Friday, October 20, 2017

Tunnel in the Sky

Spoilers: the book in question. Obviously.

Rod showed them the stobor traps and described the annual berserk migration. "Stobor pour through these holes and fall in the pits. The other animals swarm past, as solid as city traffic for hours."
"Catastrophic adjustment." Matson remarked.
"Huh? Oh, yes, we figured that out. Cyclic catastrophic balance, just like human beings."


How can anyone not love Robert Heinlein?
Tunnel in the Sky (aside from sounding like some acid-fueled rock album circa 1970) is a 1955 book aimed mainly at a teenage audience. It reads much like old romantic adventure stories in the south seas: youngsters marooned in an exotic environment live off the land while cobbling together a system of mutual cooperation. Except, y'know... in spaAaAaAce! By Heinlein standards the science is relatively soft, leaving most of the action to center on human interactions. In that lies the book's charm, as various parts of it come across as deliciously subversive, whether in its original 1950's milieu or today.

For instance, that Wikipedia article cites the protagonist being either black or Hispanic. Huh. News to me, because Heinlein treated the topic as it should be treated. Rod Walker is a relatively clever, competent, practical, determined, well-meaning young man whose skin color is about as relevant to his various decisions as the color a car's painted when it crashes. Take that, both segregationism and modern identity politics! How much more poignantly does it hit you as an afterthought than if Rod were turned into a pathetic modern whiny snowflake bawling and sermonizing about institutional prejudice every other page?

Or take the two decidedly non-girly female supporting characters, one an in-your-face zulu warrior bitch lusting after so many boys she can't even make up her mind, the other so metrosexual that the hero doesn't even realize he's a she until someone else tells him. Or imagine, just imagine, any other author setting up such an obvious love triangle then gradually ditching it altogether. The hero doesn't end up with either one of them... and that, amazingly, is all right, because Rod has other priorities. Imagine that. By the end of the story he rides off into the sunset as bachelor leader of a wagon train.

Or try the beginning commentary on China. It has apparently invaded Australia, irrigating the central desert into a lush paradise through amazing feats of engineering, then overpopulating it into a hideously crowded, filthy, choking hellhole of a slum. That pretty much sums up China for anyone who's ever even glanced in its direction: genocidal, grandiose and continually wiping its ass with the rights of individuals for the past five millennia.

Or see the "coming of age" portion of the story, in which Rod begins as a respectful son and ends as a solidly centered, independent mind making his own decisions. Because, yeah, y'know what? Smart youth surpass their parents.

The best of Tunnel in the Sky comes across in light, quick asides and afterthoughts, in Heinlein's flair for rapid but meaningful banter coming from well-informed characters. The best possible example is the presumption that humanity as a whole operates on a sub-sentient level, incapable of self-control, that it will constantly breed until the only way to reduce its numbers is by large-scale destruction. While the threat of Malthusian collapse is presented at the start of the book as the central driving force for human interstellar expansion, you're left to forget it for most of the story. Enjoy the drama, the adventure, the heart-pounding tales of life and death, the suspense. Will-they-won't-they and will they or won't they be rescued?
Then, suddenly, toward the end of the tale, it boomerangs back to crack you upside the head in that lovely bit quoted at the start of this post. Two lines, two measly lines, so casual, so matter-of-fact that you can miss them, and hitting so much harder for it.
"Cyclic catastrophic balance, just like human beings."
Boom. Headshot.
What? Oh, yeah, of course humanity's just a bunch of brainless vermin headed off a cliff, sure. I mean, duh!

God damn the bastard was good!

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