The more Heinlein I read, the more I realize that he’s a bit of an acquired taste. Especially when it comes to his youth books. I tend to really enjoy his writing, and I think he tells good stories, but I also acknowledge that his characters are often a little too perfect and that he can come off as a bit heavy-handed when discussing politics. Because of all that, I was surprised to find that Tunnel in the Sky didn’t really fit that mold.
Usually, when Heinlein discusses politics, it doesn’t fit the narrative. Farnham’s Freehold was a good example of that. One of the characters just goes off on a huge tangent about how things should be. In Tunnel in the Sky, there are still political discussions, but they have to be part of the narrative. The book is about a group of young adults founding a colony, so discussions about what form their government should take are wholly appropriate.
The protagonist of the series is also a little different from the standard Heinlein hero. Rod is arrogant, a little reluctant, oblivious to certain things, he makes big mistakes, and even though a lot of things work out for him, not everything does, and he puts in a lot of work to make the good things happen. These flaws made Rod more appealing as a character, even when I thought he was being an idiot. The rest of the characters are almost as good. Caroline and Grant are the two that really shine, but many of the others also have their moments.
As I was going through the book, I saw a lot of parallels to Lord of the Flies. It’s a connection that many others have commented on, especially since this was published just a year after Golding’s novel. I don’t want to rehash the topic, but I’ll briefly give you my thoughts. Really, while the situations in the two books are similar, they aren’t the same. Lord of the Flies is about children who survive through happenstance, not young adults participating in a survival exercise that lasts longer than expected. That key difference separates the two novels to an extent that I feel like they simply have a similar premise, nothing more.
I’ve enjoyed most of the Heinlein books I’ve read, and Tunnel in the Sky was no different. From those I’ve read, I think it’s one of his best youth books.