Alexei Panshin died on Sunday. My condolences to those who knew him, should any of them stumble across this.
The news naturally made me think of the only work I’ve read by him; his most famous one, Rite of Passage, in which a young girl from an insular future society on a spaceship faces a harsh coming-of-age test and makes some initial steps in questioning her own prejudices. I discovered the book some time in my preteen or early teen years, at the polytechnic where my mother used to lecture; she’d occasionally bring me along when she had to go in for something during the holidays, and I’d spend the time in the library. Most of the books there were textbooks, but there was a small fiction section and this was one of the books there. The copy didn’t have a cover blurb (I think it was a hardback with no dustjacket), but when I opened it to see what it was about I was drawn into the story straight away.
Since I only spent a few hours in that library on an occasional basis and always decided to start over at the beginning when I went back, I ended up reading Part One several times before I read the rest; for years after that it felt surprising that there was a middle and end to the book. (This somehow felt oddly appropriate for the story, in which a period of stagnation in the protagonist’s life is followed by a period of change that makes her start to recognise the stagnation in the society around her.) I can’t remember when or where I eventually ended up reading the whole thing, but for me the book will always carry memories of hours spent browsing in that library.
Anyway, looking back at the book now, I have some thoughts about different aspects about it, and this is something I’ve vaguely planned to post about at some point. With Panshin’s death coinciding with the start of my annual leave and some actual spare time, now seems like a good point. This post will contain significant spoilers.
Trial, the eponymous Rite of Passage in the story, is absolutely crucial to the book’s plot from a literary point of view. However, from an in-story point of view it doesn’t seem to make all that much sense. Why do the Ship-dwellers expect all their fourteen-year-olds to survive a month on an alien planet to prove their fitness for adulthood? Especially when quite a lot of them don’t survive?
Mia tells us that it’s essential for population control on the Ship, but it clearly isn’t; they keep careful control of births to make sure the population stays within limits, so the actual effect would be a gradual attrition of their numbers over time (as demonstrated by Alicia MacReady, who’s banned from further pregnancies even though none of her children survive Trial, and expelled from the ship when she won’t abide by that rule). The teacher of the pre-Trial classes tells them, in the title grab speech, that it’s ‘a formal way of passing from one stage of your life to another’ which all societies have, but, in fact, the latter part of that isn’t true; the highly industrialised societies from which the Ship’s population came don’t normally have this sort of survival test to surmount in order to make it to adulthood. While he’s probably right about it making adulthood more meaningful due to having been earned, it’s hard to imagine the Ship’s society deciding that this is important enough to put their children through the risk of dying as teenagers through sheer bad luck. Trial does fit with the general unstated theme of ‘survival of the fittest’, but it’s hard to picture the Ship’s society deciding that the one attribute they want their children to prove in order to remain part of society is the ability to survive on a planet, when this is an ability they’ll then never need for the rest of their lives.
Like the hand-cutting in the Choosing Ceremony in Divergent, Trial is something that works really well on a symbolic level and not at all when you try to picture such a custom developing in reality.
One last thought on this point: What happened in terms of Trialists interacting with the colonists? We know that a fair proportion of the people on Trial spent the month exploring their surroundings, and it seems likely that many of those would have had some kind of encounter with the locals. We know that the very negative encounters that Mia’s group had were considered very much the exception. Logically, therefore, there must have been a large proportion of the Ship who had some personal memory of having positive interactions with people they’d previously been taught to see as inferior peasants. It seems like the number of Shipdwellers who questioned their prejudices about colonists should have been higher. But then, they’d all have returned to spend the rest of their long lives in their insular and bigoted society, so maybe not.
