This science fiction novel by Alexei Panshin won the Nebula in 1969. It has a great abstract image, a bubbling yellow-red sphere on a mottled blue-black background, on the cover of my edition, which I only twigged was a representation of the hollowed-out asteroid ship in which the characters live after finishing the book. Hilariously (for me), the back cover includes praise from the Sheffield Morning Telegraph (first published in 1855 and still going strong, though now including news from the entire day, and not just the morning). They “can recommend it unreservedly”. Well that’s good enough for me…
The characterisation and plotting are very similar to what would be found in a modern Young Adult novel (particularly The Hunger Games) — an adolescent woman is thrown out of her society to survive for a period of time on a hostile world. This is the eponymous rite of passage. It may be proto-YA, but there are various stylistic quirks that would disincline me from recommending it to people who might normally embrace modern YA fiction.
The book was clearly not written for a European audience. The opening scene is a lengthy, detailed, and peculiarly abstract and cerebral description of a football match, focusing particularly on its rules and regulations. Perhaps, I thought, there will be pay off for this — perhaps football will be an important element of the plot which requires an in-depth explanation for those who aren’t familiar with it. This did not turn out to be the case. The point, I suppose, was to show that the main character, Mia Havero, is a competitive and physically gifted young woman. She is not, however, particularly sympathetic. While I appreciated her boldness, her lack of empathy and uncritical acceptance of the some of the dodgier tenets of her society (see below) made it difficult to warm to her.
Most of the story is set in a scientifically advanced space-faring community. There are several such independent communities wandering the galaxy, hoarding the technological knowledge of now deceased Earth. There are also numerous planet-bound communities, colonised long ago and now regressed to a largely pre-industrial state. The scientists rely on these planet-dwellers for resources, in exchange giving miserly tid-bits of knowledge. No love is lost between these two groups. On the ship, a plethora of off-puttingly dated social engineering concepts hold sway. Couplings are arranged by the ships eugenicists, enforced abortions are commonplace, and women who choose to have more than their allotted number of children are exiled. A peculiar consequence of this naïve mode of Social Darwinian thinking is the requirement for adolescents to survive for a month on one of the planet colonies. The high mortality rate associated with this ensures population control and the culling of the weak (appropriately weeding them from the gene pool). It’s all a bit unpleasant really.
The plot follows Mia as she trains for her rite of passage, the rivals and friends she makes while doing so, and her exploits while on the planet. Events that it in a more recently published book would be written to wring an emotional response out of the reader (the death of friends, a first sexual encounter) are curiously flat here, their emotional power suppressed by a dryness of prose, an awkwardness of dialogue, and a didactic tone. Perhaps needless to say, Mia survives and returns to the ship an adult. Thankfully, the rather unrelentingly bleak and pessimistic nature of the book was leavened by some moral growth on her part. The conclusion of the story (despite including some casual genocide) does seem to be reservedly optimistic about how the ship- and planet-bound societies might progress.
I found it a worthwhile read, if not a particularly pleasant one. I can’t really recommend it, but the ability to compare and contrast with modern YA literature was interesting, and it was fascinating to see the relatively uncritical use of social engineering concepts.