Rite of Passage is an easy book to pigeon-hole as a "coming of age" novel, but to do so would be a mistake and a disservice to this excellent little science fiction novel that steps beyond the genre.
The book is written first person past through the eyes of the central character, Mia Havero, looking back at herself from the ages of twelve through fourteen. She is the daughter of the elected leader of a group of scientists and engineers who live on a spaceship at the end of the twenty-second century.
Through internal strife, Earth has essentially destroyed itself. The ships were created to ferry passengers from Earth to new worlds that they might colonize to continue the existence of humanity. But the ships' leaders have made a conscious decision to separate themselves - and their knowledge and expertise - from the farmers who are actually carving out the new worlds. These elitists decided that the knowledge they possess would be useless on worlds barely hanging on for survival, that the knowledge would be lost if they joined in that fight for survival, so they stay on their ships and merely trade bits of knowledge to the farmers ("Mudeaters" they are called) for supplies.
Mia herself, after being separated from her parents for years, recently left the common dormitories to live with her father. She is a precarious character at the beginning, having suffered from her separation, nervous to a fault around others, and easily frightened. At the beginning of the novel, her father is moving them to a different part of the ship and she is losing her tenuous hold on security.
But she begins her new existence by being teamed with a boy named Jimmy Dermently, precocious and just a few months older. They are assigned a tutor who is very old and who has been an opponent of Mia's father. He teaches them to think outside the box and they both jump at the chance. Their major line of study becomes ethics and that leads to the central crisis of the novel.
How nice it is to have an entire novel based around a major ethical crisis.
During the next two years Mia and Jimmy educate themselves and prepare for the Trial that they must endure when they turn fourteen years old. The Trial is a survival ordeal that all juveniles on the ship must undergo to reach adulthood. They are dropped individually onto a planet's surface, supplied with a horse, a gun, a knife and a tent and they must survive for thirty days until they are picked up. Many do not survive the "savagery" of the Mudeaters.
As Mia gains confidence through her survival training, she also studies the great philosophies of Earth’s past, picking each one apart, finding things that she can relate to and ideas that she must outright reject. She is forced to think and to make a major decision that will separate her from her family permanently. It is this part of the novel that it seems many critics completely ignore. But Panshin had some big ideas when he wrote this book and I think it is important that I share at least some of Mia’s thoughts:
“I’ve always resented the word maturity, primarily, I think, because it is most often used as a club. If you do something that someone doesn’t like, you lack maturity, regardless of the actual merits of your action. Too, it seems to me that what is most often called maturity is nothing more than disengagement from life [my emphasis]. If you meet life squarely, you are likely to make mistakes, do things you wish you hadn’t, say things you wish you could retract or phrase more felicitously, and, in short, fumble your way along. Those “mature” people whose lives are even without a single sour note or a single mistake, who never fumble, manage only at the cost of original thought and original action.”
To readers more accustomed to slam-bang action (which is, I think, a major pitfall in the writing of science fiction), this book may appear slow and way too thoughtful for them. What is mature deliberation is mistaken for plodding and a reader can miss all of the salient points that the novel is meticulously honing.
When a novel wins the coveted Nebula Award and is nominated for the Hugo, it usually means there is something very, very good about the book. I have now had the opportunity to read many reviews of this novel and most of them are frankly superficial and miss the point of the novel. But this is a fine little book, filled with the inner life of a fully realized character struggling to attain confidence and finding it at the point of a knife called ethics.
(As a side note, I read the Timscape paperback by Pocket Books, March 1982, with a terrific cover painting by acclaimed illustrator Rowena Morrill - see the copy above - it captures the absolute essence of Mia Havero, especially in the eyes and the wary set of her face. Great cover art can really help a book to come alive!)
As I said at the beginning of this review, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole this book. It is a much larger and more challenging novel. I strongly recommend Rite of Passage, not just to science fiction readers, but to the general reading audience.