RED RISING (2014)
By Pierce Brown
Del Rey, 416 pages, 978-0345539809
* * *
Pierce Brown's gripping dystopian sci-fi novel raises important questions about the lies leaders tell. It also raises less substantive ones such as: Is there a line between homage and rip-off? There are echoes of Harry Potter, Ender's Game, and Lord of the Flies in Red Rising. It's also a secularized version of Roman mythology, but it borrows so much from The Hunger Games that the phrase "intellectual plagiarism" lurks in the back of the mind even as one greedily devours the pages.
Red Rising is set in the future. Its protagonist, 16-year-old Darrow, is a "Helldiver" on Mars, a miner who works in a bulky pressurized suit in underground chambers populated by poisonous pit vipers and explosive gas pockets. He already has a young, rail-thin wife, Eo, because life on Mars is short, brutish, and nasty. Not only do atmospheric conditions take a toll on the body, but food and other comforts are (allegedly) in short supply on a planet that's stratified by skin pigmentation. (Think the districts in The Hunger Games.) Darrow and Eo are Reds, a low stratum in a society ruled by taller, smarter, more muscular Golds. The Golds, whom we quickly surmise are analogous to an elite version of a fascist-style military junta, maintain strict discipline—right down to doling out rewards, controlling food supplies, and imposing the death penalty for certain songs—but they also draw upon species loyalty. As the tale goes, earth's atmosphere was ruined, hence mankind had to colonize other planets. The materials Helldivers such as Darrow are mining will help humankind terraform other worlds and construct sustainable atmospheres so that future humans can live outside of their bio-domes. The untold truth is that the secret for doing both was discovered centuries earlier and the well-fed Golds are living in luxurious cities on the Martian surface. Eo shows this to Darrow by taking him into a forbidden chamber and then publicly singing a forbidden song so that she will be martyred and Darrow will fulfill what she sees as his revolutionary destiny. In true Hero's Journey fashion, Darrow very reluctantly takes up the challenge.
First, though, he must undergo a transformation—Red must become Gold—and that's far more complex than a furtive dye job. Darrow is given over to Dancer, a Gold collaborator, who helps him prepare for this role, and to a series of "Carvers," who literally remake his body into that of a demigod. But can Darrow pass socially and intellectually? That's not easy either, as he must undergo rigorous leadership training at a sort of Holgwart's in the sky academy with other ambitious Golds. Moreover, the ruling elite—headed by ArchGovernor Nero au Augustus—also have a trial-by-combat final test to see who will fulfill what role in Gold society and they are willing to accept quite a bit of 'melt' in the form of crippling injury and death to assure that only the fittest survive. If you're imagining an obvious Hunger Games parallel at this point, you are correct—right down to each candidate having a Proctor/sponsor—individuals named after Roman gods in this case. Although there are official teams—Mars in Darrow's case—leadership must be won, not assumed, which means intra- as well inter-rivalries. As in The Hunger Games unofficial alliances form, betrayals abound, loyalties are always ambiguous, and the results are often rigged. Although Brown throws in a few novel twists—including Darrow's growing attraction for a woman from a rival team named Mustang, his guilt over Eo's death, and his rivalry/friendship with a teammate named Cassius—this truly is The Hunger Games with different window treatments. It's analogous right down to being book one of a planned trilogy, so we know that Darrow has to survive no matter what perils he faces.
In addition to being derivative, there are some rather obvious logic errors throughout the book, including the fact that Darrow kept his unusual name and appended it to a made up family history. Why don't snakes need oxygen? More perplexing: How is it that a ruling elite smart enough to keep miners in the dark for 700 years doesn't wonder about a Gold from an unknown family who just happens to have the first name of a Red who went missing right after his wife was executed?
I plowed through the book because Brown is an engaging writer and he threw in enough small details to intrigue me, like how different colors on the planet swore. I also have to admit that having just finished several denser novels preconditioned me for some cheap thrills and escapism. Whether you will enjoy Red Rising depends upon where you come down on the pastiche-versus-pilfering question. I give Brown high marks for writing, but low scores for creativity. I've also had my fix, so I rather doubt I'll read the sequels.