Aug 16 2009 11:23am

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.

James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
Well, another review, another sale: I'm off to track it down. Wish all these things were easily available in ebook format: future get here now!
Lenny Bailes
2. lennyb
Back in 1968, I think Alexei did intend this book to be in dialog with Heinlein's Podkayne, as well as with James Blish's A Case of Conscience -- over the ethics of a human technocratic council having the power to ordain planetary genocide.
James Davis Nicoll
3. James Davis Nicoll
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.

Andre Norton's Dark Piper reads like a reaction to Space Viking, written from from the point of view of people like the ones Trask and his buddies were so happily raiding.
Elijah Spector
4. Elijah
Aw jeez, the spoilers! I'll still read it, but... but dang.
Lawrence Hardin
5. lawrencehardin
Alexei Panshin has a terrific website at It does not say much about Rite Of Passage (which I often reread) but it discusses the quarrel with Heinlein in great detail. Alexei was commissioned to write "Heinlein in Dimension", a critical appraisal of Heinlein's works, which led to a famous quarrel with Heinlein, who tried to scupper the entire project. Alexei was initially stunned, but over the years he slowly uncovered a pattern.

Heinlein did not want any biography published about him. He only objected to literary criticism (such as James Blish wrote in ?1957?) in order to keep people from writing about him at all. This began in the early 1950's when he claimed copyright (perhaps illegally?) to stop the printing of a short biography a fan released at the 1940 Worldcon. In the 1980's he heard that Sam Moscowitz was planning to write a biographical article about him. He handled this differently than his vindictive attack on Panshin. He sent Sam a short biography for Sam to use but politely requested Sam to hold off publishing until after he died. Sam agreed, and told people that Alexei obviously did not know how to get along with Heinlein. After Heinlein died, his wife Virginia sent Sam a note requesting him not to write anything about her late husband and requesting the return of his autobiographical sketch. Having already conceded to delay publishing until Heinlein was dead, Sam would have seemed churlish to publish a biography against the widow's wishes.

So Heinlein was opposed to any biography after about 1950, but his tactics varied. He badly misjudged Alexei Panshin (who was not writing a biography) so that turned into a famous quarrel, but then - - he did not know anything about Alexei when he chose his tactics. Normally he was very successful and handled matters without much publicity.
Tex Anne
6. TexAnne
I'm with Elijah. Sure, the book's as old as I am, but it's been out of print almost that long! I think maybe I'll stop reading the second page of posts about books I've never heard of.

EDIT FOR STUPID: As Jo pointed out, it says "spoilers" right in front of my very eyes. Duh.
James Davis Nicoll
7. afterthefallofnight
As I recall, I read Rite of Passage while in high school. At the time, I remember thinking that it was a great story - though today I cannot remember many details. I think I will go back and reread it. Thanks for the memory nudge.
Allyn Edgar Hughes
8. allynh
Never worry about spoilers. No matter how much you think is revealed, the actual book will always surprise you.

Take LOTR for example: No matter how many times I have read LOTR, it rips me to shreds each time. I could probably write LOTR from memory, yet each time I read the book I realize that I've never read it before.

Read a thousand books, read two thousand, and you will reach a critical mass where you find that each is a surprise.

I'm off to read _Rite of Passage_ again, for the very first time.
Ed Rafferty
9. BigBoy57
I have to admit to a slightly different view of this book. When it came out in 1968 I had just started work and was earning the princely sum of about $21 a week and being, even then, mad keen on SF was happy to lay out the cash for a copy of Rite of Passage.

It was the first SF book I had never been able to finish - in fact I could barely get started - what it did do, I will tell you, is make me doubt exactly what good awards were, especially the Nebula award.

I had never had a problem with the Hugo award-winning stuff - go the fans, I thought - but SF writers? How could they vote this thing a bloody award? And really it has rung pretty true through the years- probably about 70% of what the writers award themselves they can keep for mine!
James Davis Nicoll
10. Doug M.
"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.... 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."

Carlos Yu calls this "the double-bind". He wrote a blog post about it a little while back:

Doug M.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Texanne, Elijah: If you see the word "spoilers" where it says "read more" it means there will be spoilers. I'm sorry, but sometimes it isn't possible to discuss a book without spoilers. If you don't want them, don't read past the cut. Sometimes it isn't possible to say why this book is different from all the other books without talking about the end.
Tex Anne
12. TexAnne
Jo: So it does--sorry about that. I must have clicked without reading the words. I'm going to blame it on travel-induced exhaustion.
James Davis Nicoll
13. James Davis Nicoll
Rite of Passage won enormous acclaim when it was published in 1968

1970 must have been a very frustrating year for Panshin fans.

1968 saw Rite of Passage, Star Well and The Thurb Revolution. 1969 saw Masque World. 1970 saw ... nothing. 1971 saw ... nothing. In fact it isn't until 1978 that Panshin's next novel saw publication as a novel, with a short story collection in 1975 to ease the Panshin drought (Panshin's final collection to date that I am aware of was in the early 1980s).

Short stories show a similar arc. I don't know what what was up in 1968 & 1969 but I wish whatever it was had kept on keeping up.

