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Rite of Passage

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I'm not sure if this was the first novel Panshin wrote, but if so it is an impressive debut. His wikipedia page has it listed first, although the first two books in his Anthony Villiers trilogy were also published in '68, and they may have been written earlier. While Rite of Passage is similar in some ways to Heinlein's later juveniles, I'm pretty sure neither the author or publisher intended for it to be categorized as such. It was certainly an homage to the Grand Master, but compared to the recently reviewed The Lotus Caves, published a year later and marketed as a juvenile, Passage is much more sophisticated in style, tone, content and character development, and with just a few exceptions, it is superior to most of Heinlein in this same vein. Another challenge well met for a beginning writer is that Panshin handled first-person narrative with notable skill.

I know a lot of people don't like first-person narratives, thinking that information necessary to the story will not be forth-coming since we only get one perspective. It is also possible the narrator intentionally withholds information, or is unreliable in other ways. In this case, Mia Havero tells us up front that she might not remember exact details of every event since she is writing several years after the fact, she might even make things up, but the important things are not the events themselves, but how those events changed her. She does give us insight into what it is like to be her, but her understanding of other people is probably lacking. She is an introvert, an intelligent book-worm, but most of all she's just a twelve year old girl, ignorant of the world of adults, and socially awkward even with those of her own age.

Mia lives on one of the Ships that survived the exodus from Earth, which was destroyed by nuclear war in AD 2041. Others have colonized various habitable planets, but the Ships retain all of the knowledge and technological expertise, doling those out sparingly to the colonists in exchange for minerals and foodstuffs. The colonists call Ship-dwellers "Grabbies" for taking so much but withholding information they feel would benefit their lifestyles. Many on the Ships call the colonists "Mudeaters" and think withholding information is sensible, since it would likely get lost on the planets due to the hardships of mere survival. Mia has internal debates about this concept several times throughout the book, since her father is head of the Ship's Council and she is privy to information others of her age don't have. She also thinks about the planets more and more as she approaches the start of her Survival Classes, necessary to prepare for Trial, living on a planet for thirty days to qualify for full adulthood.

There were times I felt the book needed to be either shorter or longer. There are several elements that could have been expanded upon; more details of the Survival Class, more information about her school studies, more on the history and social heirarchy of the Ships. Nearly every time it seemed more detail would be forth-coming, Mia changed the subject, sometimes skipping over days or even weeks. Another option would have been to shorten those segments so more time could have been devoted to the actual Trial, which didn't begin until nearly three-fourths of the way into the book. Then again, Mia is telling the story, so she sets the pace. It is possible she skimmed over the dull parts both on the Ship and the planet, maybe even exagerrated her skills in out-witting the Mudeaters, but in the end she survives and returns to the ship with several ideas about changing things. I won't spoil that part though. In spite of these quibbles, I still rate the book highly, and it is unfortunate there was never a sequel, since I think Mia would have been a force to reckon with if she ever was head of the Ship's Council. Or perhaps she would decide to move planet-side.

This was the Nebula winner for 1968, and was also nominated for a Hugo. It's good, but I'm thinking of at least two others nominated that year that are better, maybe three. However, it is possible Panshin created a first in this book. There have been many tales of ships, military, colonizing, generational, etc, but my searches haven't come up with an earlier one where the Ships were hollowed out asteroids. Several that came after it of course, and many that have had asteroids moved into different positions, but I'm talking the asteroid being the ship itself and everyone living inside it. If anyone knows of one prior to this please let me know.


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Alexei Panshin


Nebula winner
Hugo nominee

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