Friday, April 8, 2011

Thoughts on "Rite of Passage"

I got through “Rite of Passage” by Alexi Panshin (1968) and even enjoyed some parts of it, but rarely have I disagreed so thoroughly with every idea found within a novel.

I didn’t think that Mia Havero was worthy of being the narrator of the novel. First-person perspective novels such as this one are effective when the reader quickly feels a connection to the narrator. You begin to think of them as sort of a friend and then you are truly riveted by whatever sort of crazy adventure they end up going through. I disliked Mia from the start of the novel; she was a hotheaded and small-minded girl that clearly had a lot of growing up to do.

I know that Mia’s journey of maturation is the whole point of the book. It even says as much in the second paragraph of the novel, “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.” However, that doesn’t change the fact that the reader is stuck with an unlikable guide for the entirety of this journey.

I disagree with the notion that it was the only way to tell this kind of story. Robert Heinlein’s juveniles whom Panshin, (a Heinlein biographer and fan) was clearly trying to emulate, always featured protagonists who were immediately likable. I loved “Starman Jones’” Max Jones from the very first chapter. Part of it was that Heinlein knew what emotional buttons to push and part of it was that Heinlein didn’t write kids like they were children instead he wrote them as less emotionally developed adults.

I would have been happier with third-person narration, perhaps that would have allowed Panshin to cleverly bring Mia’s flaws into stark reality. Or, I might have been happier had the book been from Jimmy Dentremont’s perspective. He learned life lessons throughout the novel too, but he seemed to be an overall better person than Mia.

In addition to failing to write characters the way Heinlein would have, Panshin was guilty of an even greater crime: talking down to his readers. Heinlein never wrote a juvenile like he was writing a lesson for children. He just wrote an adult novel with a teenage main character and trusted the young reader to grow into the novel if it was above their level the first time they read it. Panshin on the other hand, writes explanations about the human circulatory system and the basic rules of soccer. Who does he imagine is reading this?

Another premise of the novel is that since there is a limited amount of space and resources on this vessel where Mia and everyone lives. Therefore to cull the herd, 15-year-olds are dumped on a planet for a month and if they survive, they are adults and if not well then there was something wrong with them anyway. It’s not a completely foreign idea; some Native Americans had a similar “Rite of Passage.” But, in Native American culture where a man’s primary job was hunting and warring this sort of thing made more sense.

On the other hand, this ship’s society was completely intellectual. They didn’t fight wars or hunt therefore this Trial made absolutely no sense. It is stated over and over again that the ship’s primary mission is to protect the scientific and cultural knowledge of Earth (which has been destroyed). All that knowledge would be lost if they people on the ship had to deal with the difficulties of life on a colony world, which are all largely agrarian. The ships keep knowledge that would allow the colony worlds to experience an industrial revolution to protect their own existence and so perpetuate the stunted growth of the entire remainder of humanity. Panshin understood these points and they became the basis for his dramatic conclusion. But, what he fails to understand or point out is that you don’t need to be a tough outdoorsmen to be a great protector of intellectual knowledge. What if Albert Einstein had been born on this ship? He had the greatest knowledge of theoretical physics the world has ever known, but what kind of a camper was he? Could he have survived on his own at 15-years-old for a month in a strange forest? The question is completely absurd to me! What an unthinkable crime to possibly rob the universe of his intellect because of such an irrelevant test. An even more absurd example: Could Stephen Hawkings survive such a trial?

I reject the notion that 15-years-old is old enough to give this test to. I think back to how immature I was at 15 and I can’t help but think my chances of survival would have improved exponentially for every additional year of experience I was able to receive. In the novel, children lead a sort of mundane and normal childhood: going to school, playing sports, just hanging out. If anything is emphasized it is certainly traditional education, before they are 15 they have to decide what area of study they’ll start to focus on if they get back from the Trial. At 13-years-old children start to take survival classes and start to learn how they’ll survive on a planet for a month. Why would they only start to learn at 13? I would have trained my children from the time they were little to be campers and then as they get older teach them how to hunt things and how to identify plants etc. This sort of practical knowledge is the only way to insure my kids survive the Trial. Why would I wait till they were 13? As far as I can tell a student could have a straight C average in school, but if they survive the Trial they are adults. This doesn’t encourage a ship of scientific and mathematical thinkers. It creates a ship of Darwinians run wild where the meanest and toughest survive while some percentage of the abstract thinkers and a larger percentage of truly theoretic and revolutionary thinkers (who unfortunately are often slightly out of touch with reality) who would not survive the Trial.

