October 12, 2002

Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

My last few Heinlein reviews have all contained caveats, not least that the reviewed books have all been dated in various ways. This one I can unequivocally recommend--not least because it's what I call a "small" story.

I class plots as "big stories" and "small stories". The Lord of the Rings is the canonical big story--the fate of the entire world is at stake. I like epics as well as anyone else, but they are problematic. When you're writing a big story, the tale you're telling is by definition the most important thing going on in your world. At best, that spoils your world as a setting for smaller stories; at worst, it trivializes your story if the tale you're telling isn't good enough to carry the weight. And then, of course, you get plot inflation--somehow your big story has to be grander and more explosive and have a more memorable ending than the next guy's.

The big story is a natural temptation, of course--having invented an entire world, one naturally wants to use all of it. And so I find that in the F&SF genre, small stories, stories about events that are important to those involved but which do not shake the world as a whole, are not only more interesting, but also better written than the big stories. The author of a small story has learned some restraint.

Such is the case here. Humanity is colonizing the galaxy, spreading from planet to planet by means of teleportation gates. Pioneering on newly discovered planets is extremely hazardous--no one knows all of the dangers until much later. And so, in order to qualify as a colonist, one must have completed a detailed course in survival. The course culminates in a survival test: each individual is dropped onto a wild planet, they know not where, and must somehow survive until retrieved some days later. It's not easy--if you survive, you pass the test. If you fail, you're dead.

This book is the story of one particular survival test, a test that goes grossly awry. The only book I can compare it with is Lord of the Flies--except to say that Heinlein is much more optimistic about the human capability to adapt and survive and maintain civility than William Golding. As a descendant of pioneers myself, I think Heinlein's more likely to be correct.

Anyway, it's good stuff--not earthshaking, but a good solid novel. If you like Heinlein's style, go buy it.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 12, 2002 11:54 PM