05 Feb 2015
Rite of Passage by Alex Panshin
At its core Rite of Passage is a classic coming of age tale. Alex Panshin writes with warmth and pace, and he crafts a story with depth that sets this book apart from many other young adult SFs. It is no surprise that Rite of Passage took home the Nebula. 4/5
I couldn’t help but write down some thoughts I had while reading Rite of Passage.
Trial, the practice of marooning 14 year olds on alien and unfamiliar worlds for 30 days came off as absurd to me. The ritual just doesn’t mix with the sophisticated nature in which shipboard society was portrayed. Every adult’s adolescence would have been traumatized by the loss of several classmates or friends. Too many parents would suffer the ultimate loss. A ship governed democratically by citizens who were also parents would never allow such a practice to continue. Panshin should have made deaths seem like an uncommon occurrence. This additionally would have added weight to Mia’s Trial group’s disastrous experiences.
A safer version of the Trial ritual is practiced right here in the wealthy and powerful space ship called the United States. For decades, possibly starting around the late 60’s when this book was written, a common Rite of Passage for American youth has been travelling to foreign lands. The travellers are looking for adventures, fun times, new perspectives, new faces and perhaps a touch of danger and the unknown. Collectively, these experiences probably do our society a lot of good.
This allegory of Developed Society as the ship and Developing societies as the colonists becomes more interesting still when it is carried through to Rite of Passage’s conclusion. At the end of the book two political factions disagree about how the colonist’s unprovoked violence against Mia’s trial group should be addressed. One side argues that the total destruction of the planet is the only way to contain dangerous ideas that have festered there such as uncontrolled population growth, slavery and possible plots to attack the ship directly. They warn that this path is what ended Earth and pushed human civilization to the brink. The opposing coalition argues that every attempt should be made to reeducate and inform the colonists and that the carefully guarded knowledge and technology in the ship should be freely distributed for the good of all.
In my opinion, Mia’s father seemed much too reasonable early in the book to become Darth Vader at its end. I can only explain the drastic approach in two ways. Either this was to spice up the conclusion in the minds of young readers, or Panshin had a similar allegory in mind and really wanted to drive home how much evil occurs on our behalf in the developing world – we might as well be piloting the Death Star ourselves.
Drastic approaches aside, the exposition of the ship’s moral dilemma at the conclusion of the book was excellent. It tied up everything from Mia’s morality essay to her move across the ship to her experiences on Trial. Is the protection of what we deem to be sophisticated knowledge worth the blood and suffering of the masses? As someone who is paid to study physics in a gleaming white tower, this is a question worth grappling with on a personal level.
There were so many other things I liked in this book. The spear carrier and the storytelling. Mia’s Hell on Wheels attitude, her self awareness, and the development of her character. I was impressed by how well this book has aged since the late 60’s (I assumed it was from the late 80’s while reading it, for no particular reason). I liked that the ship’s government reminded me of Alastair Reynold’s Demarchists (Reynolds of course doesn’t claim to have invented this idea, but his books introduced it to me).
Overall, a Rite of Passage is a wonderful coming of age story that is worth your time and thoughts. If you know any young teens who like reading, get them a copy of this and assign them the task of writing a comparison between this and The Hunger Games or Divergent. At least, that’s what I’m planning to do to my 13 year old sister!