Chatting about Alexei Panshin’s RITE OF PASSAGE
Posted April 12, 2017on:
In 1968, Alexei Panshin wrote a coming of age novel called Rite of Passage. The story follows twelve year old Mia Havero, as she readies for her “trial”, during which she’ll spend 30 days alone in the wilderness of a planet. Having spent her life on a ship, she’s got a lot to learn about how to survive dirtside. Rite of Passage won the Nebula, and was nominated for a Hugo. This is most definitely not your standard 60s “kid goes on an adventure”!
My close friend Andy lent me his copy of Rite of Passage, and although it took months of him asking me to do so, I finally read it. It was an absolutely fantastic novel, and it was easy for me to see why Rite of Passage made it to so many awards ballots. Even better, the story doesn’t feel dated. Written almost 50 years ago, it read like a novel that could have been written 10 years ago. Andy and I decided the best way to talk about it was to literally talk about it over Google Docs, and share our chat. Our conversation below does spoil some huge stuff that happens at the end of the story, there is plenty more we haven’t mentioned that awaits new readers.
Andrea: What did you think of Mia? She’s not the typical scifi protagonist [for a 1960’s scifi novel], that’s for sure!
Andy: I think Panshin had to tell this story through the eyes and experiences of someone Mia’s age (she is 12 when the story begins). Adults have hardened into acceptance (or, more rarely, rejection) of their society’s system of beliefs. Mia is still discovering these and so is receptive to alternatives.
Andrea: Not all the kids come back from their month on a planet. I assumed that a percentage of kids “go native”, and decide that life on a planet is preferable to life on the ship. What did you think happened to the kids that didn’t come back?
Andy: I’d like to think that many, if not most, did “go native.” However, given the mutual hostility and distrust between the starships and the planet-bound made plain in the novel, I think the majority were either killed by the planet-siders (if pursuing the aggressive “tiger” survival strategy) or died of exposure and starvation (for those using the “turtle” approach, keeping their heads down in remote places). Both the planetary societies and the one on Mia’s ship are quite harsh, in their own ways. Except for Mia and her friend Jimmy, and the people who befriend Mia on Grainau, there’s not a lot of mercy in evidence on either side.
Andrea: Seems the default way groups of humans treat other humans – you’re different, you must be dangerous and bad! Makes me worried that more kids than I want to admit got killed by the locals during their trials.
Some of my favorite scenes in the novel are where Mia and all the other kids her age are at their survival classes. They learn how to forage for food, how to catch and prepare game, how to survive on their own. But I liked that there was more to it than that – there’s also discussions on how to be responsible, to realize there are things in life bigger than yourself. If the mortality rate is so high for kids that go on their Trial, why aren’t the kids given more weapons, or more methods by which to protect themselves? Is the society on the ship really that insistent that only “the best” deserve to survive to adulthood?
Andy: As I said, the ship’s social system is very “Social Darwinist.” Before they are even born, the kids are the result of unions approved by the Ship’s eugenic council based on “optimal” genetic pairings of potential parents. Children are not described as being especially close to their parents, especially as they get older. For that matter, the parents seem not to be all that involved with each other, and leave much of the rearing and education of their offspring to others. This is very reminiscent of ancient Sparta, where boys (especially) were taken away from their families at the age of six and raised together to reinforce their commitment to that society’s extremely harsh system. The Ship isn’t quite that bad but it gets uncomfortably close.
Andrea: I was surprised at how distant Mia’s parents are. They are barely on speaking terms with each other. Like all pre-teens, Mia seems blissfully unaware that this is the adulthood that awaits her. She’s lucky, that she has chemistry with Jimmy, as it seems the norm on the ship to be matched with someone, whether you are interested in having a child with them or not. That’s such a foreign concept for me.
Did the end [of the novel] shock you? It did for me. So, which is it? Are the colonists better off with little to no assistance from the Ship scientists, or do the Ships owe it to the colonists to help them? Seems to me the Ships take advantage of the planetbound.
Andy: I was shocked by the ending. Although not unanimous, the vote of the Ship Council to destroy everyone on Grainau as a “defensive” measure seems like genocide, not to mention a total over-reaction to the situation. The only ray of hope in the book is the lack of unanimity on the Council and Mia’s commitment to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Mia, and I think most readers, strongly believe that the people on the ships owe those on the planets a lot more than they are shown to be willing to give. On the other hand, earth’s history is full of instances in which less technologically developed societies were overwhelmed and essentially destroyed by contact with outsiders with better toys. The Polynesian experience encountering Europeans in the 18th century is a classic example. What would happen if the ships freely shared their high technology with the agrarian societies on the planets? Hard to say. There’s no guarantee that it would end well. So, the story poses a lot of questions that are left to the reader to think about and answer for themselves. That makes it one of the classics of 1960’s western SF, I think.
Andrea: 100% agree that they over-react. The society on the Ships see the colonists as inferior, as less likely to succeed at anything, as simply less. They simply don’t care if the colonists live or die, because they barely see them as people. Mia even feels that way when she first visits a planet with her father.
If other colonies find out what the Ship did to Grainau, I imagine they’ll be even less welcoming to traders from the Ships and to kids who are dropped off for Trial. What other SF novels have you come across that leave the reader with heavy questions to think about?
Andy: Of those that I have read recently, I’d point to The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin and the three “Books of the Wars” (Lords of the Starship; Out of the Mouth of the Dragon; and The Siege of Wonder) by Mark S. Geston. The Dispossessed is part of LeGuin’s “Hainish Cycle” and describes the conflicted relationship between the planet Urras and its habitable moon Anarres in the Tau Ceti star system. Urras is a stand-in for earth with a capitalist oligarchy locked in existential conflict with a totalitarian communist opponent (read: United States versus the Soviet Union; the book was published in 1974). Anarres is much more interesting. It has a collectivist, anarcho-syndicalist society without much in the way of a central government. Each trade and profession runs things within its own sphere with a council to iron out conflicts. The only time this political philosophy has been tried in the real world in any substantial way that I’m aware of was in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. It didn’t end well. But LeGuin’s novel does get the reader thinking about how such a society might work. In her telling, for all of its egalitarianism, it represses creativity, is sometimes downright cruel to individuals, and is inherently unstable.
Geston’s books are much underrated these days, I think. They are deliciously bleak in tone, something I’ve come to appreciate as I get older and continue to watch the progress of human folly. Geston is extremely pessimistic about human societies and their ability to create anything of lasting value. The titular spacecraft in the first novel is a sham designed to deceive people over generations into doing something that is the opposite of what they intend. It is worth noting that Lords of the Starship (1967) and Out of the Mouth of the Dragon (1969) were written by a very young man as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was beginning to fall apart. LeGuin’s book came out the year before American forces hit the exit door in Saigon.
LeGuin and Panshin are also sceptical about human societies and our ability individually and collectively to fool ourselves and do evil. But, unlike Geston, they leave the door open at least a bit to a possible “happy” ending. That is to say, they are comfortable with ambiguity – something a lot of people today cannot abide.
Andrea: We gotta do this again some time!