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Tunnel in the Sky 
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Heinlein Nexus
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Post Tunnel in the Sky
I just finished a reread of TitS after a prolonged hiatus and thought I'd bring up a few things.

The perennial question: Is Rod Walker black? I looked for evidence during the book, here's what I found:

Jack to Rod, describing a third person: "Half a head shorter than you, light hair, pink skin--and a sunburn." "Pink skin" is totally superfluous in conversation between two white people in a majority white world.

Later on Rod describes: "Jacqueline's face, sweaty and none too clean to start with, was now black with smoke, while Jimmy's pink skin showed the soot even more." That would not be evidence that Rod was black, if it were contrasting a black Jacqueline with a white Jimmy; but I saw no other evidence that Jacqueline was black; so why call out Jimmy's pink skin? What race was Jack?

Afterwards, I read http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/faqworks.html and Robert James' evidence, which is compelling and would definitely have provoked the outraged reaction Heinlein said he got out of his publisher when he walked her through the evidence. I side with that rather than the rebuttal on Wikipedia. And I found this part of the text:

Quote:
"Rod, I told you, I want you here. But are you and Caroline planning to marry?"
"Huh? What gave you that notion?"
"Then you can't team with her in any case. We are trying to re-introduce amenities around here."
"Now see here, Cowper!"
"Forget it."


What amenities? Is Heinlein referring to color separation - if you're not married then you have no excuse to hang out together? What did he expect the unsuspecting reader to think he meant? The colony - heck, the entire society - is in all other described respects completely color-blind so it seems unlikely this is a reference to apartheid.

On other topics... I think a later Heinlein would have shown some kind of consequences for the operators of the botched transfer. Would have shown a more contrite Matson: kids died on this planet and he might not have caused the screw-up that led to it but he's the type to take responsibility anyway.

Finally, what is the basis for the religion described in the book? "The Principle" is a remarkably neutral description for a deity - they use it anthropomorphically but literally it would appear to refer to natural law rather than a being. Where did he get the "Peace Lamp" from? Rather a nice concept; we could use one at home.


Sat Sep 01, 2012 5:03 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
I satisfied myself that Rod and his family are, if not African black, at least dark-skinned, long ago. Wrote a bit on that point. The only way you can write a contradictory opinion is to stand completely outside the tropes and attitudes of the mid-1950s and judge Heinlein's subtle passes with the wrong assumptions.

I think you went off the track regarding 'amenities,' though. It has nothing to do with race or race perception, since we see absolutely none of that back in the civilization end of the story. Cowper means proprieties and social assumptions - an unmarried couple can't go sneaking off in the bushes together because it's inappropriate socially/sexually. Other than the underlying assumption that Rod and Caroline make a marriageable pair, I don't think there's anything about race in this passage.

On consequences for the gate screwup: I think you're misreading the story. A nova distorted space and lost the planet's coordinates, and it's clearly stated that they had been searching for the lost students since the event happened. They have already intentionally sent the students off to thrive or die (even kill each other); any consequence of failing to pick them up in two weeks would be so minor as to be brushed off. It was all part of the risk, and it's very lightly implied that 'Tanaroa' wasn't the only planet affected. Also consider that it was bad form to demonize companies in the mid-1950s, at least in YA fiction, and that Heinlein's companies and organizations are NEVER at fault for anything - being examples of homo superior in chartered form, and all.

Heinlein actually writes more salient and grounded things about the religion than in almost any other book where religion isn't a primary topic. Proselyting waves of evangelical Monism sweeping out of Persia... a purified form of Islam melded with Zoroastrianism and possibly Coptic Christianity, reduced to the monist viewpoint and based on a simple but unstated principle... that's more of a blueprint than in all of Stranger. Google up Monism and think a bit on it.

Back to race, though. Is Matson black? After all, he fell like a ton of bricks for Rod's amazon sister and is off to colonize with her. :shock:

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Sun Sep 02, 2012 7:19 am
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
Back to race, though. Is Matson black? After all, he fell like a ton of bricks for Rod's amazon sister and is off to colonize with her. :shock:


How would that make Matson black? As with all Heinlein characters who embody the Heinlein values, he fell for the sister not because she was a sister, but because of her values. IMHO, anywho.


