November 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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On Human Nature: Contrasting Visions by Two Authors (Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein; Lord of the Flies, by William Golding)
Essay by David Hecht

Anyone reading SFRevu has probably read Tunnel in the Sky. We'd like to recommend it to the next generation of SF readers, or even the next generation of citizens or political thinkers. I asked David Hecht, a friend as knowledgeable as he is opinionated, to write something about Heinlein's 1995 classic, which is out this month in a reprint from Del Rey. He took the opportunity to compare and contrast it with Lord of the Flies, published the year before, and which Tunnel was quite likely a response to. - Editor

Tunnel In The Sky
by Robert Heinlein
Del Rey/Ballantine/ Random House
ISBN 0345466233
PubDate: 11/04/03
272 pgs. List price $6.99
Buy this book and support SFRevu at / Amazon US / Amazon UK

SYNOPSIS: Rod Walker, a high-school student, is dropped off (along with a number of his classmates and students from other schools) on an unknown alien planet for what is ostensibly a ten-day survival exercise. After it becomes clear that something has gone wrong and they may be cast away on the planet indefinitely, he and the others endeavor to create a viable society out of nothing but their wits.

In 1954, British author William Golding published a short novel, Lord of the Flies. This novel, a minatory tale of children abandoned to their own devices in a post-apocalyptic world, is also a philosophical meditation on human nature.

In Golding’s novel, a group of English schoolboys (ages twelve and under) have been evacuated under the threat of attack and subsequently stranded on a deserted tropical island. When the story opens, they are just regrouping from their arrival, in the realization that there are no adults and that they are on their own. One of the older boys, Ralph, assumes leadership of the group.

At first, Ralph and the other boys maintain an approximation of civilization, but then—both through sheer boredom and resentment of the drudgery—one of the other boys, Jack, splits off and starts a rival group: a “tribe” of hunters with painted faces.

The confrontation between Ralph and Jack becomes ever more bellicose. Ralph’s followers start to defect to Jack’s tribe: in one ugly confrontation, Ralph’s second-in-command, Piggy, is brutally killed. Ralph, now alone, is hunted across the island by Jack and his tribe, and the story ends as Ralph prepares to make a last stand on the beach: he is saved in the final instant by a naval officer who has just debarked from a rescue ship.

In 1955, Robert Heinlein published his “juvenile” novel, Tunnel in the Sky. Although there are important differences in the fact situations of these novels, their basic scenario is very similar, but they represent almost opposite treatments of human nature.

There is no direct evidence that Heinlein intended Tunnel as a riposte to Flies: but many readers have assumed there to be a connection, and in any event the two works present a useful contrast in assessing human nature.

Heinlein’s novel starts with somewhat different premises than Golding’s: since the young men and women in Tunnel have come to the primitive planet as the final examination for a survival course, they are better prepared—both physically and psychologically—for the circumstances. They are not deployed as a group, as this is intended as an individual exercise, though some meet up after arriving. Unlike the English schoolboys in Flies, the candidates in Tunnel are somewhat older—high school seniors and college men—and are a mixed group. These differences are significant, as they suggest a greater degree of socialization, and create some different tensions as a result of the admixture of women—who, like all Heinlein women, are tough as nails and not a bit bashful. Indeed--and unusually, even by Heinlein's standards--there are more fully-rendered women characters than men: Rod's sister Helen, an officer in the "Amazon Guards"; "Jack"/Jackie, the first of the other castaways Rod encounters (and whom, at first, he does not even realize is female, lecturing "him" on the problems inherent in a mixed group); and Carol, one of his classmates, who becomes his executive officer toward the end, whom he describes as " genius, and always good-natured and willing--but strong and fast and incredibly violent when you need it--sudden death in all directions."

The time scales of the novels are also quite different: the action in Flies takes place over a period of no more than a few weeks, whereas in Tunnel it lasts for several months before reaching a stable state. Indeed, we are halfway through the book before the situation faced by the group becomes more than a simple struggle to survive, and the group has become large enough to engage issues of leadership and political organization. Rod, the de facto leader of the original group, is challenged twice in one day: first, by a subgroup that refuses his orders and insists on autonomy from the larger group’s direction. Significantly, this group is—after threatening violence to Rod—subdued and expelled by the rest of the group: unlike Jack and his gang, who are never confronted by Ralph and the other boys.

Second and more enduringly, one of the older members of the group uses this confrontation as an opportunity to mount a democratic coup d’etat against Rod: pointing out that Rod has never sought an explicit mandate for leadership, he convinces the rest of the group to support him with the promise of democratic reforms. However, the new leader, Grant Cowper, effectively continues Rod’s benign despotism under another name: and the various committees he appoints to address the pressing issues confronting the group rapidly prove to be useless. Still, the very fact that such a transition can take place without either violence or breaking up the group is significant. Cowper eventually realizes that his leadership is not altogether effective and he co-opts Rod into assuming a position as executive officer: city manager to Grant’s mayor.

Although the group endures several more tense moments—including an attack by the native animals during which Cowper is killed—the group has now reached a plateau of organization and self-sufficiency. After Cowper’s death, Rod resumes as Mayor by acclamation, and we see the town continue to develop, until—long after all hope has gone—Earth rediscovers them and they are able to return to “civilization”.

Although the comparison is reductionist, it is fair to say that Golding’s dominant vision of human nature is the tragic one: that we live in a fallen world, and that our bestial nature lies just below the surface; that civilization is a fragile veneer atop barbarism. Heinlein’s view is a more optimistic one: that—while not denying man’s savage nature—he suggests that our savagery is largely kept in check by our higher natures, and only deployed as required when we are threatened.

Arguably, though, Golding and Heinlein are closer than they appear: Heinlein certainly makes no pretense that the civilizing influence is automatic: one of the first things Rod encounters is the sight of one of his own dead classmates, who has clearly been killed, not by a local predator, but by (in Heinlein’s phrase) “the most dangerous predator of all—the one that walks on two legs”. And Golding, for all the horrors he shows us after the “tribal” split, suggests that Ralph’s main fault is failing to use the credible threat of force to back up the discipline he successfully imposes at the outset.

Theologians and philosophers have debated man’s nature, but most would agree that we carry the seeds of both great good and great evil within ourselves. The very existence of “civilization” as we understand the term indicates that man has a natural tropism for building: yet at the same time, the holocausts of the twentieth century demonstrate that the equally natural tropism for destroying is never very far below the surface, and that even the most ordinary person can easily and quickly succumb to the totalitarian temptation, the propensity to exercise “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Given Heinlein’s known lack of engagement with traditional religion, it is noteworthy that Rod, his family, and many of his classmates appear to have regular religious worship embedded in the patterns of their daily lives: it is especially noteworthy that religious services are an integral part of the castaway community’s rhythms. It may simply be that Heinlein shared the position attributed to the philosopher Leo Strauss: that religious observance has instrumental value for maintaining an orderly society.

Heinlein’s novels—especially his so-called “juveniles”—provide a much-needed tonic for young people today: their protagonists are generally quite ordinary young men (occasionally young women) who are thrust into unfamiliar, often life-threatening situations, and make the best of them against substantial adverse odds. In this sense, Tunnel (and most of the “juveniles”) may be better compared to Kipling’s Captains Courageous—a story of how a spoiled rich kid learns to appreciate the value of honest work.

Heinlein also shows us an art that is apparently forgotten today: how to write an epic without logorrhea. In an era when Robert Jordan novels run to a thousand pages or more, it is refreshing to see a fully developed narrative expounded in just over two hundred pages.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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