1963: 1
1964: 1
1965: 1
1966: 1
1967: 1
1968: 1
1969: 9
1970: 1
1971: 2
1972: 4
1973: 3 (serialized novel)
1974: 2
1975: 2

1978: 1

1982: 3

And then nothing in the way of short fiction that I know of.
James Davis Nicoll
14. Doug M.
It is "in conversation with" the Heinlein juvies in about six different ways.

-- Sex. Heinlein juvies have none. The male protagonists tend to be undersexed and/or painfully naive.

-- Competence. Mia's competence is emphasized, and matters -- she has to be competent to run the jailbreak. But it's not what saves her, and it's not the most important thing about her.

-- Empathy. The heroes of Heinlein juveniles tend to be... not lacking in emphathy, no. But it's never all that important. They have enough to be decent human beings, and move on. In _Rite_, empathy (and the lack thereof) is the whole point of the book.

-- Generational conflict. Heinlein boys are usually guided by wiser older parent-figures. Mia is, by the end of the book, wiser than her parents. (Though there is a wiser parent-figure, sort of, on Tintera.) Evil authority figures do exist, but their authority is always in some way illegitimate. Parents are never evil; they are, at worst, misguided.

-- Society. Heinlein juvies tend to be about a boy growing up to be a young man who is a constructive member of society. Obviously this requires that society not utterly suck. Most Heinlein juvenivles are set in futures that are flawed but not dystopian. The only exception is _Between Planets_, and there the young protagonist joins the (successful) revolution. (The future in _Starman Jones_ doesn't seem so great to me, but Max seems to accept it.) _Rite_ has a protagonist coming of age in a society that's actively evil.

-- Genocide. Mia's people commit genocide for much the same reason that the Galactic Council, or whatever it's called, considers it in _Have Spacesuit, Will Travel_ -- the Tinterans are their moral inferiors and a potential long-term threat.

At the same time, there are oh! so many similarities. The Test reads like it's inspired by _Tunnel in the Sky_. (IMS even the duration is the same.) The Ships occupy a niche similar to that of the Traders in _Citizen of the Galaxy_, and are similarly alienated from the planetsiders. And there are echoes of Heinlein's non-juvenile work too, from _Methuselah's Children_ to _Starship Troopers_.

The funny thing is, you can still enjoy the book even if you've never read Heinlein. That's quite an accomplishment on Panshin's part.

Doug M.
David Dyer-Bennet
15. dd-b
I must have read this around when it came out, and I would have been 14 then. It never made it onto the reread list the way Heinlein for example did, but I remember it fondly. Also the Thurb books, and also Heinlein in Dimension. So it's rather too bad he mostly stopped writing. (Heinlein and Doc Smith seem to be the only SF authors where I reread everything.)

I do not recall thinking it particularly strange that the protagonist was female, though. I had already observed that pretty much half the world was female, and while I might not have actually codified the idea that they weren't getting a fair shake in protagonist slots, I didn't find it strange when it happened.

I have absolutely no memory of the genocide sub-plot you talk about. Strange!
James Davis Nicoll
16. hobbitbabe
Oh, how I wish I'd discovered this in a library in the early 1970s, rather than on recommendations sometime post-internet. It's now one of those books that I check used book stores for extra copies of, so I can lend them.
James Davis Nicoll
17. MMBB
This is strange, but at the time when I read the book it seemed to me that killing the colonists was the right thing to do. The ships appear extremely vulnerable and they are all that stands against a renewal of the warlike culture that destroyed Earth in the first place, in the book. It seems that this sort of violent culture is like a cancer that would spread and that drastic measures need to be taken to prevent that.
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
MMBB: The people on the planet have no way of hurting the ships. So vulnerable... yes and no, and mostly no. And while some of them are warlike, others are pacifists. What you're saying is certainly the argument some people on the ship made for their genocide, but I am with Mia in rejecting that. It's the people on the ship that strike me as aggressive, not to mention paranoid, in finding a planetary culture that have no way of getting off their planet and nuking it.
James Davis Nicoll
19. MMBB
As far as I remember, the argument made in the book was that the people on the planet had captured some shuttles from a previous ship that passed by and were intent on space conquest (maybe by actually capturing the next ship).

There were many people on the planet, few people on the ship, they could not have resisted an attack.

I last reread it a long time ago, so my memory could be failing me.

Sorry, I understand that genocide is not allowable under any circumstance and perhaps the ship people should have decided to perish rather than commit such a deed.

My impression, though, was that their existence was threatened and that this was one of the author's points --- that humankind could not go back to its old ways, overpopulation and war, no matter what it took.
James Davis Nicoll
20. Harbinger1
Thank you for your review of this excellent book. I started reading Science Fiction and Fantasy when I was a teen, and I remember clearly this book, Childhood's End, The Dragon Rider series and The Last Castle (more of a novellete really) as being my introduction to these excellent genres. I remember being fascinated by how well the character of Mia was fleshed out, making her seem so real, so full of life and her ability to recognize her own flaws. I am so glad that I did not start out with what are considered "hard" Science Fiction books because I may have been turned off by the difficulty of the subjects. It was later when I delved deeper into the great writers such as Gregory Benford and David Brin that I could appreciate the stuff that took a little more maturity to least where I was concerned anyway.

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