March 9th, 2018

think it through

In my last visit to the UCR library, I glanced at their copy of Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky, which was from the Virginia edition, and found the preface saying that Heinlein had explicitly said that Rod Walker, the viewpoint character of the story, was black, and that he had very carefully not made this obvious, while leaving clues from which it could be inferred. I had seen this claim before, but always as an inference from the text, rather than as a reported statement by Heinlein, and I had thought it was not a well founded conclusion; I found it interesting to see that there was apparently actual testimony from Heinlein to support it.

But one of Heinlein's key points was that there are suggestions that Rod and his fellow student Caroline Mshiyeni, a Zulu, could be a couple, and that this would suggest that they're of the same ethnicity, as otherwise they would have to be an interracial pairing, which would have been unacceptable to readers of the time when it was published. Maybe so. But another part of the story has Rod being attracted to Jack Daudet (full name Jacqueline Marie Daudet), only to have to become attracted to Rod's friend Jimmie Throxton and marry him. Now, Jimmie is a red-headed Irish boy, and if Jack is black (or of mixed ancestry that Americans of the time would have called "black"), then she and Jimmie are—an interracial pairing. On the other hand, if she's white, then Rod's being attracted to her is also an interracial pairing, and one that was even more shocking to the racial attitudes of the time. There is no way to have those four characters in that situation and not have at least one possible interracial couple! So Heinlein's argument that Rod's being black avoids this doesn't carry any weight, and I'm really at a loss as to why Heinlein thought it did.

I have to say it still seems to me a simpler hypothesis that the society of Tunnel in the Sky just doesn't consider ethnicity a barrier to love or marriage. Though that may be partly because, when I first read it, I hadn't realized that anyone had such concerns; a few years later, when I read a passage in Podkayne of Mars where a woman from Earth refers to "that shameless mixing of races," I just thought that she was obviously an idiot and that Heinlein was showing her to be so. But even setting my particular unawareness aside, I find it odd that Heinlein didn't notice that he had portrayed a situation where one of the possible couples had to be racially mixed.