The whole idea of the Trial is flawed. It’s just random chance if someone survives not skill. One person makes camp next to a hungry bear’s cave and another person doesn’t. All the survival skills in the world aren’t necessarily stopping the bear. Also, there are no rules against working collectively so there is always the chance of one strong survivalist carrying one or more other less resourceful kids during the month.

On p 39 (of my paperback) Panshin attempts to explain what an ordinologist and a synthesist are. The best I can understand it they are two kinds of futuristic librarians, though the novel claims they are much more than librarians. We are told that both professions are highly regarded on this ship and that there are only a handful of each every generation. However, we never see any first hand evidence of the professions at work on the ship. Instead we see that politics are king on the ship. Mia’s dad is the Chairman of the Council. The Council members are the ones who publicly debate the two major policy issues that are ultimately brought before an Assembly of all adults on the ship for voting. The first discussion is about the woman that has an unauthorized pregnancy and the second issue is whether or not a planet should be destroyed and whether or not the ship should change its policy of limiting the knowledge it allows colony planets to have. Ordinologists and/or synthesists never influence either of these decisions.

So why is it that at the end of the book we are left with two vague premises? One, that the younger generation on the ship are more liberal in their thinking about colony worlds. Two, that Mia and Jimmy as an ordinologist and a synthesist are going to be influential in somehow stoking that liberalism. Other than the fact that at the end of the novel both Mia and Jimmy disagreed with the current status quo, there was no evidence presented that any significant group of young people felt the same way they did. And also nowhere in the book did it explain how two intellectuals, no matter how much their professions were respected, would be able to influence a generation. To reuse an example, Stephen Hawkings is an influential theoretical physicist; it is not stretch to say he is highly regarded. He said a couple of years ago in a speech he gave in China that the world needed to focus its energy on getting us into space. He spoke about colonies within our solar system and beyond. He was basically saying that Earth is too small and fragile a basket to keep the eggs of humanity in. My ultimate point is no one listened to Hawkings. Instead our media mostly laughed at and ridiculed him. Maybe Mia and Jimmy will really influence a generation or maybe they will be thought of as over-idealistic or simply out of touch. It is an unfortunate reality that most of the time the most influential men and woman are not the smartest we have to offer, but rather those that have had greatness thrust upon them. Sometimes they measure up like George Washington or Harry Truman and sometimes they fail miserably at every turn like George W. Bush did or sadly Barack Obama continues to (sorry to bring up politics).

For the record, I found the way people thought about children and life on the ship to be sort of repugnant. They believed in love and marriage, but you conceived children based on what the ship’s geneticists said. So, I guess the idea was that maybe you didn’t necessarily have a child with your spouse. Anyway families weren’t a valued idea. Mia’s mother rejects her and moves out, we later find out that she had a son whom she loved who died. But that doesn’t seem to justify her actions. And the fact that Mia didn’t think her mother’s rejection was strange signals that lots of people on the ship do the same thing. They think to themselves that, “the geneticist told me I gotta have this baby, but let someone else raise them. I can’t be bothered.” What kind of a soulless culture is that?

Did everyone else’s p. 35-36 have an odd jump? Mia is in her apartment, she catches Jimmy snooping around her apartment and they start to argue and then at the end of the argument they are in a classroom. Also Mia says it’s the first time she met Jimmy, but they’d been together in a classroom a few pages earlier. I guess a couple of paragraphs about Mia in her apartment got mixed up with Mia at school, but I couldn’t figure out where the errors began or ended.

What did I like?

I liked the side plot with Zena Andrus, how she and Mia started off on the wrong foot, but became friends after going through the adventure of finding the sixth level together. Unfortunately this plotline just dies after that.

I also liked how when Mia goes back to her old hangout in Alpha quad she quickly realizes it’s no longer her home. Even her old best friend doesn’t want to talk to her. I’ve had that experience before of not being able to go home again as I’m sure everyone else has too.

I liked how Mia began hanging out with a “gang.” That rang true for me. I fell into clicks in High School and College too. It seems to be a universal thing.