The evils of overpopulation
This is a significant theme in the book, and it’s interesting to look back on it now, because it’s very much a product of its time in the way it’s presented. ‘Rite of Passage’ was published within a few years of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (the book that would become ‘Soylent Green’), and Max Ehrlich’s The Edict. Reading Panshin’s Wikipaedia page, I was entirely unsurprised to learn that his introduction to science fiction was Heinlein’s Farmer In The Sky, which dates from a couple of decades earlier but presents a similar view of an overpopulated Earth. Panshin’s/Mia’s description of an Earth shortly prior to destruction is strongly reminiscent of these:
In 2041, there were eight billion people on Earth alone, and nobody even had free room to sneeze. There were not enough houses, not enough schools or teachers, inadequate roads and impossible traffic, natural resources were going or gone, and everybody was a little bit hungry all the time, although nobody was actully starving. Nobody dared to raise his voice because if he did he might disturb a hundred other people, and they had laws and ordinances to bring the point home – it must have been like being in a library with a stuffy librarian twenty-four hours a day.
It’s interesting to compare this with our situation now that we almost have reached the eight billion level. Some of it, of course, is accurate, though the situation with housing/teachers/traffic is more due to mismanagement than to actual raw material shortages; but it’s notable that Panshin – like Harrison, Ehrlich, and, earlier, Heinlein – thought that the biggest problems with this level of overpopulation would be global food shortage and unmanageable physical overcrowding. It has, of course, turned out since then that the biggest problems are actually the devastation caused to the climate and environment by this number of people. Our problems are no less significant than the ones predicted by the science fiction authors of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but the way in which they affect day-to-day life is rather different from the picture that was imagined then.
(I was also struck by the contrast between the line ‘everybody was a little bit hungry all the time, although nobody was actually starving’ and the modern-day situation. Panshin might have been too pessimistic about our potential for global food production, but he was way too optimistic about how fairly we’d end up sharing the food we had.)
The other feature that’s strongly reminiscent of the time is Panshin’s assumption (reflected in the characters’ assumption) that the only way of preventing overpopulation is by strict laws controlling the number of children allowed. Hence, when Mia sees a family with eight children while on her Trial and realises the planet of Tintera has no such laws, she’s horrified by what she believes to be the implication; she assumes this world will go on to be overrun by overpopulation and eventually destroyed. This view is shared by the people of the Ship, and, while it’s not by any means the only factor in their eventual decision to destroy Tintera, it’s certainly a significant one. Mia’s father, addressing the Ship assembly, even describes a planet without population control laws as a ‘cancer that must be destroyed or it will grow and grow until it destroys its host and itself’, as though the people of Tintera were somehow going to pile on top of one another as the population grew until they extended out into space, filled the galaxy and overran the Ship. Nobody points out to him that this is a nonsensical metaphor.
And yet, what we’ve actually seen happen over the decades since then is very different; in country after country, the reproduction rate has dropped below replacement level. And this is traceable to two main factors: effective low-risk widely-available birth control so that anyone with a uterus has practical ways of avoiding using it when they don’t want to, and widespread social acceptance of the idea that women will probably want to do other things with their lives apart from motherhood. As far as I’ve been able to find out, in every single country in which these two factors have become generally available, even imperfectly, the reproduction rate has shown this kind of drop.
The reproduction rates that Panshin and his peers thought were an unstoppable flaw in humanity have actually turned out to be due to the fact that most sexually active people had limited alternatives. On average, most people with uteruses don’t actually want to spend their entire reproductive lives using them; all we needed was the chance, both sociologically and practically, to avoid doing so. Yes, there are always individual exceptions who want large families; it’s just that they’re more than outweighed by the number of women who choose to stop at one or have none at all. The existence of the occasional eight-child family in a society demonstrates nothing whatsoever about the overall reproduction rate in that society.
All this does raise a question that is not addressed in the book and that I haven’t seen addressed in any of the reviews I’ve read; how effectively could the people of Tintera or other colonists have controlled their reproduction rates? The Ship’s stated policy – hotly debated in the epilogue, but ultimately upheld – is to withhold technical information from the planetary colonies in order to give themselves bargaining power in exchanges with the planets and hence to continue their parasitic existence, and thus the colonies are deliberately kept at a more low-tech level. What would the effect of that be on population growth?
One council member in the final debate does link the two in a heavily paternalistic way; the poor dears are too primitive to be expected to know any better, all our fault for not teaching them better ways. But nobody mentions a much more practical link; a low-tech society is simply not going to have very effective contraceptives. There are certainly going to be methods; they’re just going to have high failure rates. I was struck by the irony of the Ship criticising Tinteran society (on extremely limited evidence) for failing to control their reproduction satisfactorily while simultaneously making it impossible for them to do so.
