Alexei Panshin: The “Rite Of Passage” Stories

Covers of Alexei Panshin "Rite of Passage" publications
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The Ships were launched just over two hundred years ago to carry survival colonies away from an overpopulated and depleted Earth on the hysterical edge of self-destruction. Seven Ships founded some one hundred colonies. And now, all these many years later, the only movement between the stars is the seven Great Ships on eternal motherly rounds to disapprove of their children. They are good mothers.

Alexei Panshin “Arpad” (1971)

Alexei Panshin, a science-fiction writer and critic who died in 2022, will be remembered for several things, according to the interests of the rememberer. For those interested in the history and philosophy of SF, he will be recalled for the magisterial history and analysis of science fiction he wrote with his wife, Cory Panshin: The World Beyond The Hill (1978). For those who thrill to the spats and intrigues of the SF world, he’ll always be remembered as the iconic persona non grata of Robert Heinlein, in part* for expressing some lukewarm views about Heinlein’s writing in a commissioned volume of criticism, Heinlein In Dimension (1968). While Heinlein and his wife Virginia collected personae non gratae as others accumulate a drawer full of mystery keys and flash drives, Panshin was the type specimen of People Hated By The Heinleins—William Patterson, the author of Heinlein’s approved hagiography biography, tells us that Virginia once “made Voodoo dolls of Panshin to stick pins in—to no apparent effect”. So not weird at all, really.

But for many science fiction readers of a Certain Age, he’ll be remembered for his first novel, Rite Of Passage (1968).

The background to the novel is summarized in the quotation at the head of this post. Earth self-destructs from the twin bugaboos of the 1960s—overpopulation and nuclear war. Before the End, a small number of huge faster-than-light spacecraft, fashioned from asteroids, are sent out to plant colonies on multiple planets in other star systems. After the colonies are in place, the crews of the Ships decide not to join the colonists, but instead to turn their (now very roomy) spacecraft into generation ships, living on in limited technocratic splendour while the colonists grub out a mean existence. And so the Ships ply between the colony worlds, exchanging technology for raw materials, while deliberately withholding scientific knowledge from the colonies to keep them in a state of dependency. We know that all is not well in the relationship between Ships and colonies when we read this, early in the narrative:

[The] Ships planted 112 colonies on planets in as many star systems. (There were 112 at the beginning, but a fair number simply failed and at least seven acted badly and had to be morally disciplined, so around ninety still exist.)

That phrase “morally disciplined” lurks in the back of the reader’s mind until the final scenes of the novel, when its meaning becomes very clear.

The Ships must limit their populations. Every conception is approved by the Ship’s “Eugenist”, and every teenager, shortly after their fourteenth birthday, must undergo a rite of passage called Trial—they are set down on a colony world for a month, and left to survive by their own resources. If they live, they are officially adults; if they die, someone else gets to have a baby.

The story is a bildungsroman, narrated by Mia Havero, a teenager approaching Trial, and it covers the two-year period in her life before Trial, and the Trial itself. Panshin uses Mia’s burgeoning independence and youthful naïvety as a way to introduce the reader slowly to the complexities of his imagined society, as Mia has a succession of adventures (and misadventures) that test her resilience. Eventually, in the final third of the book, Mia embarks on her Trial, during which things go catastrophically wrong for her and her peer group.

Some reviewers (all male, as far as I can see) made much of how Panshin had managed to channel the thoughts and attitudes of a peri-pubertal girl. With hindsight, I suspect their enthusiasm arose more from what an unusual thing this was in the 1960s, rather than any particular insight on Panshin’s part. Apart from chucking in a few references to bras and menstruation, Panshin does little to distinguish Mia from the composed and resourceful young male protagonists popular at the time. And all these reviewers seem to have missed the fact that Panshin wasn’t channelling the twelve-to-fourteen-year-old Mia at all, but was writing in the persona of nineteen-year-old Mia, now a happily married woman, offering a sort of artist’s impression of the formative events in her life so far:

To be honest, I haven’t been able to remember clearly everything that happened to me before and during Trial, so where necessary I’ve filled in with possibilities—lies, if you want.
There is no doubt that I never said things half as smoothly as I set them down here, and probably no-one else did either. Some of the incidents are wholly made up. It doesn’t matter, though. Everything here is near enough to what happened, and the important part of this story is not the events so much as the changes that started taking place in me seven years ago. The changes are the things to keep your eye on.

