Monday, June 6, 2016

Red Rising

There’s a reason Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” is one of the more popular science fiction books in recent memory. The first in a trilogy, “Red Rising” is a fantastic read that balances world building, character development and tight plotting. It takes a little while to get going, but it’s hard to put down once it does. The plot changes direction four to five times over the course of the book - just when you start to think you know where Brown is going, he throws a curveball that alters your perspective of the story. There’s more than enough here for an excellent TV show. This could be the next “Game of Thrones”.

The story is told through the eyes of Darrow, a headstrong young miner who works in the caverns of Mars, where he and his family are tasked with terraforming the planet to make it suitable for human colonization. They exist in a society with a rigid caste structure straight out of ancient India. Darrow’s people are the Low Reds, who have the unglamourous and supremely dangerous task of “hell diving”. There are Pinks, Browns, Greens, Blues, all under the brutal subjugation of the Golds, the 1% who rule over everything with an iron fist.

“Red Rising” takes place in a frightening transhumanist future, where the elites have genetically modified themselves to exalt themselves over the rest of society, while altering everyone else to fill preordained roles - sex slaves, miners, police, bureaucrats - that cater to their every whim. Imagine how unbearable Wall Street bankers would be if they actually were more intelligent, more attractive and more athletic than the rest of us. It’s the logic of Darwinism taken to its inevitable conclusion - modification, separation and eventually differentiation. The Golds and the Reds are still both human, but the gap between them is much wider than the ones that exist in our society.

Darrow discovers that reality first hand when tragedy changes the trajectory of his life, and he is forced to leave his placid world as a family man behind when his wife is publicly executed for defying the authorities and questioning her place in society. In the aftermath, he eventually links up with a shadowy group of revolutionaries called the Sons of Ares, who view him as a weapon they can aim at the Golds. They fake his death so that he is symbolically killed, buried and born again to become an instrument of vengeance. There’s more than a whiff of Jesus Christ in his story.

He undergoes extensive rounds of genetic and behavioral modification so that he can go undercover at the Institute, the academy where young Golds train to become the Peerless Scarred, the 1% of the 1%. The Institute is where the heart of Red Rising takes place. It’s Lord of the Flies on steroids, as Darrow and his classmates scheme and fight against each other to win the game and earn favor from the powers that be. The point of the game is isn’t immediately clear to them, and there are enough twists and turns over the course of book to leave even the most attentive reader unsure of what’s going to happen next.

In the process, Darrow has to figure out how to be a leader and how much of his identity he can discard or keep in order to infiltrate the corridors of power. Brown sprinkles a lot of interesting notions about leadership throughout the book, and that’s where it differs from most thrillers you can read in a few sittings and never think about again. It works on a deeper level because it creates three dimensional characters and uses them to comment on the human condition. Any good piece of art contains some implicit critique on the society it comes from and “Red Rising” is no exception.

I went to the same high school as Brown, and there is so much of St. Mark’s in The Institute that it isn’t funny. Both places are designed to pit the children of the elite against each other and educate them on the ways of the world in order to prepare them for leadership roles at the very top of society. No one was getting killed at St. Mark’s, but the competition was just as intense. There are only so many spots in the Institute, so many leadership roles in one House, so many spots at Harvard, so many internships at Goldman Sachs. The competition within the 1% to be the 1% of the 1% creates a facsimile of meritocracy that colors the way the elites view society at large.

The biggest thing is that there’s no ethos beyond kill or be killed. Just as in the book, the elite of our society have long since abandoned religion and any sense of noblesse oblige beyond Darwinism. You get to the 1% by being more connected than the 99%, but you get to the 1% of the 1% by being more ruthless. Human beings compare themselves against their peers, and the elites of our society are ruthlessly pitted against each other early in life in order to create sociopaths who believe in nothing bigger than themselves and their own egos. In the end, it doesn’t matter who winds up on top because the system is designed in a way so that the person at the top has to sell their soul to get there.

At the end of “Red Rising”, Darrow is given a choice to stand firm in his principles or to compromise his morals in order to get ahead and advance in the system. To return to the Christ analogy, it’s reminiscent of his final temptation by the devil, when Satan takes Jesus to a cliff and shows him the whole world, telling Jesus that he can rule it all if he agrees to worship him. Brown is telling the story of what happens if Jesus said yes.