Sun Sep 02, 2012 6:02 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
Also consider that it was bad form to demonize companies in the mid-1950s, at least in YA fiction, and that Heinlein's companies and organizations are NEVER at fault for anything - being examples of homo superior in chartered form, and all.

Which is why I said a later Heinlein would have taken the opportunity to juice up the story by having the colonists tell their rescuers where to stick their liability releases.
Quote:
Back to race, though. Is Matson black? After all, he fell like a ton of bricks for Rod's amazon sister and is off to colonize with her. :shock:

That is a very interesting point, and the basis for Wikipedia's argument that Robert James is wrong. However, they do not quote Heinlein's letter where he says he had included hidden proof that Rod was black for the specific purpose of pointing it out to his publisher and enjoying her outrage. I think he was quite counting on her not being smart enough to discover the counterpoint that you raise, and deliberately including it as proof that he supported interracial marriage.


Sun Sep 02, 2012 7:06 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
Not having read the Scottish Wiki on any Heinlein topic, I wasn't aware of that, but in thinking about your post and the book, it jumped out as a glaring exception to his extended finesses about Rod's race. Not sure how I ever missed it before.

Bottom line, I think that all of Heinlein's games with race are just that - games, each planned as an isolated exercise but without any depth of understanding or execution. I can't think of a single "non Midwestern white" character that is convincing in attitude, language, or presentation. The ones that are specifically assigned a race or culture are all rather cardboard cutout characters, even grossly stereotyped like the Jewish couple in Stranger. (I can overlook the 1940s presentations of blacks etc. as more a product of their time, but.) They are nonwhite because RAH laboriously says so, then subjects them to a bit of racial abuse or shock from another character, and puts a few "native" words in their mouth apparently looked up in Brittanica. He makes no attempt to create rounded, believable nonwhite characters... and each and every one of them is indistinguishable from his parade of white boys whenever he isn't straining to give them color.

Even worse are the shadow people like Rod and Eunice - in all the fan-dancing, he sometimes forgets what race or culture they are supposed to be and has them act and speak pure US Midwestern. In short, Heinlein is to be commended for attempting to push outside the rigid stereotype of an Iowa boy scout, especially in the juveniles, but he was never very good at it and got worse in later years. In an era when many writers had mastered multicultural characters, Heinlein was still trotting out paper dolls and trying to throw us with a shake-em-up sentence late in the book - such as the absolutely inexplicable exchange between Colin and "Sam Beaux" late in CWWTW. He couldn't keep it straight and consistent even when it was supposed to be a main feature of the story, and thirty years later it was reduced to a brief sight gag, usually ineptly handled and ill-timed to boot.

Frankly, I don't think Matson marrying Rod's sister was meant to be a stinging cultural rebuke... he just forgot.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 8:34 am
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
He makes no attempt to create rounded, believable nonwhite characters... and each and every one of them is indistinguishable from his parade of white boys whenever he isn't straining to give them color.


Well, yes. He doesn't even attempt regional differences between white people, for the most part. The Prof and Mannie look like exceptions, but really they're just playing games with syntax, one leaving out pronouns, one being a little more florid, but still coming from the same white bread base as all of them.

It's inconceivable that someone as smart as him didn't know this, of course. I think he simply didn't want to try affecting cultural differences for the sake of it. Beyond doubt he was supportive of all kinds of integration far ahead of his time; he just wasn't going to put blackface on in writing to support the point.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 9:41 am
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
I think you're being too kind and trying too hard to write additions to the already lengthy Heinlein Apologia.

Heinlein was a man of his time, and his time was the 1920s. I would be very surprised if any of his attitudes were still in flux as late as the mid-1950s; besides such changes in lifetime orientation being rare after 50 or so (even after 35 or so), Heinlein has a demonstrated record of holding on to his beliefs and values. Even with the best of intentions and a full self-understanding of his own limitations, I think Heinlein would have found it nearly impossible to understand racial issues as well as any moderately well-read person of our day. We have the advantage of growing up in a culture where racism was actively disdained and suppressed... and even I spent my earliest years in clueless white suburbia of the '60s. (We weren't racist by indoctrination; we were just ignorant. I think Heinlein spent his entire formative life in such ignorance but WITH the accepted overtone of racism.)

