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My first sci-fi book, I read in '86 or '87. Its all a bit fuzzy, sorry.
It had a group of young people on a space ship.
The back story included something like...the humans were living on earth in 'ancestral' type groups. (or maybe some other type) People with the greatest intelligence or ability were 'taken' and that is how all the young people came to be in outerspace.
There was something about a group/council that controlled everyone, and a ring.
One of the young people was very good at math/computers and ended up integrating with the ship. Not much to go on, I've been searching the web on and off for two years now, hope you can help.

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Could it be Zindell's "Neverness"? It came out in 1988. It would have kind of been a tough read for your first ever science fiction book, but some of the elements sound similar. It's about a young man who is part of an elite corps of space-faring mathematicians. There is a lengthy middle section about the hero disguising himself to live among a group of humans who have returned to the way of life of their cavemen ancestors. It's one of my all time favorites, due to its ambitious conceptual and philosophical conceits.

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That sounds quite like Jack Chalker's The Rings of The Master series, which starts off with The Lords of the Middle Dark.

The backstory is that humanity on Earth is split into groups based on their ethnic background, and tightly controlled by a mysterious something or other (avoiding spoilers there.) There are also numerous colony worlds, where humans have been transformed into different shapes to be able to survive.

The rings play a very important role in the series as a whole, and are one of the driving forces behind the plot; and the characters steal a starship and discover how to integrate with it.

One of the other main plot points is that to find the rings, the crew need to be transformed into various different shapes to infiltrate the colonies, which you don't mention in your summary - it's a quite memorable part of the story, so I'm not sure if this is the one you're thinking of...

  • Great series, and it does seem to match many of the OP's plot points. – Donald.McLean Dec 18 '13 at 20:47
  • I've got a hankering to re-read it myself now; just a shame my copies are on the next continent! – andrewsi Dec 19 '13 at 13:00

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