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Rite of Passage (SF) - Alexei Panshin ****

It has been so common for science fiction novels to have a female protagonist that it can come as a bit of a surprise when there's a male central character, but back in 1968 when Alexei Panshin wrote this coming-of-age story, it was an unusual feature. We meet Mia aged 12 and follow her next few years on a ship originally designed to transport colonists to new planets, but since the destruction of the Earth acting as interstellar traders in technology to the low-tech colonists.

The focus of the book is the preparation for and experience of the rite of passage that provides the title. Fourteen-year-olds are dropped on a hostile colony world for 30 days. If they survive they become adults on the ship.

It was interesting to re-read the book after recently watching the TV show The Good Place, as these are the only two works of fiction I can think of where ethics and moral philosophy play such a front-and-centre role in a drama. (Interestingly, although literary fiction tends to look down on fantasy or science fiction as lacking depth, both fit into these categories.) It's handled in a lot more summary fashion here, but still plays a part as Mia comes to adopt a radically different viewpoint from her father in the way that the ship people should consider the colonists.

The genocidal ending is quite shocking, and the choice of 14 as the age of adulthood seems more than a little odd, but the book itself manages to be about young adults without really being a young adult title - it's a 'proper' novel for adults. My main criticism is that Panshin can belabour a point sometimes. In one training session for the trial, two teams of teenagers each build a log cabin, and we are told far too much detail on exactly how this is done.

A book that was arguably ahead of its time and that still holds up well today.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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