The vote on Tintera
Reading this section over again, I was struck by how the motion for voting was phrased.
After a heated two-hour debate that started on the specifics of Tintera’s case but rapidly moved on to a general debate of whether the Ship should continue with the status quo of living off the colonies or whether it should choose some other route such as becoming self-sufficient or mining an unoccupied planet for raw materials, the Chairman phrases the vote on Tintera’s fate thus:
“[…]The basic question seems to be, what shall be done with Tintera? That is the purpose of this assembly. Those who agree with Mr Persson on a policy of containment, and I don’t know what else – re-education perhaps? – will also be voting for a change in our basic way of life along one or more of the lines that Mr Persson has suggested or some similar alternative. Those who vote with me for the destruction of Tintera will also be voting for a continuation of the policies we have been living by for 160 years.[…]”
In other words, the specific decision on whether the Tinterans should have their planet destroyed for being Bad Colonists is explicitly tied to the different, and much more far-reaching, question of whether the Ship’s members are going to make radical changes to their own lifestyle. Talk about weighting the scales; anyone who might have had some sympathy for Tintera but doesn’t like the idea of having to change their lifestyle and possibly be forced into the mining industry themselves is going to have a strong reason to vote for Tintera’s destruction. Tintera was probably doomed anyway, but this definitely would have skewed things. Poor Tintera.
I noticed other details (why did they keep horses on the Ship? And tigers?? Why were dishes cleared up by incinerating them, when it would have been so crucial to reuse or recycle all their limited resources? I think Panshin sometimes got carried away by his vision both of Futuristic Life and of Pioneering Into The Unknown and didn’t think about the practicalities), but the above covers my main thoughts. If any of you have read ‘Rite of Passage’, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.
I did read Rite of Passage, but only once sufficiently long ago that I recall very little of it, and even seeing your summaries of the book sections rings no bells.
Panshin was also well-known for another set of books; the Anthony Villiers novels. Each is linked but more or less standalone. The tone is often dryly humorous, and very different from Rite of Passage.
All three have been collected into one volume.
Raging Bee says
What, exactly, does the book mean by “destruction of Tintera?” Extermination of humans? Destruction of their means of production? Sterilizing the whole planet with fire? Or blowing up the planet altogether? Your post doesn’t seem to specify what action the Ship’s leaders were contemplating.
Pierce R. Butler says
The Panshin novel I recall best is Earth Magic, which reworked several fantasy tropes through the concepts of Carlos Casteñada and feminism – a combination which never caught on, perhaps just as well. (A’s wife Cory co-wrote EM, and apparently most of his/their other works before and after.)
It bears mentioning that Rite of Passage picked up a Nebula, and came close to harvesting a Hugo too. Like much of the sf of the ’60s, it owes a lot to Heinlein (about whom Panshin wrote the first book-length critique, iirc), though I remember it as more like Tunnel in the Sky than Farmer ~ (that is, more harshly survivalist).
Dr Sarah says
@Owlmirror, @Pierce R. Butler: If I ever see those books I’ll probably check them out, as it would be interesting to see something else by him. At the moment, my to-read list is long enough that I probably shouldn’t be jumping to add to it!
@Raging Bee: That’s because the book doesn’t specify either. It certainly involves everyone there dying, but it’s not clear whether they blow up the planet or what. Oh, no, wait a sec… when Mia gives the figures for the vote, she says ‘and Tintera was to be blown out of existence’. So I guess they do blow it up. (I now have inevitable ‘HitchHiker’s’ images in my head.) I think Panshin was probably vague about this mainly because the details weren’t his point (this wasn’t ‘how to blow up a planet using a spaceship’, but a moral commentary on why you shouldn’t do it) and at least partly because there seem to be some concerning issues of physics here; how do you make enough energy to blow up a planet? Particularly when it’s specified it was done by a man in a scoutship? It’s one of those bits of SF where the details need to be just handwaved away.
