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.