Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rite of Passage by Alexi Panshin

Alexi and Cory Panshin wrote one of the best histories of early science fiction, The World Beyond the Hill, in 1989. I found the book at a bookstore in Wichita, Ks when I lived there in the early 90's and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. So it was a surprise to me when I found this neat little book at Indian Path Books a few weeks ago. Needless to say, it ended up in my "To read" pile.
Winner of the 1968 Nebula award, Rite of Passage shows the influence of the dean of American science fiction, Robert Heinlein. As a matter of fact, Panshin even discusses the book's creation here and how Heinlein figured into the writing. I note that Mr. Panshin lives nearby in Quakertown, PA. He also lists Harper Lee as an influence on the novel, which anyone familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird will understand.
The novel follows several years in the life of Mia Havero, who lives on a massive interstellar star ship nearly two hundred years in the future. Obviously there was a huge advancement in technology from the present since the first of the interstellar ships was completed in 2041. Sometime afterwards, a series of wars, brought on by overpopulation, led to the destruction of Earth. Fortunately, a number of other planets outside our solar system had been colonized, so humanity was able to survive. The ship in which Mia lives was made by hollowing out an asteroid. It was built to haul colonists across the galaxy, but the scientists and engineers piloting the ship decided to stay on board after the last colonists were delivered.
Told from the viewpoint an older Mia, the story begins with her moving out of one quadrant of the ship into another at the age of twelve. Her parents having split up, Mia is raised by her father, who has a prominent position in the ship's society. She yearns to be a "synthesist", a person who has accumulated a general, but expansive, amount of knowledge. Her best friend Jimmy, also twelve, wants to be a ordinologist, or classifier of information.
There is one small hurdle they with both have to overcome: The Trial. At age fourteen, after extensive survival training, all children are dropped off the ship at the nearest inhabitable planet. They are expected to survive on their own for one month. At the end of a month, they are picked up. If they manage to survive on their own, the child is now considered an adult and welcomed in the ship's community with all rights and responsibilities. There are no exceptions.
Much of the book leading up to The Trial consists of Mia's recollections of her interactions with other kids and daily life on the ship. She spends a lot of time reading up on ethics at the encouragement of her tutor, Mr. Mbele. She also learns how to ride a horse, since the kids are dropped on primitive planets with them for transportation.
Because of resource limitations, the population of the ship is strictly controlled. Families seldom have more than one or two children. One of the source of disgust is the colonial planets, whom the ship trades information and knowledge with to get needed raw materials. The ship people refer to the colonists as "mudeaters" who practice primitive "free birth". The ship itself has a eugenicists who approves and encourages birthing based on genetic records.
The final test of Mia's class before undergoing The Trial is a tiger hunt. A group of kids are sent out into a wilderness park with their adult survival instructor in pursuit of a full grown tiger. When they do encounter the tiger, they have to kill it using only the knives they carry and whatever rocks can be found. Amazingly, they do it with few injuries. It's Panshin's credit as a writer that he can make this passage so believable.
Mia is finally dropped with her class on a planet known as Tintera. There has been little contact with the planet since it was colonized a 150 years previously. The kids split-up, Mia deciding to spend her month on Trial exploring the planet.
What she encounters is a society similar in technology and organization to what the United States knew at the Civil War. She manages to confront a band of ruffians on horseback before getting bushwhacked. Mia's nursed back to health by an old man named Kutsov who lives alone. She learns enough about the society where she's been dropped to rescue her best friend Jimmy from a territorial prison. They both manage to hide out in the woods until the month has passed and the pick-up ship arrives.
Half of her trial class never make it back to the ship. After hearings are held in the ship's assembly, the citizens decide to punish the inhabitants of Tintera in the worst way possible. I won't spoil the ending of the book for those who want to read it. But I will say the over riding message is how the worst deeds can be justified by the best intentions. Consider Crime and Punishment: it's remarkably simple to justify killing an old woman.
Rite of Passage shows the mark of the time in which it was written. Panshin assumes it would be easy to organize a self-contained society with few internal problems. But this is a minor point. It's a landmark book which needs to be read.

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