Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Rite of Passage, by Alexei Panshin

A classic SF coming-of-age tale written by Heinlein's nemesis.

Rite of Passage

Pocket Books, 1968, 239 pages

In 2198, 150 years after the desperate wars that destroyed an overpopulated Earth, Man lives precariously on 100 hastily-established colony worlds and in the 7 giant Ships that once ferried men to the stars. Mia Havero's Ship is a small closed society. It tests its children by casting them out to live or die in a month of Trial in the hostile wilds of a colony world. Mia Havero's Trial is fast approaching, and in the meantime she must learn not only the skills that will keep her alive, but the deeper courage to face herself and her world.

Published originally in 1968, Alexei Panshin's Nebula Award-winning classic has lost none of its relevance, with its keen exploration of societal stagnation and the resilience of youth.

In a Saturday Book Discussion post, I called Rite of Passage my favorite book, but it had been many years since I read it. I very rarely reread books, but since I have just finished a rough draft of my own WIP, which was loosely inspired by this very book, I figured it was due for a reread.

This was Alexei Panshin's first novel (though not his first published work), and it won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo. Although it's not necessary to know the background, it's kind of interesting: Alexei Panshin is a kind of self-appointed "anti-Heinlein." He's a sci-fi philosopher and novelist who wrote Rite of Passage as a sort of "update" of Heinlein's juvenile novels, and also as a refutation of certain themes that were then common in SF, such as the idea of superior people being entitled to treat everyone else as spear carriers because they're just a superior sort of person, and the justifiability of deciding that an entire planetful of people is evil and therefore deserves to be destroyed.

A spear carrier is a character put in a story to be used like a piece of disposable tissue. In a story, spear carriers never suddenly assert themselves by throwing their spears aside and saying, "I resign. I don't want to be used." They are there to be used, either for atmosphere or as minor obstacles in the path of the hero. The trouble is that each of us is his own hero, existing in a world of spear carriers.

Rite of Passage (Spanish)

One can certainly see Panshin directly answering Heinlein (whose heroes in a world of spear carriers made the term "Heinleinian character" a common expression for a super-competent protagonist who's just a better class of person). It's not a savaging of Heinlein, though. (Panshin did that in Heinlein in Dimension, and here.) It shows, perhaps, that he held the Old Man in some affection despite believing that he was a skeevy, fascistic con-man. Rite of Passage can be compared to Podkayne of Mars, Heinlein's own first-person teen-girl protagonist YA novel. It's hard to say which character, Podkayne Fries or Mia Havero, is the more believable teenage girl written by a middle-aged man. Podkayne is certainly more "girly" and definitely conforms to Heinlein's usual gender stereotypes. Mia is more contemplative and intellectual, and the few times she speaks about her feminine experiences (including a sex scene between fourteen-year-olds that was probably a bit eyebrow-raising in 1968), it's... questionable. Like an adult man trying really, really hard to get the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl right, and not quite convincing this adult male reader. Still, I believed in this character, and Mia is everything that a protagonist should be: human, flawed, likable even when you want to slap her (she admits in the beginning of the narrative that she's relating things as she remembers them and that sometimes she will say some really horrible things over the course of the story, and she does), competent without being "Heinleinian," and most of all, she learns, grows, and changes in the two years covered by the story.

YA or not YA?

When reading older books with teen protagonists, I often find myself wondering "Is this a YA novel?" Or rather, "Is this something that would be marketed as a YA novel today?"

In the case of Rite of Passage, the answer is almost certainly yes. Mia is twelve years old at the beginning of the novel, fourteen at the end, nineteen in the Epilogue when she is concluding her story, and while Panshin wasn't writing specifically for a teen audience, the book is a clear, straightforward classic SF tale that doesn't make any attempt at elevated language or difficult concepts. Which does not mean it's unintelligent or uninteresting, but it's certainly suitable for readers of all ages. Much like Heinlein's juveniles (which were intended for a teen audience — mostly a teen boy audience — but are still eagerly read by adult SF fans today), Rite of Passage is kind of an ageless book, and it does better things with a female protagonist than most books in the YA genre do today.

Mia Havero was born on a massive Ship, one of seven starships made out of immense, hollowed-out asteroids, originally built to ferry colonists from Earth to a hundred or so colony worlds. That was almost two hundred years ago; Earth then destroyed itself (along with all the other colonies in Earth's solar system), and mankind is now scattered among these colony worlds, with the Ships traveling between them, trading little bits of technical knowledge for raw materials. The "Rite of Passage" referred to in the title is the tradition the Ships have of dropping juveniles on one of these colony worlds at age fourteen to fend for themselves for a month. They are given plenty of training beforehand, and they're equipped with survival gear, including a sonic pistol, and most of the time it's just an extended camping trip. However, the colony worlds are not entirely safe, and as Mia tells us at the beginning, a small but significant percentage of the juveniles in each group do not survive. Those who come back are now adults.

