Rite of Passage

by Alexei Panshin

Cover image

Publisher: Pocket
Copyright: 1968
Printing: March 1982
ISBN: 0-671-44068-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 239

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The story of Rite of Passage is as reliable and transparent as its title. As promised, here is a coming of age story. There is the shift in friendships, coming to terms with a new environment and new schoolmates, learning to be an adult, the first sexual experience, re-examination of childhood beliefs, and of course a passage rite. It's all very predictable, very systematic, and sadly soulless.

Mia is a resident on a giant ship, an asteroid modified for human habitation that travels between colony worlds that have lost most of their technology. (Why? Apparently because there's no time to pursue science if one has to colonize a world; you have to have the leisure of living on an automated spaceship to maintain your technology level. No, this didn't make sense to me either.) The rite of passage referred to in the title is the abandonment of each child of the ship alone in the wilds of a colony world for a month when they turn fourteen. If they survive, they become adults, and are welcomed back to the ship.

That odd idea is the hook, but it ends up being much less important in the book than one might expect. It plays a significant role in the climax of the story, but most of Rite of Passage is a tour of life on the ship, told in first person through the eyes of a twelve- and then thirteen-year-old girl, and then a picture of the ship's interactions with the colony worlds, leading up to a somewhat ham-handed moral about accepting other ways of life. While there's a valiant attempt at some characterization, mostly through giving characters a couple of apparently conflicting traits and then trying to stumble into a character by reconciling the conflict, the only character one ever gets much of a feel for is Mia. The rest of the cast serve mainly at the convenience of the plot or to introduce the appropriate bits of ship politics, attitudes, or coming-of-age experiences.

This sounds dreadful, and yet Mia herself is interesting enough and the ship background has enough potential that there's a salvagable story here. Even if some aspects of ship life provoke a raised eyebrow, the setting is described with loving care and is clearly thoroughly thought-out. But then, one reaches the problem of style.

You see, this book is very tightly edited. The sentences are short and clear. The writing is direct, with a simple structure. Grammar is meticulous, and commas are properly placed. One would never see an exclamation out of place. After a while, one's mind goes numb. The short sentences take any flow out of the story. The character dialog seems stilted. Emotional expression is squeezed out of the language. The writing leaves everything feeling flat.

It's hard to give a feel for this in a single paragraph, since much of the impact is cumulative, but the artificial feel of the writing really hurt my enjoyment of this book. There is such a thing as too tight of editing and too clear of writing, and I think Panshin crossed that line. I have the impression that Rite of Passage is aimed at a juvenile audience, and maybe he was trying to lower the required reading age, but in the process he lost the ability to convey enough emotion to bring the story alive.

Those flaws, plus some basic research problems (if you're going to use soccer as a popular sport, study it enough to know it's a "free kick," not a "fresh kick") and some utterly pointless sections (why did we need to know how to build a log cabin?) left me unimpressed. I'm usually a sucker for coming-of-age stories, Mia is exactly the sort of character that I like, and there's some good (if unexceptional) world-building here, but the flaws are too deep. The detailed picture of permanent life aboard a ship may have been enough to recommend this one when it was originally published, but at this point too many people have told the same story better.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-03-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21