Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: Rite of Passage

Rite of PassageAlexei Panshin
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ☆ ☆ – – –

I should have liked this book a lot, based on the subject matter. It is about a 13-year-old girl, Mia, who lives on a spaceship. The ship is vulnerable to overcrowding, so to hold down the population, every child on the ship must go through a Trial shortly after their 14th birthday in which they get dropped on a wild and/or hostile inhabited planet and have to survive on their own for one month. Those who survive come back to the ship as official Adults.

There were several reasons why this book fell flat for me, though. One is that I thought the Trial was going to be more difficult than it was. It really didn't seem hard enough to warrant all the fanfare it got, and was no harder than any of the challenges she faced on the ship when she was younger. Her Trial was like a G movie where you're nervous for about 2 minutes and then everything works out. I realize that not everybody can go through Frodo's journey but I think Trials should be difficult enough that you feel wrung out reading them - like in Elizabeth Anne Scarborough’s The Healer's War or Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.

Another reason I turned against the book is that the lessons Mia learned were predictable. Before she went through the Trial she was prejudiced against "Mudeaters" - people who lived on planets. After she came back, she could see that some planet-dwellers were kind and she shouldn't lump them all together. Who didn't see that coming? And there wasn't enough interaction with the Mudeaters for me to really buy the ship-people's prejudice in the first place.

And finally, I didn't really get the political rivalries of this universe. Mia's father was the president of the ship's council, a position of great power. Sometimes he seemed like a wise, benevolent leader, and other times he would pop off with prejudices of his own that seemed inconsistent. I didn't know enough about him to understand his complexities. And it was very hard to get strong ideas of what the divisions were and where people stood and why they acted the way they did. It helps when political divisions between ship people and planet people are clearer and more believable, as in C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station.

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