>Review: Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin


In 2198, one hundred and fifty years after the desperate wars that destroyed an overpopulated Earth, Man lives precariously on a hundred hastily-established colony worlds and in the seven giant Ships that once ferried men to the stars. Mia Havero’s Ship is a small closed society. It tests its children by casting them out to live or die in a month of Trial in the hostile wilds of a colony world. Mia Havero’s Trial is fast approaching and in the meantime she must learn not only the skills that will keep her alive but the deeper courage to face herself and her world. Published originally in 1968, Alexei Panshin’s Nebula Award-winning classic has lost none of its relevance, with its keen exploration of societal stagnation and the resilience of youth.

Every once in a while, you encounter a book that does more than entertain you for a few hours. Every once in a while, a book will reach inside you and change the way you look at your world, the way you think about your life. You never, ever forget those books. The impact they have is so profound, they go on to play a part in shaping who you are. I’ve encountered three such books in my life. Rite of Passage is one of them.

It is the story of the coming of age of Mia Havero. An older Mia narrates the major events of her life between ages twelve and fourteen in first person. And she tells the reader the entire point of the whole book in the first two paragraphs.

To be honest, I haven’t been able to remember clearly everything that happened to me before and during Trial, so where necessary I’ve filled in with possibilities – lies, if you want.

There is no doubt that I never said things half as smoothly as I set them down here, and probably no one else did either. Some of the incidents are wholly made up. It doesn’t matter, though. Everything here is near enough to what happened, and the important part of this story is not the events so much as the changes that started taking place in me seven years ago. The changes are the things to keep your eye on. Without them, I wouldn’t be studying to be an ordinologist, I wouldn’t be married to the same man, and I wouldn’t even be alive. The changes are given exactly – no lies.

Mia Havero lives on one of seven Ships. In 2048, our crazy species finally manages to go too far, and destroys Earth. But some of us saw it coming, and built the Ships to take colonists to faraway worlds where we could start over and do it right. However, after seeding dozens of worlds with colonists, the brilliant minds behind the creation of the Ships realize that if they, too, join a colony on a remote world, it will mean abandoning hundreds and hundreds of years of scientific and technical advancement. So, instead of joining a colony, as they were meant to, and abandoning the Ships, the intellectual elite decide to remain on the Ships permanently, to preserve and extend mankind’s scientific knowledge, rather than throw it all away to become primitive backwoodsmen.

One hundred fifty years later, they are still doing exactly that. A complex, rigidly regulated society has developed on Mia’s Ship, which has a population of about 50,000. They practice political representative democracy combined with economic communism. As you would expect of a society in a finite space with limited resources, the heirs of a planet that destroyed itself through the pressures of overpopulation, they have rather draconian rules in place regarding procreation, and also a rather Darwinian way of ensuring that the population doesn’t decline through stagnation. All fourteen-year-old children, after a rigorous two-year training program, are dropped for a month on a colony planet with a few basic supplies, to survive as best they can and live to be picked up again one month later. Or not. This is Trial.

Mia, aged twelve, lives in a very small world. It is a safe, comfortable, predictable life she has carved out for herself in Alfing Quad on Level 4. She lives with her father, whom she loves dearly, and has her friends and her routines, and is frankly terrified to violate the boundaries of her life. Her father, recognizing that Mia’s horizons need to expand if she’s to have any hope of surviving Trial, moves them to a different quad on the fifth level. Of course, everyone knows that people who live on the Fifth Level just aren’t quite as good as those on the Fourth. Mia feels like her life is over.

But of course, it’s not. And so begins the education of Mia Havero. Between studying Social Philosophy with her tutor and the beginning of Survival Class, Mia’s world is getting bigger every day, with new ideas and experiences slowly but surely changing her world view.

However, learning that the people who live on the Fifth Level are actually just as good as the people on the Fourth is one thing. They’re still Ship people. It’s not like they’re Mudeaters, or something. Mudeaters, the descendants of the colonists dropped on myriad worlds, although it’s no fault of their own, of course, aren’t really people. They don’t get to live in a Ship, and never had a chance to learn how to be. They just can’t be considered in the same category as Ship people. So Mia feels, at least. But her shocking, unanticipated experiences during her Trial will teach her that, just as the world doesn’t stop at the edge of a quad or a level, it also doesn’t stop with the Ship, and that the Mudeaters are equal heirs to Earth’s heritage.

As she narrates the slowly changing perspective of her former self, Mia adds her musings and some insights she’s gained. These philosophical gems are the true brilliance of the book, and may cause you to take some long, hard looks at your own preconceived ideas. I’ve included one of my favorite thoughts for you to take away and chew on.

I’ve always resented the word maturity, primarily, I think, because it is most often used as a club. If you do something that someone doesn’t like, you lack maturity, regardless of the actual merits of your action. Too, it seems to me that what is most often called maturity is nothing more than disengagement from life. If you meet life squarely, you are likely to make mistakes, do things you wish you hadn’t, say things you wish you could retract or phrase more felicitously, and, in short, fumble your way along. Those “mature” people whose lives are even without a single sour note or a single mistake, who never fumble, manage only at the cost of original thought and original action. They do without the successes as well as the failures.

Mia goes on to conclude that the true measure of maturity is “the ability to sort portions of the truth from the accepted lies and self-deceptions that you have grown up with,” and that an honest attempt to analyze the insanities of our own culture is necessary to be a mature individual.

Not only is this book a fascinating tale about a very interesting main character, it is a sugar-coated crash course in ethics and philosophy. I first read this book when I was not too much older than the main character. The thoughts and concepts I encountered in it helped me expand my own boundaries as much as Mia does, and I’ve always been grateful for it. In my opinion, this book should be a mandatory part of every high school reading curriculum. Although published in 1968, it hasn’t lost a shred of relevancy to today’s society, and I was immensely pleased when Rite of Passage was reprinted in 2007. When you need some strengthening meat and potatoes on your TBR plate to counteract a surfeit of cotton candy, reach for this book. You won’t be sorry.

Rite of Passage was written in 1968 by Alexei Panshin. You can visit him at his website, The Abyss of Wonder.

Elvie haunted used bookstores for years to purchase her own copy of this book, years after reading her father’s copy. Modern readers are luckier. A reprint edition is available, as is a Kindle version.



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