Rite of Passage
Author: Alexei Panshin
Release Date: 1968
It’s hard not to read “Rite of Passage” today and compare it to the glut of modern Young Adult books with very similar premises. It’s the future, and because society has had a collapse there is now an event that every teenager must subject themselves to, with many dying in the process. In that world, one girl will need to survive that deadly event in order to change the world/find her place in the world/find true love. In that skeletal form, “Rite of Passage” lines up very similarly to books like “The Hunger Games,” “The Maze Runner,” or “Divergent,” which I was not expecting from a 1968 Nebula Award winner for best science fiction novel of the year.
The particulars in this book are as follows: the girl is Mia, who begins the book at age twelve with a personality that would probably be called precocious today. She is being raised on “the ship,” a six level interstellar space ship that has been carved out of a meteor and holds several thousand people. Earth is long gone, a victim of overpopulation and destruction, and the survivors fashioned this ship for Faster than Light travel and live on it now full time. Some of humanity also lives on about 100+ planets, which occasionally receive knowledge/technology from the Ship in exchange for raw materials, however the relationship between the planet people (called Mudeaters as an insult) and the ship people (called Grabbies as an insult) is full of animosity.
The big event that all teens must go through is called “Trial” and it is the lesson learned by overpopulation in the past. In addition to every family having to follow strict birthing regulations, every child at the age of fourteen must be dropped onto a planet for thirty days and survive. If this book were written today, my guess is that the group of kids that were dropped onto the planet would be divided into two teams and have to kill one another, but in Panshin’s book the kids are given a few months of survival training, then allowed to bring supplies like guns, horses and whatever else they want to bring, and then can even partner up (if they can find each other) or work alone, or hang out with the locals if they so choose. Despite all those advantages, plenty of kids die and it is an accepted part of civilization to keep its “delicate balance.” Maybe it’s because I’ve read several of the modern versions of this type of story that I was pleasantly surprised by this book as it constantly subverted my expectations of what was going to happen.
Those differences can be accounted for primarily by looking to the past, pre-1968. The influence of Robert Heinlein on the storytelling is obvious, as the young protagonist, telling this story entirely in flashback, with several older male characters that provide long monologues of their philosophies to the youth of the ship are all straight out of numerous Heinlein works. The entire plot is constructed in order to make the ethical question of how the ship people should interact with the planet people, and as a result there is much more debate and discussion of ethics than one would find in a modern Young Adult novel. TV westerns of the era also are not only referenced in the plot, but recreated in the form of a jailbreak on a technologically primitive planet. When the Trial began, I was most reminded of Star Trek: The Original Series when crew members would beam down and dress like locals, get in trouble, and rely on ingenuity and physical violence to make it back to the ship.
There are a few aspects of the book that don’t totally make sense within the logic of the book. The total population on any of the hundreds of colonized planets seems to dwarf the population of the space ship, but the book is only set 250 years from when it is written. (This is from a statement toward the end of the book where somebody remarks that if the ships settled on any planet they would be a substantial minority that would be overrun.) I get that there are no birthing limits on the one planet visited in this book, but that planet is the exception and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where these other populations are created and grow in the timeframe given. The science behind a scene where the kids go outside the spaceship (traveling faster than light) is a bit of a headache to try and consider, though Panshin uses this to fun effect. I also find it hard to believe that in the 160 years that the people have been on the ships that nobody debated the ethics of destroying a planet or the strict isolationism policy **Spoilers follow** prior to a few kids getting put in jail by locals during a Trial.
The actual trial is fairly anticlimactic but Panshin has not made it the focus of the book so much as Mia’s development as a person. While the primitive alien world is basically just early 20th century America plus two new species of animals, everything that takes place before it and after it are interesting enough to keep the reader invested. I don’t know if this book was released as Young Adult but for 99% of it I would classify it as such. That means that one strike to a character’s head will leave them unconscious for the desired five to twenty minutes to execute a plan, and that gun shots will make noises but also stop short in the dirt before hitting somebody. The 1% that is not young adult however, may be enough to keep a parent from giving to a child. There’s a pretty detailed sex scene between two fourteen year olds, and one outburst of sudden violence against an old man. The Nebula Awards have continued to select fine books as the best of the year, or at least I’ve enjoyed them more on average than the Hugo Awarded books through 1968.