Having just endured Variable Star, Spider Robinson's earnest but misbegotten attempt at writing a Heinlein juvenile, I thought I'd reach into the cobweb-draped recesses of the fearsome Pile and floss my brain with a copy of the real thing. What I fished out of the darkness was Tunnel in the Sky, a book I haven't read since I was about thirteen or so. While they're getting a little more dated every year, the juvies are still best appreciated at that impressionable age. Could I find something here beyond a nostalgia trip?
Happily I could. Tunnel was released the year after Lord of the Flies, and in many ways reads like a response to it. Heinlein isn't interested so much in how civilizations collapse as in how they're built from the ground up. The premise is that the not-too-distant-future Earth is suffering from a textbook Malthusian overpopulation dilemma, but one whose most dire consequences have been averted by the invention of gates to other, Earthlike worlds. (No one was using the word "wormhole" in 1955.) Galaxy-wide colonization is now going full steam ahead.
Students who wish to go on to careers in colonial management are trained in survival skills. The final exam is an exercise that plops them into the midst of untrammelled alien wilderness, which they must survive by their wits until they are picked up after a number of days. The exercise can literally be lethal; the only one who gets to vote you off the planet in this game is the Grim Reaper. Rod Walker is a high schooler preparing to undertake the survival test with the rest of his class, much to the chagrin of his parents, who have good reasons to wish he'd postpone it until college.
Rod steps through the gate into a deceptively tranquil environment, but quickly finds himself seriously in over his head. But something is more wrong than he or any of his classmates knows. As he finds and teams up with more and more of them, it becomes obvious that the scheduled completion and pickup time for the test has come and gone. Either something has gone wrong with the gate, or there's some other disaster to blame. The crucial issue is that survival in this world is no longer a test, it's reality. For all the students know, they may be picked up tomorrow, or not for years. Or ever.
I don't know that Heinlein is offering any great anthropological insights here, but he's told an uplifting adventure about young people rising to the occasion and building something out of nothing. Rod and his classmates learn by their bootstraps to live off the land, and the group dynamic coalesces into a burgeoning colony town complete with a constitution and elections. All the boilerplate political problems arise; questions of who will lead, and what manner of government will oversee the little village that the students are creating. Can the same kind of democracy that worked for early America work as well here, where the question of daily group survival outweighs good old rugged individualism? How does a leader instill confidence and persuade others to follow him, especially when those people come from a free society that makes them disinclined to follow orders or accept authoritarianism? The threat of rebellion and schism arises more than once, but in sharp contrast to William Golding's cynicism, Heinlein has his young colonists doing their utmost to isolate the bad apples and deal with potentially explosive situations with an eye to fairness and the health of the community at large.
The climax is perhaps inevitable, but also a little too abrupt, with the theme of "you can't go home again" drawn in broad strokes. But mostly this early Heinlein juvie is, like the best of this legendary bunch, not "juvenile" at all, but an intelligent exploration of one of Heinlein's favorite themes: the capacity of humanity to meet the challenges of the universe head on. (Also, despite the master's later reputation for senile sexism, Heinlein here has his female characters just as capable, if not moreso, than the males.) You'll often hear the Heinlein juveniles described as ideal entry-level SF; strong stories that are worth recommending to young readers just starting out in the genre. Over half a century later, that hasn't changed.