by Pierce BrownPublished 2014 382 pages
I don't think that this book was written for me. Let that set the tone for what I'm about to say. Red Rising is objectively not a bad book—it's a page-turner, written in vivid language and with a thrilling plot. It has fans the world over. Its monomyth structure is time-tested. It just didn't resonate properly with me.
The protagonist of Red Rising, the first in a trilogy, is Darrow, a lowly helium-3 miner on Mars in the far future. Darrow is a Red, at the very bottom of an extremely strict class hierarchy called the Society, ruled by the biologically-enhanced Golds at the very top. After he's radicalised by the murder of his wife at the hands of a Gold, Darrow's selected to undergo biological enhancement himself to infiltrate the upper echelons of the Society, and to take it down from the inside. The first half of the book deals with Darrow's radicalisation and transformation into a Gold; in the second half, Darrow is pitted against teams of other Golds in a battle royale for team supremacy.
References to existing media come fast and thick throughout. The general structure of the book mirrors The Hunger Games surprisingly accurately—down to individual beats. (The scene where Darrow's love interest nurtures him back to health in a cave after being ejected from his alliance echoes a similar scene between Katniss and Peeta almost exactly.) Earlier in the book, a the nightclub where Darrow meets the surgeon who will enhance him feels pulled directly from The Matrix. The political-type scenes feel like something from Ender's Game—not the only reference; see Stray observations below.
The blend of Roman aesthetic with hard science fiction, however, is really effective; it's a unique aspect of the story that gives a lot of colour to the world in which it's set.
The character work here feels a little simplistic, as if Brown assigned them Dungeons & Dragons classes & left it at that: barbarian (Pax), rogue (Sevro), bard (Roque), paladin (Cassius).
Now and again they sort of break character as the narrative demands: Darrow, who throughout is abundantly cautious, falls into the exact same trap ("wake up, come quick, so-and-so is hurt") twice in quick succession. Cassius, Darrow's close friend, also goes unconvincingly off the deep end when he discovers that Darrow was forced to kill his brother. Darrow, who spends much of the novel wracked with guilt over the killing, pleads his case with Cassius, urging Cassius to turn his rage on the sick machine that forced them both into this situation. Cassius just doesn't respond to this, and then the fight starts. This schism erupts into one of the main motivating factors behind the remaining two books in the trilogy.
Darrow's other close friend, Sevro, is another frustrating character. Sevro is radically dedicated to Darrow—though even Darrow isn't quite sure why; it might have to do with Sevro's father's allegiance—but repeatedly wanders out of the story for unclear reasons. I think that Brown writes Sevro this way on purpose to bring him back to save Darrow from certain doom—a plot device that occurs at multiple points in the narrative.
Darrow is no less frustrating. From the very first page it's clear that he's too capable for the story he lives in. He's the best miner among the Reds at the beginning of the story; he shrugs off the same biological enhancement that kills 97 others before him. He picks up a lifetime's worth of Gold social conventions over the course of a couple of months. He scores improbably high at the tests the Society puts him through. It's not clear what specific strengths Darrow has over anyone else—couldn't Dago, his mining rival in the pits, equally become a Gold? The only thing that sets Darrow apart from his peers is that he's radicalised by the murder of his wife in the first act.
For most of the book, Darrow dispatches his challenges with ease, almost always one step ahead of his enemies. He makes only two real mistakes throughout the book:
- the first is when he executes one of his rivals in the name of vengeance; he loses the allegiance of his peers, but learns an important lesson and returns stronger, and
- the second is when he believes that a fellow Gold won't self-mutilate in exchange for freedom; in his shock, his close friend is killed. This feels like the only real mistake—a miscalculation with serious consequences.
It could be argued that Darrow actually makes a lot of "mistakes", but most of these are just instances where Darrow is lacking the full picture, or is being lied to, and he always figures it out before the consequences catch up with him.
He rarely loses in battle, despite having no formal training in combat. His Dexterity is turned up to 11: impossibly fast with his hands, which gets him out of more tough spots than you'd think. His legend goes before him, and he's always got a Marvel-style quip to deploy in tense situations. When he faces sworn enemies, no-nonsense warlords, and psychotic colleagues, they fall over themselves to compliment and intimidate him in turn. It's just weird.
But I think the most objectionable part of the book to me was the overall message. Early on, it feels like we might be on track for a thinly-veiled communist parable: the Red proletariat rising up to overthrow their Gold overlords feels like something Lenin'd come up with. Massive class struggle: okay, I'm on board.
The tone shifts when Darrow undergoes his enhancement surgery and becomes a Gold. It's a doubtlessly traumatic experience, but it's played as an objective upgrade, and Darrow is enamoured of his new body and abilities. Rather than the revelation that the Golds at the top are no better or worse than the Reds at the bottom, we learn that Golds really are biologically superior beings—that the class stratification that the Society is founded on is justified.
At this, Darrow stops viewing other Golds as enemies and oligarchs, but as peers. He struggles with the sense that those he considered enemies could actually be his friends. He continues to be driven by the underlying class struggle—he keeps his eye on the overthrow of the Society as the eventual prize—but he stops participating in it, exchanging class struggle for factional struggle.
Eventually Darrow leaves his past life as a Red behind and fully inhabits the role he's playing. No longer a Red-turned-Gold, he builds a cult of personality and rises to the destiny he believes he's owed. In his romantic interest, another Gold, he sees "what Golds can be, should be." The accession of the under classes to power is fully abandoned; rather than dismantle the Society's rigid class hierarchy in favour of a more egalitarian social structure, Darrow's concern is to replace the current ruling class with a different one of his choosing (a quick check on Wikipedia indicates that this is, in later books, the case; I bet you can guess who gets to be ArchImperator in the end).
I was a little disappointed that Darrow so quickly abandoned his friends, his family, his people, and his past, in the pursuit of power; it felt like the ending was anathema to the thesis of the beginning. I understand that by the end of the third book, the rigid class hierarchy of the Society is dismantled—but I would have liked to see it stay a little bit more front-and-centre here.
- Here are some more offhand references to other media that bear no thinking about: Darrow is urged to visit a place called Osgiliath (from Lord of the Rings). He also name-drops a famous historical general called Wiggin—presumably Ender Wiggin, of Ender's Game fame. Darrow's wife, shortly before her death, directly references Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator without irony.
- The book also lacks consistency in the details. In one sequence, Darrow & company slay hordes of wolves for their pelts with little apparent difficulty, but then directly afterwards struggle conspicuously with fighting off a few dogs. In another intimate scene, Darrow comments on the warmth of his lover's hands under his clothes—just before she complains of how cold she is. Darrow claims at one point that he can travel a kilometre in just over a minute, but later, after a full day's journeying, Darrow & company have only made it 20 kilometres from their base. Shouldn't he have been able to cross that distance in about the same time as an episode of Spongebob Squarepants?
- Apparently the Red Rising books are very popular in the LGBTQ+ community, and I think that's just swell.