Alexei Panshin, Rite of Passage

This 1968 novel was Panshin‘s first, and it won the Nebula Award for best novel, topping the better-remembered Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Stand on Zanzibar.

The novel is about Mia Havero, a girl approaching adulthood aboard an interstellar Ship. The Ship, and several others, were originally built to carry colonists from a dying Earth to other planets, but are now largely empty, carrying only their crews of a few ten thousands between the stars. The Ship crew society, in order to maintain its fitness, requires each child to survive a one month stay on one of the colony planets before s/he becomes an adult. This “Trial” is the pivotal event of a child’s life, and Mia’s personal development as she nears her Trial, and more dramatic events of Trial, form the central plot of the book.

The flow of the novel is something like Heinlein; much of the story focusses on everyday events, or at least events that the characters consider as everyday events, but there is a strong moral theme always just below the surface, sometimes in plain view, and occasionally delivered with the subtlety of a kick in the head. Panshin’s novel doesn’t have the same readability as most of Heinlein’s, and Mia’s internal voice and her young friends’ dialog is particularly wooden, making them sound as if they are being raised in an especially class-conscious corner of 1960’s America.

The structural parallel, and the differences in Panshin’s moral themes to Heinlein’s are entirely intentional, and Panshin has written a long and fascinating essay on how the novel developed in response to changes he saw in Heinlein’s work in the post-World War II time period. Panshin very explicitly sets up an examination of various ethical philosophies, even having Mia write a comparative essay on them so that she can expostulate on their various merits.

A separate preoccupation of the book, at most indirectly connected to Heinlein, is overpopulation. This seems to have been a major theme of the times, for example in John Brunner’s competing Nebula nominee Stand on Zanzibar. In Panshin’s novel the Earth was destroyed by overpopulation (or by a final war universally acknowledged to be instigated by overpopulation) and the characters therefore consider unconstrained reproduction to be inherently sinful. This condemnation extends even to colony planet with only a few million inhabitants, and is one of the few moral standards that Mia (and by extension the author) accepts without critical examination. The space travellers overlook the possibility that a certain population level may be beneficial to enable technological advance (or else they, and Panshin, outright deny it, because their ship of around 25,000 people is apparently technologically self-sustaining). They then look down on the colonists for their backward technology and primitive lifestyle.

On the whole this was a very strong read, though more for its thoughtful and nuanced consideration of multiple ethical points than for stylistic accomplishments.


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