@Pierce R. Butler: Agree with you about ‘Tunnel’. The talk about overpopulation/an overcrowded Earth reminds me strongly of ‘Farmer’, but the whole idea of sending teenagers off for a testing ordeal on an alien planet is, of course, the central plot theme of ‘Tunnel’, though in different and more justifiable circumstances. And, thinking about it, the idea of these futuristic people living the traditional American small-town life on their alien planet is also very Heinlein; think ‘Time Enough For Love’. I’m just in the process of reading Panshin’s own commentary on the whole thing at http://www.panshin.com/critics/HeinleinRoP/ropcontents.html and he seems a bit bemused that someone described Mia as ‘the greatest juvenile Heinlein never wrote’, but the Heinlein influence is definitely strong here.
I find it fascinating (and also appalling) that American Conservatives–who should be wanting to conserve things, it’s right there in the name–insist on denying the effect of humans on planetary resources when reservoirs and lakes are drying up and China’s out of water. They’re the same people screaming for “freedom!” and yet want to make sure everyone who possesses a uterus, ‘uses it’, as you put it. No freedom for women; they’re simply chattel. Well, that part is understandable–the men are outraged at the idea of having competition.
Raging Bee says
Dr. Sarah: Thanks for the clarification. Blowing up the whole planet is even sillier than just killing all the people. At least the latter leaves you a planet with land and resources that the Ship folks could take and re-colonize.
Dr Sarah says
@Pierce R. Butler, #3: Hey, you were spot on! I’ve finished reading the commentary by Panshin that I linked to above, and he specifically says he got the original idea of Trial from ‘Tunnel in the Sky’ and put in that much similarity deliberately:
The other similarity, which I missed because it’s so long since I read ‘Methuselah’s Children’, is that the idea of the ship made out of a hollowed-out asteroid came from there.
But he doesn’t mention the similarities regarding the population control issue and the small towns, so those probably weren’t deliberate (and, as I said, were at least partly the product of other works of the time as well).
Dr Sarah says
I guess what they really want to conserve is their own privileged way of life… regardless of how much it hurts anyone or anything else.
And, regarding freedom… I remember reading something about this not long back, from someone who came from this kind of background. I’m trying to remember exactly what point he made, but I think it was that they’re actually coming from a worldview in which it’s all about power and control and, because they can’t think beyond that, what they want is to be the ones on top in this scenario. So they aren’t talking about ‘freedom’ as an overall good for everyone, but as freedom for them, meaning that, in this power-and-control structure that they picture as the only possible way of doing things, they’re the ones with the power.
Dr Sarah says
@Raging Bee, #6:
Well, that definitely would not happen in this story, because the Shipdwellers regard actually working/living on planets as being very much beneath them and only fit for the inferior Mudeaters (their derogatory term for the colonists). No, they’ll fly off and get their resources from the other colony planets as per usual.
“denying the effect of humans on planetary resources when reservoirs and lakes are drying up and China’s out of water.”
What are the proposed solutions? Combined, there are about 4 billion Indians, Chinese and Africans who want the same things they see the west enjoying; abundant food, paved roads, transportation, air conditioning, etc.. They are not entangled in climate hysterics. They are building coal-fired power plants and developing other fossil-fuel sources. And their numbers are growing. We could be very near 10 billion carbon generators before 2030.
We are not there yet, but sooner or later, I’m betting that the proposals will quietly shift from electric vehicles, wind and solar to more strident and ugly suggestions to deal with overpopulation. And it looks like we will have empowered governments to impose those solutions.
The majority of people “entangled in climate hysterics” are those hysterically denying the reality of increasing climate disruption. Anyone who can going on doing so in the face of current and recent droughts, floods, wildfires, etc. is obviously scarcely even on nodding acquaintance with reality. And the fastest populatioin growth is taking place largely among those who have contributed, and continue to contribute, least to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing this disruption, while the rate of global population growth has been declining for half a century, and is expected to go on doing so – the main thing needed to speed this process is to improve the education and status of women and girls. It is still quite possible to limit cliamate disruption and other nevironmental damage to manageable levels while still ensuring everyone a reasonable level of material abundance, and a better life in broader terms (of personal freedom and opportunities for fulfillment) than almost anyone has now. What is lacking is the political will to do so.
