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:: Rite of Passage (Panshin)

Finished this one by Alexei Panshin last night. In Mia's world (which is a giant spaceship built out of an asteroid), on their thirteenth birthday kids get dropped onto a planet solo except for a horse; if they survive for thirty days, they get to come home and be adults. If they don't, well, they don't. It wasn't bad -- interesting premise -- but the characters are one-dimensional and never quite came alive for me. One thing that jarred me was the kids leaving for their Trial; if this is really such an important rite of passage in society, there would (one would think) be more ritual, pageantry, emotion, etc involved. But nobody comes to see the kids off, and Mia's father doesn't even say "Good luck," he just says, "Bye, Mom and I will see you when you get back." Weird.

Panshin does raise some interesting ethical questions -- always a good thing -- but it's done more in Mia's head than in discussions with her tutor or fellow students, which would have brought the debate more to life. Oddly, her ethics don't seem to bother her when she's on the planet beating the crap out of people, or when she and Jimmy kill a "Mudeater" soldier. Nor do she or any of her Trial Group seem at all bothered by the fact that they beat a poor tiger to death as part of their training. I really hoped the tiger would turn out to be a robot but no, it was a real live tiger, though it was purple with black stripes. That part was waaay too Lord of the Flies for me).. Easily the most interesting debate was that at the Ship's Assembly at the end, on what to do about Tintera; I have to say I was pleased Mia fell out with her father on this question. All things considered, though, the book suffers from too much tell and not enough show.

And perhaps this is why: Today I discovered this interesting essay by Panshin (the website appears to be maintained by his son), explaining why he wrote Rite of Passage and how it was largely a response to Robert Heinlein's open support of nuclear testing and his rabid antipathy towards Russia/Communism. Panshin's question "wasn't whether or not we ought to confront Communism whatever the cost, but whether being locked into anti-Communist postures skewed our behavior and made us small-minded and self-favoring." An excellent question, but Heinlein appears to have been uninterested in it, preferring the lock-in. I continue to be disappointed by my discovery that there are people whom I otherwise admire that became, in the 1950s, rabid anti-Communists and thought they were an elemental threat that should be obliterated. Maybe they were, then; it's hard for me to comprehend that era's mindset and how afraid everyone was. But I expect better of my favorite writers and I'm sorry to learn this about Heinlein, and even more sorry if Panshin's account of their correspondence is accurate.

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