I enjoyed Mia’s first trip planet-side where she meets colony children and finds out they have just as many uninformed notions about ship people as she has about colony people.

I enjoyed how the “gang” manages to steal some spacesuits and go for a walk outside the ship, but they are ultimately caught for a dumb and highly avoidable reason.

I liked it when Mia finally went on the Trial. I just wished I didn’t have to get through 175 pages to get to it. It might have been a better novel if it had started with the Trial and then explored Mia’s early adulthood.


  1. John, rarely have I disagreed so thoroughly with every idea found within a review. Heh, heh. No, seriously, we apparently see this book differently in almost every way. Funny, huh?

    First, I really did like Mia. She has her flaws, but unlikeable? I just don't see it.

    Second, I liked the details of Mia's life. I, too, compared the book to something by Heinlein. But I thought it was better than any Heinlein juvenile. (Yeah, I know that's blasphemy.)

    Third, the idea behind the trial was not about Darwinian evolution - or, at least, that wasn't my interpretation. Whatever excuse they made for it, the simple matter was that they couldn't afford to let all their children live.

    They were a very long-lived people in a safe, but extremely constricted, environment. Yes, they planned their reproduction. But they would have had virtually no children at all if every child survived. And such a low rate of childbirth would have caused its own problems.

    In a situation like that, any society would come up with other reasons for such a rite of passage, reasons they'd find easier to accept. But the ugly truth was that they simply had to kill off some of their children.

    Fourth, you shouldn't believe the ship's own mythology. Yes, they've got a high technology, and they think of themselves as scientists. But that's not really what they are. It's no coincidence that their most important people are politicians.

    Note that their artists are hopelessly inept. They're just dilettantes. What do you want to bet that their scientists are the same way? After all, they don't seem to be researching anything new.

    No, their self-image is all wrong. In reality, they're just parasites. They live by rationing out technology they've saved, not by anything particularly admirable. Maybe they'd once been something different, but not anymore.

    Fifth, I did agree that shipboard life was repugnant in many ways, but don't you think that was deliberate? I definitely thought it was.

    Finally, I liked those few things you did, too. But I actually liked the whole book. And although you said you disagreed thoroughly with "every idea" in the novel, I thought the ideas were superb.

    I certainly loved the main idea, that "the universe is filled with people, and there is not a single solitary spear carrier among them."

    We're going to have to agree to disagree about this one, John. :)

  2. I agree with WCG. Many people who don't like Panshin at all, he has many haters, concede that this is his only good novel and it is quite good.

  3. I just ran across my comment again. Like many of my comments it is too short. While this is conceded to be his best novel, everything else is atrocious, it is flawed. I suspect it is flawed for the reasons John stated. Many people dislike Panshin as after being a failure as a writer he became a critic and proceeded to tell people what was wrong and right about Heinlein before going on to criticism and interpretation of the rest of the SF field.

  4. How popular was soccer in the United States in 1968? So what is wrong with explaining it?

    I think this review finds trivia to complain about. So maybe the big deal is what the reviewer really doesn't like about the character.

  5. Thanks for reading my review Psikeyhackr.. I stand by this review even though I don't think anyone has ever agreed with me. :) The idea of "the Trial" doesn't make any sense to me. A society that doesn't value it's children seems pretty unsustainable to me. Other people have pointed out the point of the book may have been to show the unsustainability of the culture. I don't know. If the novel was supposed to be a critique of the society it wasn't obvious to me. Maybe I did miss the point.

  6. Is the point of the story the ownership of knowledge and whether some people have the right to keep others ignorant. How many other science fiction stories contain this issue in the background which the characters simply act against.

    Try the Deathworld Trilogy by Harry Harrison books 1 and 2.

  7. That sounds like the plot of many great Science Fiction novels.

    As I recall it isn't a major plot issue in this novel though you're right that it is a side issue that the ship people are keeping knowledge from the planets. It just isn't the focus of the novel. The focus is Mia coming of age and facing "the Trial."

    I've definitely read the first Deathworld novel. It's a great read. Too bad I didn't do a write up of it when I read it. :(

  8. "The Trial" was the central event of the story but wasn't Mia's trial learning to see the "mudeaters" as people?

  9. I see what you mean and you have a point, but most of the book is devoted to Mia navigating teenage life on the ship. Maybe the idea was through the example of the teenage life of one girl, to show the failures of the ship society.