It takes no special effort to call his attempts at race-balancing feeble and thinly worked. I don't think the poor results diminish his evident concern for the problems of racism and exclusion; he saw them, and to an extent he empathized... but he did not truly understand them. He could only deal with the topic in a very focused, prepared, cheat-sheet sort of way, and from our perspective, it shows. Even his late-era writing is closer in tone to early-20th authors who generously wove in "the fine Negro couple that keeps house for us" than to present-day sensibilities.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 9:59 am
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
I can't think of a single "non Midwestern white" character that is convincing in attitude, language, or presentation.


I don't disagree, but it's not like most of his Midwestern white characters are all that convincing, either.

For all the credit that he gets (and deserves) for moving the writing of SF in a more naturalistic direction compared to his predecessors, his characterization is often wanting (I think). Rather than creating realistic characters, and dropping them into a scenario and letting the story grow, he defined his characters by particular roles that he needed them to play in his stories. Farnham's wife needed to be a shrew, to justify Hugh's infidelity. Jacqueline in Tunnel needed to be a girl in drag, to show how clueless Rod was. Many of his protagonists are whatever is required to move the story along, and also to drive home the larger meta-lessons that RAH is trying to teach, but believable they are not. Heinlein's strengths were his ideas and plots, and his characters served those masters.

(and I'm sure we can find some white Midwestern characters in RAH's work that meet any given level of "believable" that we can come up with. That doesn't disprove the argument I'm making.)


Mon Sep 03, 2012 1:37 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
PeterScott wrote:
He doesn't even attempt regional differences between white people, for the most part.


Yes. I'm a Southern boy (raised in Tennessee, lives in Alabama), and I tend to be fairly conscious of how Southerners are portrayed. The only Southern character that really stands out in memory in Heinlein's work is Breckinridge, the recruit in Starship Troopers who fractured his arm -- "ah've played a whole quahtuh with wuss." Not so much a character as a stereotype.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 1:49 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
Not having read the Scottish Wiki on any Heinlein topic, I wasn't aware of that, but in thinking about your post and the book, it jumped out as a glaring exception to his extended finesses about Rod's race. Not sure how I ever missed it before.

Bottom line, I think that all of Heinlein's games with race are just that - games, each planned as an isolated exercise but without any depth of understanding or execution. I can't think of a single "non Midwestern white" character that is convincing in attitude, language, or presentation. The ones that are specifically assigned a race or culture are all rather cardboard cutout characters, even grossly stereotyped like the Jewish couple in Stranger. (I can overlook the 1940s presentations of blacks etc. as more a product of their time, but.) They are nonwhite because RAH laboriously says so, then subjects them to a bit of racial abuse or shock from another character, and puts a few "native" words in their mouth apparently looked up in Brittanica. He makes no attempt to create rounded, believable nonwhite characters... and each and every one of them is indistinguishable from his parade of white boys whenever he isn't straining to give them color.

Even worse are the shadow people like Rod and Eunice - in all the fan-dancing, he sometimes forgets what race or culture they are supposed to be and has them act and speak pure US Midwestern. In short, Heinlein is to be commended for attempting to push outside the rigid stereotype of an Iowa boy scout, especially in the juveniles, but he was never very good at it and got worse in later years. In an era when many writers had mastered multicultural characters, Heinlein was still trotting out paper dolls and trying to throw us with a shake-em-up sentence late in the book - such as the absolutely inexplicable exchange between Colin and "Sam Beaux" late in CWWTW. He couldn't keep it straight and consistent even when it was supposed to be a main feature of the story, and thirty years later it was reduced to a brief sight gag, usually ineptly handled and ill-timed to boot.

Frankly, I don't think Matson marrying Rod's sister was meant to be a stinging cultural rebuke... he just forgot.


I thought Mr. Kiku in The Star Beast was a rounded-enough character, given that the novel was comic in nature. I also believe Greenberg was treated appropriately. I disagree that Carolyn in Tunnel is not a rounded character. I've said before she is probably my favorite character in the juveniles.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 2:46 pm
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