Alexei Panshin's
Science Fiction Classic:
Rite of Passage


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Alexei who?

Alexei Panshin may be science fiction's least remembered author of a Nebula-winning novel.

The earliest Nebula award went to Frank Herbert's unforgettable Dune, which is a landmark within the field, and has become even more widely known after being made into a movie (and an upcoming miniseries on the SciFi channel). Delany's Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection won early Nebulas, and are less known, but still widely read and studied. Delany is famous not only for his the distinctive literary stylings of his fiction, but also for being one the first successful black science fiction writers and the first successful gay science fiction writer. Daniel Keyes only wrote one science fiction novel, the 1966 Nebula-winning novel Flowers For Algernon, but this singular work has become a widely-read classic and the source of two films.

Also among the first ten novels to win Nebulas are the very classic novels by very popular authors: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness; Larry Niven's Ringworld; Robert Silverberg's A Time of Changes; Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves; and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama.

Finally, right in the middle of these, is the winner of 1968's Nebula for best novel: Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage. Many contemporary readers who will have not only heard of but read books by such luminaries as Asimov, Herbert, Le Guin, Delany, Clarke, Niven and Silverberg will scratch their heads if they read the complete list of early Nebula winners and wonder: "Alexei who?"

This is regrettable, because Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage is a unique and though-provoking novel richly deserving of the award it won so long. Fortunately it has been reprinted occasionally and is not likely to be entirely forgotten because of it's Nebula-winning status. But this is still a relatively under-appreciated novel.

Should you read this before you read The Gods Themselves or Ender's Game? Probably not. But it's an engaging, fairly quick read with appeal for a wide audience. The well-read science fiction fan should certainly check it out. Even the less historically-oriented reader would be well-advised to check out Rite of Passage before picking up the latest "Star Trek" or "Star Trek" novelization. They'll be glad they did.

So What's it About??

Two words: Space Bildungsroman.

That's really sums it up. The novel is in many ways a very traditional bildungsroman, that is, an education and coming-of-age story. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as its title is Rite of Passage, after all.

This is a refreshingly non-epochal novel. The first-person narration provides an engagingly limited but warm and intimate look at life through the eyes of Mia Havero. She's not an alien, mutant, xenomorph, cyborg, or anything else. She's a twelve-year-old girl who ages before our eyes to the ripe old age of fourteen. One of the things that makes this a fascinating science fiction novel is that Mia lives on an asteroid converted into a massive space vehicle -- essentially a city in space. The truly charming thing about this book is that the fact Mia lives on a space-faring asteroid isn't particularly interesting to her, nor to anyone else on the "Ship." They've always lived there, and their society has lived there for generations.

What may seem extremely odd is the fact that there's not much in the plot beyond the central bildungsroman story. The novel focuses on two years of Mia's education, and the "Challenge," when she and her peer group of fourteen-year-olds must spend a few weeks on a relatively primitive planet. Most of the novel focuses on her education aboard the ship, and the things she does in her spare time. She has "adventures," but although they're exciting and interesting for her (and the reader), they aren't particularly unusual or earth-shattering by ship-standards. She's a typical mischievous young teenager, making friends, studying, discovering romance, playing sports, and generally finding her place in the world.

Mia's life, education and youthful misadventures are described so matter-of-factly that a mere description of the plot might make the novel seem rather boring or juvenile. But because it takes place in a setting so unusual to the reader, and because that setting is so carefully created and so realistically realized, Rite of Passage is a real page-turner. One comparison that comes to mind is Asimov's "Foundation" books: they're absolutely fascinating and memorable, yet when you steps back and consider their content, you realize they have none of the trappings often associated with "exciting" science fiction -- no aliens, no battles, no strange space anomalies.

Rite of Passage actually has its share of pulse-pounding moments. But these generally arise from the regularly-scheduled training that all young people on the Ship must go through. One of the most harrowing scenes involves a group of classmates chasing and subduing a live tiger. It's dangerous and people get hurt, but it was part of their class. Events which are far more unexpected and uncontrolled take place when Mia and her classmates face their "Challenge" -- many days on their own on one of many sparsely-populated colony planets. But even these climactic events happen as a direct result of the Ship's intentional use of the "Challenge" as a rite of passage, and method of culling the population.

To say that everything happens as expected is not entirely accurate. Mia doesn't know what to expect, nor does the reader. But it is accurate to say that nothing particularly unexpected happens in the novel from a society perspective. As in real life, society change aboard the Ship takes place slowly, imperceptibly from the perspective of a teenager during two years of her life.

A realistic society, a pastoral novel

Rite of Passage presents a picture of a breathtakingly realistic society -- one which is familiar because its citizens are so completely human, yet constantly surprising in the ways it has had to adapt to its unusual environment. This society is so functional and realistic, and so central to the novel, that Rite of Passage can be considered a work of pastoral science fiction, despite the fact that it takes place in an entirely technological environment rather than the typical pastoral rural setting. As in earthbound pastoral fiction, Mia is completely a part of both the environment and community she lives in. While far from perfect, the Ship is home, a functional home, even a good home, and Mia has no desire to leave it. These are hallmarks of pastoral science fiction. Such things are somewhat unusual in science fiction, which is so often dominated only by the wandering loner aspect of the human psyche that it ignores the fact that realpeople live in societies.

