Book Review: Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage by Alexei PanshinTitle: Rite of Passage
Author: Alexei Panshin
First Published: 1968
Rating: 4/5 (The first 2 sections were closer to 4.5 for me, with part 3 landing somewhere around a 3.5.  So all in all, about a 4.)
Challenges:  TBR Pile, Vintage Science Fiction Month

Alexei Panshin is an American author born in 1940.  He has published a handful of novels, many short stories available in two collections, and several nonfiction volumes of essays and critique on the subject of science fiction literature.  He was in his mid-20s when he began writing Rite of Passage, which won the 1968 Nebula Award for Novel and was nominated for the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Rite of Passage is one of those books that by all rights should be considered a classic of its genre but for some odd conjunction of reasons seems to have been largely forgotten.  This is, in my opinion, a terrible shame, as the book is an engaging, intelligent and refreshing portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age in a future human society – a story that would delight many readers of YA literature today. Panshin has created a believable, layered protagonist and managed to avoid many of the gender-related pitfalls that plague a lot of science fiction of the era.

Roger Zelazny, in his blurb of the book, wrote:

“Alexei Panshin has done a rare thing for a young man: he has captured the feelings of a young girl, at the point in her life where all young girls are most beautiful and most pathetic.  And he has done it within the framework of a science fiction story.  I am very impressed.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Zelazny.  Mia Havero, our young protagonist, practically leaps from the page, with her intelligence, recklessness, curiosity, stubborness, questioning, insecurity, over-confidence, jealousy, humor and casual cruelty coming together to paint a fully-realized young girl on the verge of so many huge changes.  There were many times I had trouble believing this wasn’t written by a woman, so spot-on was the inner litany of Mia’s thoughts, questions, fears and dreams.

The short-form backstory, which takes place 150 years before the events of the narrative:  Earth, having become drastically over-populated, suffered a series of devastating wars, famines and plagues and eventually lost its viability as a human habitat.  Colony ships were created by coring out asteroids – which actually makes some sense the way it’s explained in the story – and various groups of humans strike out for the stars.  The intention was that upon reaching worlds suitable for colonization, the colonists would proceed to do just that, but when the time came, many of the ships’ most highly educated, skilled and/or specialized populace determined they did not want to go back to square one, scrabbling for basic existence in the dirt, and essentially losing thousands of years of human progress.  These people stayed aboard the ships, and a dual society was formed – technologically-advanced people living on the ships with access to everything from libraries of human history and science, advanced medicine, hydroponics, shuttle travel, etc., and agrarian folks on various colony worlds, struggling against the environment, local wildlife and/or other races and their own limitations while dealing with low tech and a whole host of new superstitions and traditions that developed over time to replace those lost by the severance of society with the ships.  Trade is established, with raw materials mined by those planet-side traded for tiny bits of tech doled out by the ship-dwellers.  The trade is quite lopsided, and both groups develop a distrust and resentment of one another as they become less and less alike.

This brings us to the actual meat of our story.  The year is 2198.  Mia lives aboard one of the Ships.  She is nearing the time of her Trial – a ritual “rite of passage” upon turning 14 that must be passed to graduate into full adulthood within the Ship’s society, with full voting rights and the ability to make her own decisions without parental oversight.  It entails surviving alone on one of the planets for a month, fending for oneself for food, shelter, dealing with wildlife, the human population, etc.

Mia’s life pulses with realism, and the world of the Ship and its culture are drawn superbly.  She has philosophical differences with her father, trouble integrating into what is essentially a new neighborhood and school, peer rivalries that often result in fist fights, insecurities about her slow-to-develop body, realistic thoughts about menstruation, a penchant for exploring hidden crannies of the Ship, a mean football/soccer leg, a subtly brilliant mind, a taste for reading old books from “before,” a bit too much egotism and classism, and a tendency to believe the stereotypes about the “mudeaters” (planet dwellers) commonly accepted by her people.  (To be sure, the planet-siders have the same sort of wrong-headed, generalized negative beliefs about the ship-folk, too.  This sort of thinking goes both ways with neither culture being shown as fully in the right or wrong.)

The first two sections of the book deal with Mia’s life on the Ship, with the second covering her preparation for Trial, and part 3 deals with Trial itself.  The first and second sections were fantastic and really filled out Mia’s world for the reader.  The third section, while definitely containing some interesting bits and plot developments, fell behind for me.  It felt a bit rushed, as if Panshin, after having taken his time to really flesh things out in the first two sections, had become hurried to complete his work and condensed some things too compactly.  Another 20 or so pages would have done wonders to help with this, but overall the book was so enjoyable and unusual for its time that I’m not going to complain too much about this.

