The novel “Rite of Passage” by Alexei Panshin was published for the first time in 1968. It won the Nebula award for best novel of the year.
For Mia Havero it’s time to start training for the Trial, the rite of passage that every inhabitant of the Ship has to face at the age of 14. Together with a group of kids of the same age, she’ll be left for a month on a colony planet, where she’ll have to survive for a month thanks to her skills. The survivors will be considered adults.
Over the course of two years, Mia and the other kids her age must keep on attend normal classes but also start learning everything that will help them survive during the course of the Trial. For kids who grew up on a Ship, the idea of spending a month on a planet inhabited by people they consider “Mudeaters” is quite shocking and when she participates in a trade mission with her father her opinion on the colonists doesn’t improve.
“Rite of Passage” is first of all a coming-of-age story told in the first person by its protagonist Mia Havero after the events. This story begins providing some explanations concerning the Ship, the destruction of the overpopulated Earth, how the survivors spread into space in the Great Ships and transported part of them on a number of planets in various star systems.
The division of human society between the Ships’ inhabitants and the planets’ colonists is one of the problems of humanity at the end of the 22nd century. Science and technology belong to the Ships, where life is regulated due to limited space but is still comfortable, while the colonists haven’t managed to progress so their life is hard. There are trade exchanges between Ships and colonists, but the relationships between the two branches of humanity are typically tense and full of prejudice.
The relationships between Ships and Settlers are among the topics used by Alexei Panshin to develop ethical and moral issues connected to society and politics. Some concern the laws of the Ship, where life is comfortable thanks to high technology but in some cases it’s strictly regulated because resources are limited. The Ship is actually an asteroid in which a habitat was excavated so the population must be controlled.
Mia Havero’s father is the Chairman of the Ship’s Council and this gives her the opportunity to be close to important decisions and discuss them with him. For example, among the various events mentioned by Mia there’s the prosecution of a woman who decided to have a child violating the Ship’s laws. This allows Alexei Panshin to provide a number of details about the rules on families and procreation.
There’s some of action in the final part of “Rite of Passage”, the one in which Mia Havero remembers her Trial but even in this case there are ethical and moral themes. On the planet Tintera, Mia and the other kids have to deal with the natives who created a society that’s very different from the Ship’s. However, in the end individuals can be good or bad just like the Ship’s inhabitants.
The experience made by Mia and the other kids leads them to form their own opinions and take their responsibility as adults within the Ship’s society. This can also mean thinking differently from their parents, more food for though regarding the relationships among the Ship’s inhabitants and those with the colonists.
All this makes “Rite of Passage” a novel with a rather slow pace, quite idea-oriented with many conversations among its characters. It’s told by the protagonist who, by her own admission, years later doesn’t have perfect memories of the events so she must be considered an unreliable narrator. Alexei Panshin wasn’t interested in writing a faithul chronicle but in developing certain themes so the characters are functional to that purpose.
The result is a novel that from the emotional point of view has ups and downs: often it’s dull, in other cases there are parts focused on the relationships between some characters and some in which Mia has to face certain of her fears in which emotions are important. Overall, “Rite of Passage” is intriguing above all from the intellectual point of view for all the food for thought it offers. If you find that interesting, I think you should consider it a must-read novel.