Raging Bee says
They are not entangled in climate hysterics.
No, they’re dealing with the reality of climate change and its consequences. You’d know this if you weren’t entangled in backward fantasy.
They are building coal-fired power plants and developing other fossil-fuel sources.
They’re also building — and, in China’s case at least, exporting — non-polluting energy sources such as wind and solar.
“current and recent droughts, floods, wildfires, etc.”
That is not going to be easy to sell. Unless people are directly affected by these things (and in real terms, not that many are) they are not going to deliberately choose to make their own lives more miserable.
Dr Sarah says
The most important things that can be done to limit further population growth are the ones I touched on in this post: make birth control widely and easily available to everyone globally so that no-one has to have children they don’t want, work actively to give women the same educational opportunities as men globally (or, at the very least, to close the parity gap), and work against fixed ideas of gender roles that narrow women’s available options for life choices to motherhood only. These would all be highly beneficial even apart from flattening the rate of population growth, so they’re win-win solutions.
That’s a very concerning way to describe people’s legitimate worries about the fact that experts in the relevant field now overwhelmingly agree that we’re on a course to increasingly disastrous options in the fairly imminent future.
From what I can see, the biggest barrier to improving things from the climate change of view isn’t miserable people, it’s billionaires using their money to oppose restrictions on their multi-million-pound/dollar companies, as well as religious people opposing measures to make birth control available globally. What ideas do you think are being proposed that are going to require people to make their lives more miserable?
Raging Bee says
Looks like txpipsqueak can’t tell the difference between “sacrifice for a long-term common good” and “make their own lives more miserable.” That’s todays Republicans in a “nut” “shell.”
“What ideas do you think are being proposed that are going to require people to make their lives more miserable?”
Anything that costs money arguably falls into that category.
Raging Bee says
Well, by that standard, me paying my monthly mortgage payments is making me more “miserable” than anyone paying far less in extra taxes for any sort of toxic-waste cleanup or subsidies for clean energy development. So are you on board with universal mortgage forgiveness?
Pierce R. Butler says
txpiper @ # 16: … to make their lives more miserable?… Anything that costs money …
An awesome indictment of contemporary consumer society!
There might be hope for txpiper after all (not really)…
Record number of people worldwide are moving toward starvation, U.N. warns
“David Beasley, head of the U.N. World Food Program, said its latest analysis shows that “a record 345 million acutely hungry people are marching to the brink of starvation” — a 25% increase from 276 million at the start of 2022 before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The number stood at 135 million before the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
“There’s a real danger it will climb even higher in the months ahead,” he said. “Even more worrying is that when this group is broken down, a staggering 50 million people in 45 countries are just one step away from famine.” “
Raging Bee says
Yes, there’s lots of people going hungry all over the world. Which means we can’t do anything about global warming…why, exactly?
Also, did you ever think that some of our food-supply problems might be kinda-sorta caused in part by our destruction of our environment? Did you ever think maybe there’d be less starvation if we managed to clean up our environment a little?
Dr Sarah says
Hold on, hold on. A couple of comments back you were talking darkly about how we were going to end up empowering our governments to impose unspecified-but-ominous ‘strident and ugly solutions’ to the problem of overpopulation, and now you’re saying that taxation to pay for solutions is going to be too hard a sell? If we’re empowering our governments to do things we don’t like, then taxation has to be pretty much at the top of the list.
Anyway… large numbers of people actually do support available birth control/gender parity in education/measures to avert environmental catastrophe. I think the biggest problem is not that the majority find this too hard a sell, but that a tiny minority of people with a disproportionate amount of both resources and power keep blocking fair solutions.
“empowering our governments to impose unspecified-but-ominous ‘strident and ugly solutions’ to the problem of overpopulation, and now you’re saying that taxation to pay for solutions is going to be too hard a sell?”
Of course. Because nobody expects the solutions to overpopulation problems to come from the overpopulators.
Raging Bee says
That depends entirely on who, specifically, you’re labelling “overpopulators.” If it’s women giving birth to too many babies, then yes, a solution CAN come from them, if they’re given the ability to choose whether or not to have sex, get pregnant, or carry pregnancies to term.