The plot could be simply summarized, perhaps, in this way:  A young girl lives on a colony spaceship, makes friends and enemies, learns to make her own decisions, comes to realize adults aren’t infallible and majority opinion won’t always agree with yours.  Along the way, she gains some skills and confidence, has some of her beliefs challenged and others reinforced, faces fear and pain as well as joy and pleasure.  In short, she grows up.  And there are horses, perhaps somewhat improbably, but some of them have really adorable and amusing names.

But to leave it at that would miss so much of what is wonderful about the story. As I don’t want to spoil everything, allow me to list some of the interesting things that stuck out for me:

  • While the culture of the Ship does recognize gender, there is no gender bias restricting roles nor is there a hierarchy based on gender.
  • As long as those involved are consenting adults, there are not restrictions on sex. People may or may not pair up or group up for relationships, and there is no suggestion of any particular level of hetero-normativity.  But procreation is a different matter.  No one can procreate without applying and being approved, to prevent the over-population that caused Earth’s downfall.  Violating this rule is a Big BIG No-No.
  • The book presents a lot to think about regarding social structures, the power of knowledge and its restriction, determination of what is and isn’t ethical, and the democratic process of decision-making.
  • The populace of the Ship is very multi-cultural, with names suggesting a wide variety of heritages.  Many of the heritages are expressly noted, and there seems to be no racial bias on the Ship.
  • Spirituality is a laid-back concept for Ship dwellers.  Some believe in a god, some in many, others in none.  People accept this diversity, and no religious structure is enforced or prohibited.
  • Technology is handled fairly deftly.  The people of the Ship are obviously more technologically advanced than we are in the early 21st century, and Panshin was wise not to describe all sorts of fancy whiz-bang gizmos that would date the story and make it seem silly down the road.  Hydroponics is an important food-provision source, as is vat-grown protein.  Medical technology is very advanced.  The only thing that really stuck out as anachronistic is that communications on the Ship are less advanced than our own, with no sort of instant messaging, although they do have the internet-ish archives for knowledge and data storage.  I can hardly fault Panshin for not predicting social media and email, however.
  • On a related note, Panshin set his story far enough in the future that we don’t find ourselves rolling our eyes at the idea of interstellar travel in 1999 or some such.
  • Although some of the details of how the Ship works and how things are immediately outside the Ship might not hold up to serious scientific scrutiny, they are satisfactorily explained within the context of the fictional universe. I had no trouble suspending my disbelief and just going with the flow.
  • In addition to honest mention of menstruation, one thing that surprised me (considering the time the book was published) was the frankness with which sex between two 14-year-olds was approached.  It happens only once, and it is rather sweet and not explicit and is fully in context and consensual. The characters don’t know if they will survive their predicament and feel strongly for each other, and one muses that this is something that is only for adults for good reason.  I thought it was well-handled and wholly realistic, but more sensitive readers might be a bit put off that it happens at all.
  • Often in today’s YA lit, the hero/ine is a bit too close to perfect, a bit of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu template for the reader to project on.  Flaws are presented as positives (Her rebelliousness allows her to save her people.  His seeming coldness protects his heart.  Etc.)  and the protagonists are generally likable – someone the reader might like to be or to befriend or fall in love with.  Mia Havero has a lot of positive qualities, but she also has flaws that she never really jettisons.  In this, she is more realistic, if less heroic-seeming, than many modern central YA characters.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes to give you a taste of the feel of the book, taken from section 2 when Mia and her classmates are just starting a several-weeks-long eclectic training regimine aimed at helping them survive Trial:

“Then there were dancing lessons.  You may well wonder what we were doing with dancing lessons, but they were actually a part of our Survival Class training. 

Mr. Marechal said, ‘This isn’t meant to be fun and it isn’t meant to be funny.  It is deadly serious.  You stumble over your own feet.  You don’t know what to do with your hands.  When you are in a position where you have to do the exact right thing in an instant, deft movement is the most important element.  You want your body to work for you, not against you.  No only, by God, am I going to give you dancing lessons, but I’m going to start you on needlepoint.'”

Long before The Hunger Games and His Dark Materials and so many other well-loved young adult spec-fic standards, Alexei Panshin created a rich worldscape full of interesting people with believable flaws and foibles.  He created a strong and vulnerable, relatable young protagonist who should appeal to adults and young people alike, both male and female.  The adventure is rollicking, the questions raised are truly thought-provoking, and I feel it holds up very well almost 50 years later.  It’s a bookish tragedy that it’s fallen into obscurity.