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"The Hunger Games" v. Heinlein`s "Tunnel in the Sky"
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March 28, 2012, 10:15 PM
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The Hunger Games can be compared to scores of predecessors in terms of plot and setting, but one likely inspiration that is widely overlooked is Robert A. Heinlein`s 1955 young adult sci-fi novel Tunnel In The Sky, in which several dozen boys and girls must survive in the wilds for about a week on an unknown planet to pass their Advanced Survival course. 

A major problem with at least the movie version of The Hunger Games is the almost complete lack of discussion of tactics. Supposedly, this fight to the death competition has been broadcast to universal audiences on TV for 74 years, but almost nobody seems to have developed any strategies for playing despite all their watching. All the sympathetic characters are just depressed by it, which is natural, but, jeez, we get it, you are feeling sad about this. And the unsympathetic characters have little of interest to say, either. Finally, 15 seconds before the competition starts, the heroine`s coach (Woody Harrelson) gives her some advice — don`t rush in to grab a weapon right away and go for high ground. So, while half the kids die in the first minute trying to grab weapons from the big pile, Katniss runs off deep into the woods and climbs a tree to hide to wait things out until the odds are more in her favor.

Now, that`s fairly interesting, and it likely is lifted directly from Tunnel in the Sky, which begins with a long talk between the hero Rod Walker (who eventually appears to be black, by the way) and his older sister, a Captain in the Space Amazons, who passed the test a decade before. She advises against taking high tech weaponry that will just make him feel arrogant. He decides to hole up in a tree and wait it out.

But, in Heinlein`s book, a technical glitch ends up marooning them for several years. Tunnel in the Sky is sometimes assumed to be Heinlein`s rejoinder to William Golding`s Lord of the Flies, in which the young people descend to savagery, although Golding`s book didn`t become well-known until several years later, when it became a favorite of teachers to show their classes what they`d be like without any adult discipline.

In contrast to Lord of the Flies, Tunnel in the Sky starts out with some Hobbesian violence, but the book is devoted to how young people, thrust into this classic conception of a "state of nature" where the individual life expectancy is solitary, poor, brutish, and short could come together to form a society that works in terms of physical security, technology, politics, and economics. Heinlein was a huge fan of the American frontier experience, so much of his sci-fi is devoted to finding outer space situations to recreate the challenges faced by settlers. The ratio of interesting ideas to pages is extraordinarily high. Heinlein thinks through all sorts of problems, such as how do you find other people to team up with (set green branches on fire, like in The Hunger Games) while you hide at an overlook to see whether they are too dangerous for you.

By the end of Tunnel in the Sky several years later, the kids have settled in a riverfront cave defensible against wild animals, have found clay deposits and are working on a pottery kiln, and are taking the first steps toward agriculture and irrigation. They are enjoying a deserved baby boom. Everybody agrees that they`ll never go back. Of course, when they`re rescued, almost everybody except a recalcitrant Rod quickly decides to go home to Earth. A lady newscaster much like Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games has her make-up man paint war stripes on Rod`s face for her interstellar broadcast about how the teens immediately reverted to savagery. 


In contrast, the kill or be killed rules of The Hunger Games are simply too Hobbesian to sustain interest over the course of a television season. A reality series like Survivor, which Collins was obviously influenced by, has much better thought out rules that inspire both cooperation and backstabbing.