When Pierce Brown graduated from college, his heart’s desire was to study magic at Hogwarts. So one might expect his debut novel to recall Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Instead, Red Rising is an entertainingly disturbing dystopian tale set on Mars, where a rigidly hierarchical society keeps Reds slaving beneath the soil under the pretense that they are building for a future the dominant Golds already enjoy. What happened on the way to the magic show?
“I did write a couple of fantasies,” said Brown in a phone interview, “but I had just gotten off working on a political campaign and was interested in issues of governance and politics.” Brown, whose studies in economics and political philosophy show up in the novel’s well-wrought concern with class structure, government control, and media power, didn’t start with the idea of sf but instead wanted “to create a character with drive.” A 16-year-old Red named Darrow becomes a rebel when his beloved wife, Eo, is executed. Still, he’s not entirely persuaded when he’s drafted by the dangerous Sons of Ares to help topple their overlords. He’s frightened by what he’s becoming.
“We’re all afraid of losing ourselves,” explains Brown, who understands the feeling. He moved seven times during childhood owing to his mother’s job and found himself always adjusting to a new school and new friends while pining for the settled past. He deftly portrays a conflicted Darrow, entering the fray but “worried what Eo would think. That’s how you make a tragic hero. Darrow rages against himself, much like Achilles.”
Impressively, Brown has created a faraway future society that will resonate with anyone recalling the fall of the Berlin Wall or Arab Spring protestors. Like many dystopias, Red Rising presents extreme control, imaginable to us because we see government overreach worldwide and because the utter turmoil of the Middle Ages, says Brown, is far, far away. “True chaos is a lot scarier than too much control,” he asserts, “but we can’t understand that fear.”
The brutal reign of the Golds makes comparative chaos seem welcome, but, argues Brown, “Look at what happens in history when slaves become masters; it can be ugly.” The rebellion Darrow helps launch may or may not make the world a better place. Even he wonders, as Brown makes us ponder whether humanity is inherently evil, social change necessarily violent, and hierarchy (and hence group hatred) inevitable.
Brown wisely acknowledges that he may have different answers to these questions in a few years, then plunges ahead. Comparing himself to a mid-19th-century romantic, he says, “We are equal parts angel and demon; our faults and our willingness to overcome make us interesting.” He points to current LGBT triumphs as evidence that social change can be peaceful, though in Darrow’s world, where evil has won, there will be blood. And given free will and necessary self-interest, “percentages in society are inevitable. We are a combative species, but we can evolve.”
The relentlessly absorbing Red Rising is made most enjoyable, Brown believes, by “readers not knowing what’s happening next. It’s the familiar Luke Skywalker story but twisted and darker.” Avoiding false world building and refusing to hide behind sf’s sometimes overdone verbiage and “weird names that are hard even for me, and I love fantasy,” Brown has delivered a tale that, with the next books in the trilogy, will just keep rising.
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