Book Review: Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein

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.

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For Christmas

(A relevant seasonal excerpt from my World War II novel, My Dear Cousin, which was completed and released last year at about this time. Part of the narrative is in letters, between two cousins; Vennie is an Army nurse serving in North Africa and Europe, Peg the wife of a Far East POW, waiting out the war in Australia, wondering for years if her husband is still alive.) The details of this 1942 Christmas holiday celebration in a military hospital was taken from this book.

Letter from Vennie to Peg, dated 26 December 1942, Postmarked APO NY, headed Arzew, Algiers

My dear Cuz:

We had our Christmas here in Algeria at the hospital and it was more beautiful and moving than I can describe.

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Scott Atlas’ book, “A Plague Upon Our House.”

I read this book this week and found a good book review in “City Journal,” titled “Three Blind Mice.” Atlas began as an academic neuroradiologist and then transitioned to a 15 year career as a health policy researcher. I did something similar when I was forced to retire at age 55 with an old back injury. I spent a year at Dartmouth learning methodology and biostatistics. I don’t know enough about Atlas’ story to know if he did something similar. Quite a few academic physicians have done similar transitions, especially as they get older.

In Atlas’ case, once he was recognized by the Media, he was immediately denigrated as “a radiologist.” He was also labelled as “not an epidemiologist.” It did not matter that none of the other three MDs on the Task Force was an epidemiologist, either. Atlas was in contact with many epidemiologists who were feeding him data and statistics.

He found the “Three Blind Mice” of Birx, Fauci and Redfield were uninterested in data or the scientific publications he kept bringing to the meetings. Eventually, he gave up going to the meetings. He found Trump receptive and he agreed with Atlas’ program of protecting the high risk population, especially nursing home residents, plus others with pre-existing conditions, one of which has turned out to be obesity. He blames Trump and his team for being afraid to sack Birx who was the one telling all the Governors to lock down their states. As he says in conclusion, “It didn’t matter. They still lost the election.” They feared a firestorm in the press if she was demoted.

Atlas was in despair as they continued to emphasize testing the asymptomatic and neglect the nursing homes where almost 50% of the deaths occurred. The psychological and economic damage from the lockdowns may last for years. Masks are useless and he quotes many studies to prove it. The one study quoted by Birx all along was based on two beauty parlor employees. That was it.

In the end, he quit after the election although Trump wanted him to stay. He continued to communicate by email. He describes the insane abuse he took from the Media and may spend a little too much time on it in the book. Some professors at Stanford (not the epidemiologists) sent out an email letter attacking him for working with Trump.

He has one section about Florida Governor DeSantis who, he writes, was already familiar with the literature and who implemented most of Atlas’ policies on his own. I remember the Media attacking DeSantis when he set up treatment facilities at a large retirement community, accusing him of treating supporters first. He was following the science they ignored in their identity politics frenzy. Florida could have been as big a disaster as New York with their huge senior population. The fact that DeSantis followed the science and not the Media prevented that outcome.

Other books are beginning to come out now but this one seems authentic by an insider. Here is the book at Amazon. I read the Kindle version. The hardcover came out a few days later.

Recent Reading

Four mini-reviews in this batch:

Splendid Solution, by Jeffrey Kluger
Red Plenty, Francis Spufford
Instruments of Darkness, Alfred Price
The Scarlet Thread, Mandy Rice-Davies

Splendid Solution is about the development of the Salk polio vaccine. The book gives a vivid picture of the devastation wrought by epidemics with no vaccines and without meaningful treatments, both the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and the successive polio epidemics, and the public health measures used in attempts to control such epidemics.  It describes how the Salk vaccine was developed, some of the conflicts among scientists, and the vaccine rollout, including media reactions and early manufacturing problems.  Very interesting reading, especially in the light of our present vaccine situation and controversies.

Red Plenty is about Soviet economic planning, as seen from the inside.  (I’ve reviewed it previously here, but recently re-read it in conjunction with an online book discussion group.)  It’s part fiction and part factual history: the characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.” Very well-written and also well-researched and footnoted.

Instruments of Darkness is about electronic warfare during WWII, primarily on the European front but also touching on the Pacific war.  Covers ‘the battle of the beams,’ in which Britain attempted to interfere with the radio guidance system used by the Germans to support night bombing, and the jamming and spoofing which was directed at communications between night fighters and their ground controllers.

The author was himself an electronics warfare officer with the RAF during the war, so speaks from a position of knowledge.

A Scarlet Thread is a historical novel about Israeli settlements in what was then called Palestine, at the time of the First World War.  Faced with increasing exactions and depredations by the Turkish rulers, a group of Jews resolve to support the British war effort by providing intelligence information–if they can find anyone in the British government who is willing to accept such information and take it seriously, that is.

The author became famous (or infamous) as one of the two women involved in the Profumo sex scandal of 1963-64, which brought down Prime Minister Macmillan and the Conservative government.  She married an Israeli, moved to Israel, and converted to Judaism–this book (published in 1989) is a pretty decent historical novel, not just an attempt at capitalizing on her celebrity.