Monday, June 28, 2010

Rite of Passage

by Alexei Panshin

Part of my Nebula-winners read, an older work here. In my judgement quite unsuccessful. It focused on a young woman coming of age in a spaceship, and specifically getting involved in the titular life cycle entry into adulthood by being temporarily stranded on a planet. Adventure ensues, some rudimentary worldbuilding and political intrigue, and finally and entry into the duties and complex morality of adulthood.

It came out in the ’60s, and to an extent that excuses some of its fairly stock and predictible nature. Not all of it, though, and a lot of science fiction from that period was vastly more innovative and well constructed, and ultimately Rite of Passages doesn't add up to much now. The flimsiness of the characterization and basic plot in particular stand out, it's just a feeble excuse for a bildungsroman, and little in the setting elevates the situation beyond what seems highly generic and cliched. Given the intense focus on one individual surviving, being resourceful and growing up it’s quite an impediment to the book’s effectiveness that I wasn’t able to believe in the protagonist. In the end the character work here was so stock and predictible that I was neither interested nor invested in the fate of the hero, and the story proved ultimately rather tedious and despeartely slow.

It only become really interesting at the end, after the direct plot the protagonist has stumbled on is revealed to the ship and the immediate danger foiled At that point the ship community decide to undertake a mass-murder of a planetary colony as a strong warning to others, killing millions to safeguard the tens of thousands in space, and their long term justification. The first adulthood act of the protagonist is voting with the minority that oppose the military strike, and the depopulation occurs soon after. It’s a fairly nice development of the plot, and turns the momentum on the ship from something to be saved to a monstrous community, or rather a collection of scared people undertaking the monstrous. This element suggests that the entry into adulthood may be less straightforward than it appeared, and makes good use of the science fiction element for a jarring and complex invented situation. Still, for the vast bulk the story is too predictable, conventional and frankly dull to be redeemed by the end, and I don’t feel this work should have won any major awards.

Worse than: Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler
Better than: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

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