In the age of the fantasy blockbuster, it’s easy to forget the ubiquity of science fiction during the postwar era. During the Cold War and the Space Race, the perception was that Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov were predicting the future one story at a time. (This is no exaggeration. Reader’s Digest, then the most popular magazine in America, called Clarke "The Prophet of the Space Age" in 1969.) But, in this century, automation and advances in computer processing have eliminated swathes of middle class jobs and, as a result, major portions of the reading public, liberal and conservative, have lost their faith in the redemptive power of technology.
This phenomenon helps to explain the resilience of one of the few remaining avenues to the bestseller lists for science fiction writers: dystopia. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, a soon-to-be-trilogy, is the latest entry in science-fiction’s long tradition of immersing readers in societies where things have gone terribly, catastrophically wrong.
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The novels open on Mars, where the main character, Darrow, toils deep underground, harvesting helium-3 for the terraforming efforts ostensibly occurring on the planet’s surface. Darrow is a "Red," the lowest class in a society genetically and occupationally segregated into discrete groups referred to by colors. Golds are the ruling class, Obsidians are warriors, Greys are policemen, etc. The Reds are starved, worked to death, and otherwise mistreated. A creed of obedience and a regime of state terror keep them in line. When Darrow and his wife Eo are caught in a restricted area, both are whipped, but Eo compounds her offence by singing a rebellious song. For this she is hanged.
In Mars’ light gravity, to ensure a merciful death, the family members of Reds sentenced to death must pull on the feet of their hanging loved ones. Then the bodies of the condemned are left to rot on the gallows, grisly reminders of the price of rebellion. Darrow, in a nod to Sophocles’ Antigone, buries her in defiance of this proscription, and he too is sentenced to die. But a powerful terrorist group, called the Sons of Ares, saves Darrow’s life. Thereafter, Darrow is swept up in a galaxy-wide intrigue that is a potent mix of Ender’s Game and Game of Thrones, with a kind of twisted Pygmalion aspect thrown in, because why not?
The novels, set in the far future, provide only a shallow backstory for the situation on Mars, without a compelling explanation of How We Got Here. In a world where the Reds have nothing to live for, no hope of promotion, why do they tolerate their lot? Unlike a real-life slave state like North Korea, Reds operate extremely advanced technological devices, yet this gives them no leverage over their masters. Brown never quite squares the circle of how a viciously feudal society can operate in the presence of this much advanced technology. The tight focus, on the other hand, helps keep the prose and the plotting unencumbered by exposition.
Brown, though, has a tic that may seem cloying to some—he leans a great deal on the "big reveal." Characters are not who we think they are. What is happening at the beginning of the chapter or section isn’t actually what the reader is led to believe. This method is no doubt intended to amplify dramatic tension, but Brown’s first-person, present-tense narrative doesn’t offer the flexibility required to carry off his too-numerous plot twists. Instead, the circumstances of Darrow’s escapes become increasingly implausible. In the first book, Red Rising, this isn’t noticeable. In the second, Golden Son, this sort of thing seems contrived.
That aside, the books are deftly written, and the various influences come together into a unified, original whole. Sci-fi die-hards will enjoy the comfort of the familiar done well, while newcomers will enjoy Red Rising’s accessibility and pell-mell plotting. The main character, though brutal, has a strongly rendered inner life, and his love interest is equally intriguing. Brown, while not really sweating the details, sticks to telling a rollicking good story, and that’s what the reader is left with—a purely entertaining series of sci-fi epics.