Monday, May 12, 2008

Review - Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage
by Alexei Panshin
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

First off, don't expect me to follow up this review with Panshin's Hugo winning non-fiction; the only hard cover edition that exists is a signed and numbered first edition. It's unfortunate but most of the non-fiction winners left on my list are apparently somewhat rare. But that's his The World Beneath the Hill, let's talk Rite of Passage.

There are vast colony ships that travel a circuit around hundreds of human colonies. For the most part the people who live on the ship have a life of technological ease while those on the colony worlds toil to grow food. The exception to this is that shortly after their fourteenth birthday all of the shipdwellers are dropped into the wilderness of a planet with minimal supplies and they must survive a month. Once that ordeal has been completed they are considered adults.

Rite of Passage covers a few years in the life of the daughter of the leader of one of these ships. It is the usual coming of age story; she moves to a new neighborhood, makes friends, finds a first love, develops a more complex relationship with her father, and deals with problems in school. The twist is that at the end of all those usual things it also is a survival adventure.

I both read and seen a lot of coming of age stories (it's practically become the default story for any "independent" media) so it takes a lot to interest me in that theme. Panshin succeeded at that. I found Rite of Passage completely engrossing. Part of that I think is that the survival test builds an inherent tension in the book; you know it isn't going to go well since "And then they built a camp fire and all sat around it toasting marshmallows for a month," isn't good storytelling. There's plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong and Panshin builds a large cast of potential victims through the book. And since dying isn't the only way for things to fail even the success of the main character is in doubt.

And its those characters where Panshin really excels. Unlike modern coming of age stories Panshin doesn't fill his cast with "zany" characters; he remembers that all of the children he features are going through the exact same process as his main character and everyone grows up as the novel continues. Panshin paints an image of a world where everyone is dealing with their problems and we only get to see one small view of it.

One particularly interesting thing I found was the politics in Rite of Passage. The patronizing attitude that the people living on the ship have toward the people living on the colony is deeply embedded in their culture but Panshin avoids the stereotypes that often come up in science fiction about conflicting cultures. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling the novel but the people on board ships know that they are disliked by the colonists but they also hold the upper hand in their relationships and take advantage of that. So the actions and reactions of different political factions as they arise in the book are very understandable.

The worst thing I can say about the book is that the prose was not outstanding. Which is not to say it was bad; just not brilliant. Panshin's narrative and characters carry the weight of this novel and his words and style never get in the way of that but they don't lift it up further either.

And that's not really much of a complaint. Where Delany's novels that I talked about last week were heavy on the style with little substance as their foundation Panshin is the other way around. He's not poetic but his story is as solid as they come and I greatly enjoyed it.