Growing Up for Real: Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage

Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage (Fairwood Press) is one of those books that has compulsive readability. It’s about Mia, a girl growing up on a space ship. Earth has been destroyed and the Ships, which were built to take colonies from Earth to habitable planets, now cycle between the colonies bartering information for material goods. The colonies are much more desperate and primitive than the Ships. The people on the Ships barely regard the colonists as human, and refer to them as “mudeaters.”  All fourteen-year-olds on the ships have to spend a month surviving on a colony planet as a Trial, a rite of passage, before being seen as adult. This is the story of Mia growing up and doing this, it’s also the story of her questioning the things she initially considers axiomatic about the way the universe works.

This is a book that ought to be old fashioned and isn’t.

I know Panshin did controversial critical work on Heinlein, and I think this may have been his attempt to write a Heinlein juvenile from a different perspective. Lots of people have tried this since, with varying degrees of success. Panshin makes it work, and makes it work with a message that Heinlein wouldn’t have liked, a message about what growing up means that’s quite alien to the way most of the coming-of-age stories in genre work.

Rite of Passage won enormous acclaim when it was published in 1968—it won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo, and my edition has quotes from Zelazny, Brunner and Blish. From what they were say they were very struck by how well Panshin got into the head of a teenaged girl. I also find this impressive—there’s no off note in his portrayal of Mia. But I suppose I’m jaded about this kind of thing: men writing girls well doesn’t seem as notable now as it was when Panshin did it.

Reading it in 1968 must have been a very odd experience. It’s clearly a juvenile, because the protagonist is twelve at the beginning and fourteen at the end, but there’s a sex scene, which by 1968 standards would have made it quite unsuitable for teenagers. Then there’s the gender thing—most SF readers in 1968 would have found it unusual to have a book about a girl growing up instead of a boy growing up.

But far more unusual is the way the whole book works as an implied critique of a way SF often does things. There is a lot of SF even now (and even more when Panshin was writing) that consists of setting up a universe so that the heroes will be forced by circumstances into some action that saves everything. I’m thinking of things like Pournelle’s Birth of Fire, Piper’s Space Viking, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers—there are a lot of them. The characteristic is that things narrow down to alternatives where it’s absolutely necessary to do a terrible thing for the overriding good of humanity, which the text and characters approve as a morally correct thing—a hard choice, but the right one. This is such a staple of SF expectations that it’s possible not to notice it until Panshin subverts it here.

The people of the Ship are wrong in their behaviour to the colonists, and Mia comes to see that. She spends a horrible month on the planet, but she finds kindness there as well as cruelty. She is looked after by an old man who has lost his family, and she gulls a policeman with a story about a school project. This isn’t a nice world at all, but it’s a real world full of people, and the Ship votes to destroy it. The people of the Ship are very harsh to their own people—they evict a woman who is having a baby against eugenic advice, and they impose the Trial on their children. Their whole way of life is set up to preserve science for humanity, and it comes to a hard choice you’d expect the text to approve and it doesn’t. Neither the text nor Mia consider the genocide acceptable, and both have to live with it.

This is a way of showing growing up that isn’t walking in your father’s shoes. It’s a way of becoming mature and self-reliant that isn’t simple or self-congratulatory. Heroes in SF juveniles from Between Planets to Little Brother save the day. Mia doesn’t. She survives, and she grows up, but the Ship goes ahead and kills all the people on Tintera.

This must have been a mind-blowing book in 1968 and it’s still powerful now. It’s a little didactic, as juveniles tend to be, but it is an honest portrayal of coming of age and of a fascinating society.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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