|Submitted by Karen Burnham |
(Nov 10, 2006)
“Rite of Passage” can't be accused of false advertising. The title says it all: this is the coming of age story of Mia, a young girl on a generation starship. It is an interesting book that does a very good job at putting together a world and looking at its issues. However it is very cerebral and doesn’t do much to grab the reader on the emotional level. Mia, our first person narrator, describes her life and adventures in a very detached way. While this is something I can personally relate to, it makes it harder to become personally invested in the story.
The generation starship is an old idea in science fiction, with as many interpretations as there are authors. In “Rite,” Alexei Panshin comes up with a system that would prevent generational degeneration as seen in Heinlein’s “Island in the Sky.” For one, the production of children is more or less eugenically controlled, mitigating the effect of inbreeding. The major innovation however is the Trial. At age 14, each young adult is dropped on a planet to survive (or not) for one month. If, for whatever reason, at the end of the month they can’t activate a pick-up signal, they are presumed dead. This ensures that the best, brightest and luckiest survive to contribute to the starship’s population.
The story follows Mia from roughly age twelve through her Trial. She experiences much of the young adult stuff that comes with these stories: having trouble making friends, pursuing studies, issues with parents, overcoming fears, and getting into unwise adventures. Her father is a leader in the Ship’s government, and that also puts stress on Mia’s relationships with others. One of the ideas that Panshin pursues is that of equating coming into physical/mental maturity with political maturity, making Mia truly independent of her father.
The book is very progressive for its time; the crew is admirably multiracial (Mia herself would be descended from very dark Latin American heritage), and the author also makes strong statements against racism and other ways of stereotyping people by having Mia try to overcome her strong bias against “Mud-eaters,” or colonists who actually live on planets, as opposed to Ships. Earth was destroyed a few hundred years before the story (mostly due to overpopulation), so the colony planets and the Ships are the only things left. The Ships can travel faster than light and can communicate with the colonies when they visit them. The Ships are dependant on the colonies for food and raw materials. The colonies live generally hardscrabble existences that don’t leave room for maintenance of tech or R&D programs, so they are dependant on the Ships for knowledge and technology. This inevitably leads to feelings of superiority on the Ship side and resentment planet-side, which of course comes to a head during Mia’s Trial.
All these issues are well thought-out and illustrated, but the story telling style is very intellectual. There is much about it that reaches out and grabs at you, or even much that induces that all-important sense of wonder, not even when it is talking about amazing things. It’s a book that makes you thoughtful, not one that really makes you say “Wow!”