How old SF can be as crappy as new SF: "Rite of Passage" by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage - Alexei Panshin

Book published in 1968.


After finishing “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh, I wanted something from the good old days. With some serendipity involved, I read “Rite of Passage” by Alexei Panshin, which I read in my teens. My memory of it was at best very hazy. The only thing I remembered was that I didn’t like it at all at the time.


So much junk published is called SF (“Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman, etc) and it’s very difficult to find decent reading stuff. I wanted to know whether my memory was playing tricks on me after 30 years (it wasn’t).

To start at the end, I still don’t like it.


At the end we have one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,

They rightly do inherit heaven's graces

And husband nature's riches from expense;

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others but stewards of their excellence.

The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.


If Panshin’s goal was to build a novel around this sonnet, his effort is a clear miss. On top of that, I‘m not sure whether this book saw the hands of an editor. One example: In the beginning, the main character, Mia, is in her apartment, she sees Jimmy around her apartment and they start arguing. At the end of the quarrel they’re in a classroom. WTF??


Somewhere after this, Mia states that it’s the first time she’s meeting Jimmy; What? Same mistake again?? They’d been together in a classroom just a few pages earlier.

Now, let’s go to the meat of it: (1) Ordinologists vs synthesists. I can see and understand that both are professions which are highly regarded; unfortunately I never saw any evidence of the professions at work. What’s paramount instead is politics. Ordinologists and Synthesists never come to the fore fiction-wise; (2) Nowhere could I discern how two intellectuals, no matter how much their professions were respected, would be able to influence a generation; we don’t get any clues in the novel as how this could come about; (3) The novel’s society is entirely intellectual, ie, they don’t have wars; how does it make sense to have a Trial to separate the weak from the strong? On the basis of what? The so-called Trial is just plain innocuous. It looks good as a concept, but its relevance here is non-existent; (4) it’s stated many times that this society’s primary goal was to guard the scientific and cultural knowledge of Earth. Because of that they go to an agrarian world to survive?


Much as I hate a bad book, like this one, what I really hate is when someone uses Literature to give me a lecture. And this happens often in the novel. Panshin writes lengthy infodumps about rules of survival, the human circulatory system, the rules of football (called soccer here…), etc. In the art of infodumping Neal Stephenson is the only master I can vouch for; the rest just forget it.


This proves that sometimes we like to call something “classic SF” just because it’s old. In this case it’s just plain crap.


SF = Speculative Fiction