I’d like to position Alexei Panshin as the vanguard of a new generation of sf writers. So far, every writer to win a Hugo or Nebula was born before the Great Depression began in 1929, except for Roger Zelazny. Alexei Panshin was born in 1940. Zelazny was born in 1937, but he seemed bent on taking his stories in a different direction, whereas Panshin is quite vocal about his devotion to the likes of Robert Heinlein and is known as much for his non-fiction works about science fiction as for his fictional works. As Panshin explains here, this novel is, to some extent, a response to the work of his idol, Robert Heinlein.
Rite of Passage is narrated by a pubescent girl named Mia, who lives on a massive colony spaceship built out of an asteroid in the late 22nd century. Earth has been destroyed, and the generational colony ships are the last refuges of civilization among several frontier planets with harsh living conditions and rough-hewn colonists (aka Colons, aka “Mudeaters”). Resources on the colony ship are scarce, so the number of births per family is more tightly controlled than in today’s China, and every person must prove themselves in a “rite of passage” at about the age of 14. Each teen is left on a colony planet for thirty days, and many don’t survive the experience. The novel tracks Mia’s training for the rite, followed by the rite itself, as Mia struggles with her survival skills, her career path, and a host of ethical questions, all while receiving advice from her wise father, an influential politician on the ship.
Panshin explains here that he was inspired to write this novel by two sources: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and his opposition to the right-wing rhetoric of his idol, Robert Heinlein. The result is something like Farmer in the Sky as narrated by Scout. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite novels, and it’s hard for me not to see Rite of Passage as a pale imitation. The novel is nicely written, and Mia’s narrative voice is compelling, but it comes nowhere close to the wonderful lyricism of Harper Lee’s narrative. Furthermore, the speculative politics of Panshin’s work seem a bit confused – for someone who’s disappointed in Heinlein’s nationalistic and jingoistic extremism, there’s a lot of eugenic nonsense here, especially in the rite of passage itself – do wilderness survivalist skills really indicate who is best suited to live on a starship? And, the ending, which I think is a critique of Cold War culture and mutually assured destruction is more an ambiguous question mark than a stirring moral statement. Overall, I didn’t find the colony ship, or Mia’s father’s politics, particularly appealing. The humanistic wisdom of Atticus Finch is nowhere to be found in this novel, and Mia's opposition is weak and poorly articulated, though perhaps that's the point.
This novel doesn’t come close to measuring up to the lofty levels of its inspirations. In some ways, it’s too ambitious, and that’s not the worst crime a novel can commit. Still, it's eminently readable, there are some very good ideas, and Mia is certainly the most compelling female character I’ve seen in a Hugo or Nebula winner so far.