The first half of the book is not a planetary adventure, though — it's the first part of Mia's coming-of-age story. Her father is the Chairman of the Ship's Assembly (i.e., the equivalent of Captain/President of the Ship). We learn about Ship culture — in many ways, it's a sort of communistic techno-utopia, with a slightly dated feel owing to its being written in the 60s, but fundamentally, just as in Heinlein's juveniles, it's also a dated version of small-town America transplanted into the future. Mia's everyday trials are fairly typical, encompassing rivalries, friendships forming and falling apart, and her starting to notice boys.

She also spends a lot of time in independent study, which involves a lot of reading of philosophy and history. Her musings on the topic are interesting, if juvenile, and give Panshin an easy method of exploring her mental and emotional development. Despite taking in and superficially understanding all the schools of philosophical thought, from Stoicism to Utilitarianism to what she eventually settles on, a kind of Kantianism, she freely refers to Colonists as "Mudeaters" and at one point, questions whether they can even be considered people.

Rite of Passage (Dutch)

In the Dutch version, Mia Havero
is not only a blue-eyed blonde,
but she lives on the Enterprise.

Her tutor, Joseph Mbele, tries to change her thinking, pointing out that on Earth, it was once acceptable to judge one's personhood by their skin color and deeming people like him to be non-persons. Interestingly, as Mia rejects this argument, she notes that her own skin is darker than Mr. Mbele's, and she repeatedly describes herself as small and dark, with Spanish and Indian ancestry. Contrast that description with all the cover illustrations above... But she still doesn't quite get it until after her Trial.

There are many questions about this universe that may occur to the reader, but which do not occur to Mia until after the ending — in fact, it is only the Epilogue when some of these issues are explicitly raised in a Ship's Assembly debating the future of the planet where Mia and her friends endured an unexpectedly harsh Trial. The Ships travel between colony worlds trading information for raw materials, but why, in 150 years, have none of the Colonies made any significant technological progress? Why are Colonists all basically pastoral hicks living lifestyles that were primitive even by Old Earth standards? Why have the Ships themselves made no advances since they were launched? Everyone has all their needs taken care of, and "jobs" are pretty much things people do to keep from getting bored. Mia initially tells us it's because the Colonists are all descended from peasants and they didn't bring any books or technology with them and no scientists or engineers wanted to go live on the Colony worlds, but this is a twelve-year-old telling us this.

There is a disturbing hint very early in the book, when Mia is describing how the colonies came about:

Between those years we Ships planted 112 colonies on planets in as many star systems. (There were 112 at the beginning, but a fair number simply failed and at least seven acted badly and had to be morally disciplined, so around ninety still exist.)

It's something she mentions casually in passing, but that phrase — "morally disciplined" — will echo with harsh significance in the ending.

This is a book that has stayed with me in all the years between my readings of it. It's not the greatest book ever, and certainly it's a typical, albeit superior, example of Sixties sci-fi, with a heavily homogeneous culture despite Panshin's attempts to imply diversity with a variety of names and a protagonist who is clearly a POC; the usual notion of that era of computers as massive installations used only for large number-crunching projects; and a preoccupation with overpopulation as the direst and most existential threat to humanity. It's a Girl's Adventure Novel, particularly when Mia gets down on the planet and has Adventures, but it's an adventure novel with a moral, and a fair amount of humanitarian thinking inserted along the way. It's also well-plotted and structured in a way that leaves little padding, achieving precisely what it set out to do: describing Mia's coming of age as well as the moral dilemmas presented by her society, and the problems they will face in the future.

It's quite a splendid example of what science fiction can do and was meant to do, and it's a shame more books like this are not written. It's something I'd unhesitatingly recommend to serious SF fans of all ages, but particularly all those perennial seekers of "Good SF for girls."

Poll #1861003 Rite of Passage

Have you read this book?


Have you ever heard of this book before?

Only from your SBD post

Do you want to read this book after reading this review?


Have you read anything else by Alexei Panshin?


Verdict: Classic science fiction upholding the best traditions of the genre and with a protagonist who's more human and relatable and positive than most of what the YA genre offers today, Rite of Passage is spaceships-and-colonies sci-fi, bildungsroman, teen adventure, and moral philosophizing, all in a book that should appeal alike to those who love and to those who hate Robert A. Heinlein. It should also appeal to any YA or adult SF fan, even if you've never read Heinlein.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, highly recommended, polls, reviews, science fiction

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