I'm not sure why this book has stuck with me so long -- I read it over 20 years ago. But it was one of the most memorable early-Heinlein-era sci-fi stories I ever read. The story is somewhat reminiscent of Heinlein, though the writing is not. The social issues raised in this novel are still compelling, though rather dated now, but I imagine it was even more relevant when it was first published.
I really liked the main character, who was quite believable as a rather privileged teenage girl suddenly forced to grow up. One thing to note: the covers all depict her as a white girl, but in the book, she's described as having dark skin. Not surprising for when it was published (1968), but you'd think at some point someone would have gotten a clue and released a more contemporary cover.Reread: August 2012
If I was reading this for the first time, I'd probably only give it 4 stars, as it's quite good but probably wouldn't have made my list of "favorites." However, the story has stuck with me all these years, enough that it did become one of those rare books I reread, so it keeps its 5 stars.
Notable to me on this reread is that it's aged pretty well. As with most classic SF, the 21st century reader is likely to notice that this 22nd century starship has less advanced information and communications technology than we have today, but hardly any sci-fi authors wrote futuristic technology 40 years ago that looks plausible today. Other than that, though, it's a work of thoughtful science fiction that's more about the people and the consequences of a society split into people living on Ships and "Colons" (or "Mudeaters" as the Ship people call them) spread across the stars. Most of all, it's a bildungsroman
about Mia Havero, who is a spunky, intelligent, and basically decent but very prejudiced and sometimes pig-headed adolescent. She grows throughout the book, and the planetary adventure at the end is indeed a suitable rite of passage for her. The ending still disturbs me in the same way it did years ago, which I think was Panshin's intent.
This is a great classic which really should be better known. If you have ever enjoyed Heinlein's juveniles, or you like what usually gets marketed as "Young Adult" today if it's not some stupid girl-in-a-prom-dress paranormal romance but an actual YA protagonist who thinks meaningful thoughts and makes meaningful choices, I highly recommend it. I am resisting the temptation to shelve this as Young Adult because it wasn't written as a YA novel, but really, it's got a voice and a writing style that should appeal equally to YA and adult readers.