In William Golding’s 1955 novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, a group of students is stranded on an island–and they revert quickly to barbarism. The book sold millions of copies and has become common assigned reading for high school classes. Another book, published at about the same time, projects a very different view of human nature and society.
Heinlein’s future world in Tunnel in the Sky has been faced with a crisis of massive overpopulation…a common projected future in books of this period:
…the population of Terra had climbed well beyond that which its farm lands could support. The hydrogen, germ, and nerve gas horrors that followed were not truly political. The true meaning was more that of beggars fighting over a crust of bread…Life, all life, has the twin drives to survive and to reproduce.
Release from the Malthusian Trap was ultimately gained through an invention that opened up new worlds for settlement: a hyperfold device called a Gate allows people to transition instantly from earth to their new homes light-years away…and, unlike rockets, the Gate technology allows very large numbers of people to be transferred. There’s a catch, though: keeping a gate open requires huge amounts of energy, so when the migrants move to a new planet, the gate is relaxed and they are left on their own until such time as they can offer enough trade goods to be worth the energy of reconnecting them…which may be a long, long time. Hence, old skills have again become relevant…the situation of the settlers:
…made horses more practical than helicopters, picks and shovels more useful than bulldozers. Machinery gets out of order and requires a complex technology to keep it going–but good old “hayburners” keep right on breeding, cropping grass, and pulling loads.
The book’s protagonist, Rod Walker, is a high school senior who plans on a future as a pioneer and a colonist and hence is taking a course in Outlands Survival. Final exam time has arrived: the students will be sent to a planet of which they know nothing–the test rules are ANY planet–ANY climate–ANY terrain and NO rules–ANY weapons–ALL equipment. They will be left on their own for 1-2 weeks, then returned to earth.
The class (which includes girls as well as boys) has a final session with their instructor…Rod is asked to stay after the others and is advised that he would be wise drop the course and skip the test:
Rod, you’re a good boy…but sometimes that isn’t enough. I think you are a romantic. Now this is a very romantic age; it calls for practical men…You are way too emotional, too sentimental to be a real survivor type…I’m not sure that you can beware of the Truce of the Bear.
But Rod decides to go, despite the advice and despite the fact that the boy he had intended to team with decides at the last moment to drop the class. After passing through the Gate and finding himself alone, he discovers one of his classmates–who has been killed. By a predator? Yes…but:
Yo’s proud Thunderbolt gun was no longer in sight…The only animal who would bother to steal a gun ran around on two legs. Rod reminded himself that a Thunderbolt could kill at almost any line-of-sight range–and now somebody had it who obviously took advantage of the absence of law and order in a survival test area.
After surviving for several days, beginning to get oriented, and encountering various local animal species, Rod meets up with Jack, a member of a different class sent to the same survival area. Over time, they encounter others, and a group begins to develop with Rod as the de facto leader. Their recall at the end of the test period is delayed–at first, they think it is just a minor technical problem of some sort, but the feeling grows that something has gone very badly wrong, and they may be stuck on this planet for an indeterminate time–maybe forever.
Rod attempts to organize a routine, with individuals assigned to various tasks–but when one group of older boys refuses to accept his authority, the situation becomes violent and Rod barely escapes with his life. The troublemakers are exiled and warned not to return. But Grant Cowper, a student-government type (majoring at Teller U in Colonial Administration) tells Rod that the underlying problem is that he (Rod) doesn’t have any real authority…that the group needs to be organized for the long term, with a formal structure and with elections for the leadership. Rod and his friends don’t see any point in this, but he grudgingly agrees. It is assumed that Rod will win the election in a walk..but Grant has been active in behind-the-scenes electioneering, and gives an impressive speech, some of which I have quoted previously. He asks the group: “What is the prime knowledge acquired by our race? That without which the rest is useless? What flame must we guard like vestal virgins?”
There are various answers: “Fire”…”the decimal system”…”the wheel”…but Grant replies:
“No, none of those. They are all important, but they are not the keystone. The greatest invention of mankind is government. It is also the hardest of all. More individualistic than cats, nevertheless we have learned to cooperate more efficiently than ants or bees or termites. Wilder, bloodier, and more deadly than sharks, we have learned to live together as peacefully as lambs. But these things are not easy. That is why that which we do tonight will decide our future…and perhaps the future of our children, our children’s children, our descendants far into the womb of time. We are not picking a temporary survival leader; we are setting up a government.”
Grant wins the election. Some of Rod’s friends propose that they leave and set up a separate group, but Rod decides that they should stay together, at least for long enough to give Grant a chance. There is considerable friction, though, between Rod and Grant. Rod and others think that Grant is overdoing the formalism, with various committees on everything…also, that Grant is rather high-handed, as with his decision to write a Bill of Rights himself rather than adopting the Virginia Bill of Rights in toto, as others have proposed. And moreover, the two just don’t like each other. (Grant, at one point, remarks that government is the art of getting along with people you don’t like)
So does the group stay together, or does it split? Are the bad actors who were exiled out of the picture for good, or do they eventually return to cause more trouble? And are the students ever able to return to earth?…and if they can, will they want to? I won’t tell any more of the story here, because spoilers. This book is one of Heinlein’s ‘juveniles’, targeted mainly to teenage boys, but it’s good reading for adults as well. A combination of an adventure story, an essay on political principles and practical politics, and a coming-of-age story, all in one.
A huge difference from the Golding book is that Heinlein’s student group includes girls as well as boys…it is also multi-ethnic, indeed, one of Rob’s closest friends and leadership associates in a Zulu girl named Caroline. (The female characters, at least Caroline, are better-developed in this book than in some of Heinlein’s other work) Another big difference is that while Golding’s characters had no idea that they were going to have to go live in an alien and primitive environment, all of the characters in the Heinlein book did have such an expectation, by virtue of the classes they were taking and the careers they had in mind–they just expected it to happen several years later and as part of a group organized in advance. But they had devoted some thought to matters of survival, and at least
Grant had devoted considerable thought to the nature of government.
Given the fact that this was published as a juvenile book and also the era in which it was published, there is no portrayal of sexual longings, satisfactions, and conflicts among the teenage and early-twenties characters. There are, however, several marriages and resulting children. (Early in the book, Rod expresses the opinion that boys and girls need to have separate groups, otherwise: “Quarrels and pretty jeaolousies and maybe a couple of boys knifing each other. It will be tough enough without that trouble.”)
In 1965, there was a real incident in which a group of students (only boys) was stranded on an island for a prolonged period of time. The events that unfolded were closer to those in Tunnel in the Sky than to those in the Golding book. Although these students all knew each other prior to the stranding, which may have been a significant point.