Monday, April 06, 2009

Rite of Passage


Original hardback - 1969 - artist unknown


Rite of Passage was the first science fiction book I ever read. It was borrowed from my grandfather, another ardent reader, whose house was full of trashy popular fiction; westerns, adventure stories, war porn, and occasionally science fiction.


1970 edition - artist Eddie Jones


The covers of these books were minor works of (commercial) art; lurid colours lots of violence and often a hint of sex. I found them fascinating but also off-putting. They gave out a very clear message; adults only, not designed for kids. You can see various examples from various times throughout this post (the book has remained in print almost continuously since it’s first edition in 1968).


1970s edition? Artist unknown (scene doesn't appear in the book either!)


I still don’t know what made me pick up Rite of Passage; I didn’t even understand the title, and the cover (which amongst this lot I’ve been unable to find) wasn’t particularly interesting or violent. It depicted a huge space craft the size of several sky scrapers, with lots of windows lit up like an office building.


1970s Edition? Artist unknown.


So at around 10 or 11 years old I picked up the book and started reading. I got very lucky.

Rite of Passage is a first person narrative which starts when the narrator is 10 years old! It’s well written in that deceptively simple style that is so difficult to achieve page after page and even a child like myself could understand it. But it had its challenges too.


1982 Edition - Artist Rowena Morrill


For a start the narrator is a girl called Mia, even if she is a bit of a tomboy who plays football (called soccer) and doesn’t seem to realise that a foul gives you a free kick, not a ‘fresh kick.’ They also play the game in a weird 2-3-5 formation, which by 1968 was well obsolete and I knew this, our school team played 4-4-2 as did every other team in the land since Sir Alf and the boys adopted it for that tournament in 1966. Never mind. She lives on a vast spaceship (clearly the subject of the cover painting) that once ferried humanity to the stars.


1990 Edition - Artist Debbie Hughes


I loved the details about living on a spaceship, and found the ship’s huge size (it’s big enough for hundreds of football pitches) and the whole premise of a sort ‘city in space’ rather inspiring. In fact Mia’s life is rather humdrum; she has friends, gets into the occasional fight, has lessons (interestingly in small groups gathered around a tutor) and gradually grows up. Her particular skill is using the ship's vast air-conditioning system as sort of private world/transport system to move around in. Like all quality heroines, she's naughty but nice.


Late 1970s/early 1980s edition? Artist unknown.


The details accumulate; the ship is one of several that once ferried people to other planets. The earth has been completely destroyed in a vast nuclear war caused by over-population (the equivalent of the global warming catastrophe of the late 1950s/early 1960s). There’s a vast technological and social difference between the people lucky enough to live on the ships and those who live on the 90 or so scattered planets that have been colonised. It’s intriguing stuff to imagine no matter if you’re 10 or 40.


1978 Edition - Artist unknown


Of course there has to be a problem or two in any little utopia, and for Mia and her friends it comes at 14, when she has to undergo a test called “trial.” This is a pretty brutal ‘rite of passage’ that involves setting kids down on one of the colonised planets and leaving them alone to fend for themselves for a month. Two thirds of the book basically describes Mia’s thoughts and feelings as she grows up, and the intensive and at times rather strange training she undergoes with a group of her peers to prepare her for her trial. I liked the technical aspects of this; how to shoot a blaster, which is a kind of pistol with a sighting device very similar to the lasers available for guns today. How to ride a horse (I too was enduring riding lessons at the time), how to construct a shelter, and various other useful/archaic skills.


2007 Edition - Artist unknown. This is the most 'accurate' cover painting with a scary looking Lossel watching Mia as she leaves the scoutship to begin her one month trial.


And then…. The letdown.


It’s a huge letdown.


Mia and her friends depart in a scoutship (which is basically a flying saucer) and dropped off one by one to find themselves in… the American Wild West circa 1870, basically.


2003 Edition - Artist unknown


Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.


Of course it’s not an exact copy of the wild west; there is the presence of the ‘Lossels’ who are humanoid creatures that seem to be sentient – the local people herd them and exploit them and treat them badly like dim slaves. But as for the rest… 19th century costumes, 19th century culture, 19th century language, men on horseback, women at home (and probably barefoot in the kitchen), revolvers firing bullets etc etc etc.


1980 Edition - Artist unknown.


And that was basically that.


I was so disappointed at this cop-out that it would be nearly 25 years before some good friends persuaded me to read any science fiction again, and they were good enough to choose very carefully and well. Oh and there was the always excellent Iain Banks, who writes wonderful grandiose visions of utopia in his culture novels…


I re-read it and still much the same, although there is of course a bunch of stuff going on that escaped me the first time around. The ship’s society is a lot more sinister than I’d realised at the age of 10 or 11, and Mia’s dismissive (racist?) views of the colonists (she calls them ‘mud eaters’) radically changes after her trial experience.


But overall I’ll stay with my verdict all those years ago. Rite of Passage is a 2/3rds good book, spoiled by a failure of the imagination in the final 3rd.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Dave said...

Some things now become clear to me: a rite of passage in more ways than one, eh?

6:48 PM  

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