Another odd blind spot with regard to this novel is a recurring problem with the cover art. Mia repeatedly reminds us that she is short in stature, and keeps her black hair tightly trimmed. She is of Spanish-Indian descent, and at one point, when she is reprimanded by her tutor, Mr Mbele, for dismissing all colonists as “Mudeaters”, we read the following:

“I thought you’d gotten over that, Mia,” he said. “This is a point that’s important to me. I don’t like this oversimple categorizing. Some of my ancestors were persecuted during one period and held to be inferior simply because their skins were dark.”
That was plain silly, because my skin happens to be darker than Mr. Mbele’s and I don’t feel inferior to anybody.

Whence, then, the long-haired, blonde, Nordic type that appeared on the cover of my Methuen paperback in 1987? (You can see her in the middle of the top row at the head of this post. She also seems to be not very bright, given the inappropriate pointy boots she’s wearing, and that precarious overhang she’s standing on.) In fact, looking through the covers of various editions of this book, I can’t find one that offers us a little, short-haired, dark-skinned girl. Isn’t that a shame and an embarrassment?

If you know Heinlein’s juvenile novels, you may be thinking that this plot looks like a classic Heinlein juvenile. Well, yes and no. For starters, Part 3 involves a sex scene between Mia and the young man who will become her husband, which I’m pretty sure would have prevented any publisher in 1968 from aiming this one at teenagers. Secondly (and perhaps predictably, given Panshin’s relationship with Heinlein’s writing), there’s a noticeable subversion of Heinlein’s usual “preaching omniscient father figure” who guides the young protagonist towards Right Thinking. Mia’s father deliberately exposes her to points of view other than his own, and she eventually finds reasons to disagree with him strongly.

There are, admittedly, problems with pacing and plot holes, but the novel very much deserved its Nebula Award—for its engaging narrator, for its presentation of both sides of a moral argument (not common in science fiction of that era), and for the careful building of narrative detail as the story progresses. So it’s fondly remembered by many who have read it, including your Humble Reviewer. But few people are aware of the fact that Panshin also wrote five short stories set in the “Rite of Passage” universe. Even the ever-alert Internet Speculative Fiction Database seems not to have noticed. So I thought I’d draw them to your attention. Almost all can be read on-line, in copies of the original magazines held by the Luminist Archives and the Internet Archive—my links will take you to them.

The earliest of Panshin’s short stories set in this universe was “Down to the Worlds of Men”, published in the July 1963 issue of Worlds of If, predating Rite of Passage by five years. It is a bare-bones version of what would become Part 3 of the novel, describing Mia’s adventures during Trial.

Next came “What Size are Giants?” in Worlds of Tomorrow, May 1965. The story begins with a young woman sitting in the countryside reading a book. A young man arrives in a cart pulled by a very large animal (a “titanoth”), and brusquely commands her to get aboard.

Judith said, “But I don’t know you.”
“My name is Michael ap-Davis,” the young man said. “There’s a herd of charging titanoths just behind me. If you listen, you can hear them. If you want to be alive five minutes from now, you’re going to have to climb, swim, or get aboard.”

So she gets aboard, and the story never loses pace thereafter—escapes, betrayals, conflicts and revelations come in rapid succession. Michael, it transpires, is an anthropologist from Ship No. 6, who is doing rather more than mere anthropology on Judith’s native planet. He has already incurred the wrath of the Ship’s administrators, and will soon enrage the colonists too.

