Most of what I’ve read in the past year or so has been non-fiction (or occasionally fiction masquerading as non-fiction …), as fodder for my current events news column.
Having put aside the column recently, I found myself looking for something to read and determined to read something just for fun. My wife popped out a quote from Robert A. Heinlein over on Facebook, and I thought, “That’s the ticket. I haven’t read Heinlein in 10 years, I’ll bet.”
My first thought was to reacquaint myself with “Stranger in a Strange Land” or “Time Enough for Love” or “Starship Troopers,” some of my favorites. But once I got to the shelf, I found “Tunnel in the Sky,” a Heinlein I had not read previously. So I snatched it up.
It was worth the read. I’ll call this one “science fantasy” as opposed to “science fiction,” as there really isn’t much plausibility in the premise, which relies upon interstellar stargates that transport people and goods from one world to another instantly. Don’t let that put you off, however; Heinlein uses this set-up the same way “Star Trek” uses transporters — as a means to quickly get interesting characters into interesting places to solve interesting problems.
In this case, a group of students is sent to another world to test their survival skills and, or course, things go horribly wrong. Once the stargate plot element gets left behind, the story is much more of a wilderness drama, with political overtones.
“Tunnel” is a breezy read, told in solid if not sparkling prose (too often marred by typos in my copy). The book provides its share of Heinlein’s trademark quotable tough-talk one-liners, of course.
One thing I really liked was the way the story shifted directions; each time it seemed things were settled, Heinlein changed gears in a believable way. Heroes and villains alike are portrayed with a level of complexity that another author might not have attempted in what is essentially an action/adventure story. It could have been a simple “shoot the monsters” tale, but it ends up being something more.
Not too much more, though; the book isn’t particularly preachy or anything. It’s not quite as overtly political as “Starship Troopers,” for instance. Call it a good old-school science fantasy adventure that will leave you with some things to think about afterward, if you wish.