Rite of Passage, although focusing on the life of one very interesting girl, is very much about real societies. Mia grows up in one society: the technologically advanced but in some ways tightly-controlled Ship, which reminds one at times of Singapore in space. Mia's titular "rite of passage" has her spending a few weeks in very different society: on a primitive colony planet, with pre-industrial technology and culture roughly equivalent to Europe circa 1800. Neither society is utopian or dystopian. Both have rules and restrictions and governing bodies, along with opportunities, advantages, friendships and security.

Rite of Passage is neither an indictment of nor apologia for any type of orthodoxy. The "Challenge," in which fourteen-year-old members of society spend time planetside, and only some of them survive the experience, may seem brutal by our standards, but the practice is neither condemned nor applauded by the author. Like other topics, the "Challenge" is discussed and questioned and explained and pondered by the characters. But the end it just is. The "Challenge" is necessary, functional orthodoxy. It's not the only possibility, but it's one of many rules by which this society functions, survives, and provides for the well-being of most of its members.

One of the things that makes the novel so realistic is how Panshin's fictional societies have been created with such a detailed awareness of the many factors affecting any group of people -- physical, economic, social, psychological, etc. These are not half-baked wish-realms drawn from a single pet peeve or preference of the author.

Considerations for parents, home schoolers or teachers:

Like Ender's Game, Rite of Passage is an adult novel intended for an adult audience, although it features a young protagonist. Both have great appeal for young people. Ender's Game, in fact, is used as a required reading book in many English classes for young people. Both novels have very mild language, very little violence, and are thematically accessable to young people. Rite of Passage, typical of much of the science fiction from its era, has virtually no vulgarity or profanity. It has no illicit drug use.

The people board the Ship represent all races and ethnicities from Earth, but there is no racism evident aboard the ship. The issue of prejudice is present, byt the attitude of the author is non-racist (although the book is certainly not polemical). There are some class differences aboard the Ship, and the Ship-dwelling people have a very low opinion of the colony-dwelling humans, who in turn dislike the Ship-dwelling people. The planet-bound colony dwellers also enslave a technologically more primitive, possibly non-sentient chimp-like race native to the planet where Mia's "Challenge" takes place. The philosophical and ethical implications of this arrangement are considered. Environmental and resource management issues are, of course, central among thematic elements in the novel. Population control is, of course, the reason that the partially deadly culling process of the "Challenge" is practiced by the Ship's citizens.

Unlike Ender's Game, Rite of Passage should not necessarily be recommended for young readers or used in a school setting. There is almost no sex in Rite of Passage, but there is one brief scene the educator will want to be aware of. Everything is rather innocuous except for a single page near the very end on which fourteen-year-old Mia loses her, well, girlish innocence, with the help of a male classmate. The passage isn't as explicit as it could be, but there's no room to imagine an alternative exchange of affection which might be considered more appropriate in a more chaste culture. True, most teenagers know about the birds and the bees, but Mia's extremely young age, unmarried status, and the fact that the event has no consequence and occurs with no ethical or moral considerations, would give most parents pause. Although the scene may not be unreasonable or unrealistic in Panshin's fictional culture, it means the book would not be considered appropriate for all classrooms, despite the lack of other objectional material in the book.

Final Recommendation

As mentioned earlier, the science fiction reader who wishes be well-read should read Rite of Passage. It's the fifth-ever Nebula-winning novel, and has been heralded as an important, recommended work by many major science fiction authors, editors, and critics, including Gardner Dozois and James Gunn.

Because of its bildungsroman story (focus on the education of a young person), there are similarities to Card's Ender's Game. (One peculiar parallel is that Rite of Passage and Card's Ender's Shadow both have extensive passages about children crawling through the ventilation systems of their space-based homes. Card didn't get the idea from Rite of Passage, however, and has apparently never read the book.)

Rite of Passage is an unusual science fiction novel because of its detailed focus not on any extraordinary events, but on essentially normal people living normal lives in an imperfect, but essentially functioning, acceptable society. Despite such a seemingly mundane premise, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, exciting book.

The excitement the reader experiences in reading Rite of Passage doesn't come from dangerous events, alien encounters, grand battles, earth-shattering new technology or glorious revolutions. In the end, nothing much has happened as far as life on the Ship is concerned. The novel is exciting because Panshin creates a real and entirely believable place, and lets you live in it and discover it through the eyes of a very believable young person. Just being thirteen again, and doing normal thirteen-year-old things, was often as interesting as learning about the space-faring culture of the Ship.

There was something intriguing, almost magical, about stepping into the life of Mia Havero. She's slighly skeptical yet eager, generally nice but not a pushover, quite charming, and most of all real.

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