Then came “The Sons of Prometheus” in Analog, October 1966. (In contrast to my other links, this one doesn’t take you straight to the story on-line—it downloads a pdf copy of the entire magazine from the Luminist Archives.)This one elaborates on the tension between Ships and colonists, and introduces a clandestine faction among the Ship population who want to be more interventive in helping the colonists develop their own technology. They call themselves the Sons of Prometheus, from the myth of the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. The protagonist, an out-of-his-depth Ship scientist reluctantly pressed into helping the Promethean cause on the planet Zebulon, finds himself having to deal with an outbreak of plague and a religious Inquisition. Things go badly wrong for him, in a particularly gruelling series of events.

The first post-novel short story was “A Sense of Direction”, in Amazing Stories, November 1969, which further expanded upon the relationship between Ships and colonies. It introduces Arpad Margolin, a boy fathered by one of the Ship’s personnel who had “gone native” on the colony world of New Albion. Arpad is reared by his parents in colonial society until the death of his father—at which point he is “rescued” by the Ship from which his father had defected. He doesn’t fit in with Shipboard life, and is treated as a second-class citizen, so as soon as he and his peers are set down on the planet Aurora for Survival Class, in preparation for their Trial, he flees the group and sets off to join the Auroran colonists—and finds himself being adopted by a very strange society indeed.

Finally, we meet Arpad again, forty years on, in the succinctly titled “Arpad”. This appeared in QUARK/2 (1971) the second of a short-lived anthology series edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker, and is the only one of the “Rite of Passage” short stories you can’t read on-line. The QUARK/ series was part of the science fiction New Wave, and by this time Panshin was leaning towards more New Wave narratives. There were hints of this in the surreal society Arpad encountered in “A Sense of Direction”, and in “Arpad” there’s no real narrative beyond Arpad’s scheming to achieve something involving a civil insurrection which will force a grand rendezvous of all seven Ships. I confess to being astonished when I turned the page to discover the story had finished, just as it seemed to be getting going. It’s most notable for featuring a brief cameo from Mia Havero and her husband.

Of the short stories, I enjoyed “What Size are Giants?” and “The Sons of Prometheus” most. “Down to the Worlds of Men” is of limited interest to anyone who has read Rite of Passage. “A Sense of Direction” was fine, but I found the Auroran society encountered by Arpad implausible. And “Arpad” seems like the worst kind of American New Wave—a story that goes nowhere and doesn’t do much along the way.

You can find “The Sons of Prometheus”, “A Sense of Direction” and “Arpad” in Panshin’s Farewell to Yesterday’s Tomorrow collection (1975), recently reissued by Phoenix Pick. (Caution: their Kindle edition is very poorly formatted.) Rite of Passage can be found in multiple second-hand editions; an e-book by seems now to be unavailable. “Down to the Worlds of Men” was incongruously anthologized in Intergalactic Empires (1983), despite involving neither intergalactic travel nor an empire. “What Size are Giants?” has never appeared in any other format apart from its original magazine publication, which is a bit of a shame because it’s great fun.

* The Heinleins’ antipathy to Panshin seems to have started when he was an over-enthusiastic and opinionated writer of fan letters at the age of fifteen; to have burgeoned when Panshin wrote a piece entitled “Heinlein by his Jockstrap” in the typewritten and mimeographed fanzine Shangri-L’Affaires in 1963, critiquing Heinlein’s attitude to sex; and to have reached the “voodoo doll” stage when Panshin started canvassing Heinlein’s friends for information while working on his Heinlein in Dimension critical appraisal. You can find Heinlein’s side of the story in the second volume of William Patterson’s authorized Heinlein biography, The Man Who Learned Better (2014); Panshin’s side is given on his website: The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.

3 thoughts on “Alexei Panshin: The “Rite Of Passage” Stories”

  1. Try as I might I can’t recall any of these stories which is a bit weird to me. I first started reading science-fiction in the late 1960’s as a teenager so it seems almost certain to me that I should have run across them at some time. My early reading was often second hand copies of Analog and Amazing Stories and the like and then moving onto library books. I will have to try and track them down and see if they ring a bell.

  2. If you click on a couple of my links, you’ll be able to take a look at most of the short stories on-line.

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