first day.
David Levinson
41. DemetriosX
I've been thinking about the mechanized v. animal farming question and a couple of things have occurred to me. First of all, the advances that ClarkEMeyers mentioned somewhere above a very good argument against taking modern tractors and combines. Once upon a time, it might have been possible to keep such equipment in working order as long as you had a few decent machinists and a couple of machine shops worth of equipment. But modern machinery, right down to cars, is so computerized these days that it takes trained professionals with specialized equipment to diagnose and repair problems. Of course, Heinlein wouldn't have been aware of that and the machine shop solution would seem like it should have been obvious to him.

But there are a couple of other problems with tractors. As the colony grows in the early years, there is no way for new farms to get their own mechanized equipment as the kids grow up and start their own families. With horses, there are going to be more and it's possible to grow. On top of that, tractors need fuel. Where are the colonists supposed to get fuel to run the things? We're right back to expensive imports. But as long as the colony is eating, so are the horses.

Finally, there's the question of fertilizer. Most fertilzers these days are chemically produced from petroleum products or phosphate deposits like centuries of bird guano. Again, that's an imported supply expense. Horses, on the other hand, will provide lots of manure that can either be composted or converted to liquid manure, either of which can be spread on the fields.
Per Jorgensen
42. percj
I've thought a bit about the posts and comments where readers of today feel less than satisfied where a character, equal to the other characters, turns out to have another skin colour than expected. It could be that this was more effective as a mind opener in a 50ies context. After all, there was a lot of what might be called "benevolent" or paternalistic racism going round, of the "we should be nice to them, even though they will never amount to much, so if we build a luxury resort next to the native village they may come and entertain the guests with folk dancing between courses" variety.
Per Jorgensen
43. percj
I've thought a bit about the posts and comments where readers of today feel less than satisfied where a character, equal to the other characters, turns out to have another skin colour than expected. It could be that this was more effective as a mind opener in a 50ies context. After all, there was a lot of what might be called "benevolent" or paternalistic racism going round, of the "we should be nice to them, even though they will never amount to much, so if we build a luxury resort next to the native village they may come and entertain the guests with folk dancing between courses" variety.
JennyC
44. Pdefor
Two dozen comments on tractors vs horses and no one has yet asked the really important question: why in hell has this book not been made into a movie yet?
David Dyer-Bennet
45. dd-b
Finally, somebody (DemetriosX@41) brought up the fuel supply issue! Thank you!

I'm croggled anybody thinks maintaining a tech base at the level of keeping internal combustion engines running is simple. I can't see it. These colonies start small, and grow fast. To build new tractor parts, and whole new tractors (for the growing farm population) requires mining iron and nickel and copper and chromium and probably a dozen other things, drilling and refining oil for fuel, lubricants, and also for plastics and rubbers to make tires and insulation, and so forth. Starting from a planet that's barely been explored. I just don't believe it's possible with a small start.
David Dyer-Bennet
46. dd-b
I'm not an expert on modern children, but I know that as a child myself, before 1968 I read and enjoyed The Wind in the Willows and Stuart Little and The Mysterious Island and The Swiss Family Robinson and quite a lot of Dorothy Sayers, for that matter -- all books taking place in societies much different from the one I was growing up in.

Would the fact that the Heinlein fit the known category science fiction cause some people confusion, since they aren't a possible future today? Possibly, for some people; but some of those people couldn't read historical novels of any sort, either. In fact, back when I read them they STILL didn't match the society around me. My school didn't teach appreciation of television, and there wasn't a soda fountain in any drugstore in the town I lived in.
James Glendinning
47. slephoto
Ok, I'm 3 years late to this & everyone else has probably moved on, but the original author & all the commenters discussing the horses vs tractors issue overlooks a major & obvious point. Raw materials. Assuming the new planet has all the materials needed to make diesel (or whatever other power source) for the tractors AND all the other materials needed to make replacement parts & new parts it's going to be at least several years before enough industry & infrastructure can be built on that world to produce & sustain those things. Everyone has to eat in the mean time, and whle horses do eat a lot of food you can still produce more with them than without them. Plus their dung can make fertilizer, and you can eat them as well as use their other body parts for other things.

The quick rejoinder I see from many people is "well just export the stuff from Earth." Uh... no. Aside from the cost of the gates, exactly how much oil, fissionable material, and other raw material do you think the planet HAS? Even such exploitablematerial from other worlds will be finite, you can't keep exporting without bankrupting each world in favor of the next. So no, you can't build the new world on the premise of unlimited exports from the old. Bootstrapping colonization with low-tech solutions while you BUILD higher tech makes far more sense.

As for the "but city kids from a high tech world wouldn't know how!" argument, well that's WHY they train before they can migrate.

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