Men who currently get women pregnant too many times can also help solve the problem, if they’re given access to effective birth-control that they can use, and decent sex-ed to help them make better choices.
txpiper really is getting himself into a hopeless muddle – #’18 ignores the fact that the projected food shortage is in considerable part due to climate disruption, as harvests have been poor this year in many parts of the world due to drought, extreme heat, andor flooding; while #22 scarcely even tries to make sense. What we learn from his contribution to the thread is that he considers selfish short-termism to be inevitable, if not actually commendable.
“txpiper really is getting himself into a hopeless muddle”
I would be if I were trying to make a point about value. But, in my opinion, the only point there is to make is about confusion and conflicting factors and circumstances. We have an expanding world population, a diminishing food supply, shrinking natural habitats, a growing hostility towards petroleum and abysmal western naiveté and indifference, all working against each other.
Dr Sarah says
I really must put up a proper comment policy at some stage, but the short version is ‘keep it polite and respectful’. If the person who wrote the most recent comment to txpiper is wondering where it went, then the answer is that I deleted it for not following that rule.
@txpiper, #22: ‘Because nobody expects the solutions to overpopulation problems to come from the overpopulators.’
It sounds as though the problem here might be that you’re not expecting this. In fact, you seem to be wrong both in this claim (there are actually very widespread global efforts to bring contraception to people worldwide) and in the apparent assumption that the ‘overpopulators’, as you say, aren’t going to come up with such solutions. You pointed out a few days ago that the developing world wants the same things they see the West enjoying; why assume they won’t include access to birth control/female education on that list? Or see that there are benefits for everyone in limiting population growth? I think there are very genuine concerns over whether we’ll get things under control in time, but that has more to do with the political opposition in the USA to to support of global family planning (the problem Katydid initially raised upthread, I believe) and the very pressing level of current problems, rather than with a lack of overall will to improve access to birth control.
By the way, I find it interesting that your initial list of countries includes China, which has in fact been notorious for going in the other direction and getting downright coercive with family limitation, and still has a very low reproduction rate. And India’s rate is only barely above replacement.
“You pointed out a few days ago that the developing world wants the same things they see the West enjoying; why assume they won’t include access to birth control/female education on that list? Or see that there are benefits for everyone in limiting population growth?”
I don’t assume that. And I certainly favor any efforts to slow population growth. But I believe that more people is still the projection. Sociological attitudes towards having children depends on culture, country and other factors. I am, by no means, an expert on such things.
I read somewhere recently that China (and Japan) is concerned about low birth rates. When I was there, I was told that the restrictions on having more than one child had been relaxed. One woman explained that since she and her husband were both only children, they were permitted to have more than one child.
My interest in these subjects is about policy clashes. In this world, no diesel/gasoline/jet fuel means hunger. That being the case, it is not hard to see inevitable conflict ahead of us.
Raging Bee says
My interest in these subjects is about policy clashes.
…and clearly not in offering, advocating, discussing or implementing any actual solutions. Just yammering on and on about how no one can ever solve anything so why bother (or do anything that inconveniences you)?
Dr Sarah says
I think overall we’re agreeing more than we’re disagreeing, in that we both agree that the situation with regard to overpopulation is already extremely serious and that we can’t undo the level of harm that we as a species have already done in that regard. However, the trouble is that you’re focusing entirely on negatives here rather than on what can be done… and, yes, things certainly can still be done to avoid things getting even worse. There are no good solutions for the fact that we’ve let it get this bad already, but there are certainly things we can do to mitigate the problem going forward.
You joined in with a question about solutions, but you’ve then found reasons (including inaccurate reasons) to shoot down everything that’s suggested. I don’t seem to be the only person who’s become somewhat exasperated by your insistence on painting the situation as hopeless.
I’m sorry. I missed seeing your last post.
I understand. Part of my work experience had to do with finding points of potential system failures, so I am prone to picking apart suggested solutions. That said, I do not see many encouraging proposals on the table. I do not believe that developing countries are as interested in climate issues as “we” in the west are.