Science fiction shares with pornography the distinction of being a genre that can be described as either "soft" or "hard."
Hard science fiction is rigorously technological. Its ideal practitioner is an astrophysicist who has momentarily torn himself away his work at the Hadron Supercollider to popularize the cosmic mysteries he investigates day-to-day.
Soft science fiction is probably what most readers are familiar with, as it encompasses both Star Trek and Star Wars and focuses on character and plot without sweating the scientific detail. (If there’s a legitimate reason why the X-Wing has wings, it has not, to date, been adequately articulated.) Since science fiction derives much of its cachet from its habit of actually inspiring real scientific discoveries, the softer subgenres—space opera, space romance, most dystopian fiction, comedy, alternate history, etc.—are often quietly sneered at by purists.
They will find much to sneer at in the conclusion of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, Morning Star. The genetics, the space combat, the sidearms, the faster-than-light technology, and much more all receive explanations that are almost gleefully implausible. The edged weapons of the elites in Brown’s novels, called "razors," are made of a bonelike substance that is indestructible, fully articulable through mental command, and unbelievably sharp. The difference between those instruments and Excalibur is a few lines of technobabble and an enchanted lake. An electromagnetic pulse that paralyzes technology for miles around features prominently in the opening chapters, the Faraday cage being unknown in the 30th century. It’s rare to encounter a set of books that is both unquestionably science fiction and so flagrantly does not care about science, but in Brown’s hands, it’s a potent combination.
That potency comes in part from the author’s eye for character. The narrator, Darrow, is a Red, the bottom tier in a society where class is derived from genetic engineering and delineated based on the color wheel, with Golds at the top. In the previous two books, Darrow was re-engineered to become a Gold, and to lead a rebellion of the lower colors against their golden masters. Without giving too much away, by the beginning of the third novel he has been moderately successful, generating a sustained rebellion on both Mars and the gas giant moons. Darrow, however, was betrayed at the end of the second book, and spends the first few chapters of Morning Star entombed in the base of the ornate stone dinner table of his principal antagonist. Darrow’s pitch-perfect inner dialogue makes the scene hit hard, with the reader experiencing the full mental horror of the narrator’s prison. The feelings and foibles of the supporting cast are rendered with similar effectiveness, no easy feat in a first-person narrative.
Darrow goes on to escape, and he’s put in charge of a rebellion that has elevated him into godlike martyr figure, complete with the nickname Reaper. Reigning in the terroristic excesses that have bedeviled the good guys without a strong leader, Darrow deftly gains control of his colorful lieutenants.The question of what kind of government he’s fighting for is left mostly unstated amidst gauzy small-d democratic platitudes, which is probably for the best, given that one of the few explicitly political statements is "government is never the solution but it is almost always the problem," a line that could have been cribbed from the fourth bullet of a Republican backbencher’s talking points.
One of Morning Star’s charms is that it’s constantly teetering on the edge between emotional weightiness and overwrought pathos. The fact that it stays on the right side of the line is to the writer’s credit and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, pure space opera in the best possible sense. It may be blasphemous to say so, but Brown could one day occupy the same niche in sci-fi as Neil Gaiman does in fantasy: the wildly popular author of tightly crafted, approachable genre that dominates the bestseller lists.