Tunnel in the Sky

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Tunnel in the Sky is a science fiction novel 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, who soon realise they are stranded there. The themes of the work include the difficulties of growing up and the nature of man as a social animal.

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 produce something to justify two-way trade. Because modern technology requires a supporting infrastructure, more primitive methods are employed — for example, horses instead of tractors.

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 his older sister's advice, takes hunting knives and basic survival gear rather than high-tech weaponry, on the grounds that the latter could make him over-confident. 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...

Tropes used in Tunnel in the Sky include:
  • China Takes Over the World: Militarily, and they only take over Australia. In the early chapters of the book, it is disclosed that at some time prior to the invention of teleportation, China conquered and colonized Australia, survivors of the original population (evidently here referring to both White Australians and Aborigines) being relocated to New Zealand.
  • Cool Gate: The Ramsbotham gates, as mentioned above.
  • Disaster Democracy: The stranded students' mistake is not establishing a democracy, but making their government too complicated to suit primitive survival conditions.
  • I Call It "Vera": Rod and his sister have foot-long Bowie-knives that they've named. The sister's is "Lady Macbeth". Rod's is "Colonel Bowie," showing an unfortunate lack of creativity on his part.
  • Samus Is a Girl "Jack," facilitated by her 24-Hour Armor. She wasn't sure that he would have teamed with her if he knew her actual sex.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Velocity: At the start of the story, two teenagers notice a new visible star above the alien world they're stranded on, and conclude that they've just witnessed a nova. At the book's end, it's revealed a nova is what interfered with their Cool Gate back to Earth. If it's the same nova - which is strongly implied; indeed, the chapter where they see it is titled "The Nova", and it reads like a Chekhov's Gun - then the boys shouldn't have been able to see its light until years after it happened.
    • If the interference with the gate begins at the same time the wave front of the nova reaches the planet in question, then it will only start after the nova can be seen from the planet's surface.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Rod's parents became Human Popsicles (by using a Year Inside, Hour Outside application of the Ramsbotham jump) not long after he left, because his father had an illness that was just outside the current medical state-of-the-art's ability to cure. When Rod finally comes home some years later, his parents can't quite wrap their heads around the fact that he's just short of being legally of age.
  • Suddenly Ethnicity: Other characters admit they couldn't tell Rod from Caroline (a Zulu girl) from a distance. There was no indication earlier in the story that Rod was black. Since this was missed by the earlier cover illustrators, early editions give Rod a Race Lift on the covers.
  • Technology Marches On: Contemplating the flow of people through Ramsbotham gates, Rod decides to calculate how long it would take the current population of the Earth to go through, accounting for deaths and births along the way. He uses a slide rule.
  • Teenage Wasteland: Much like Lord of the Flies, the story is about a group of teenagers who are lost, stranded, or otherwise isolated from society. It works out because they were being taught survival techniques.