382 pages, Hodder & Stoughton
Review by Pat Black
On the planet Mars, far into the future, a lower stratum of the human race will work, live and die in order to prop up a hierarchy of social and economic superiors, without even a chance of tasting the good life themselves. Sound familiar?
Pierce Brown’s sci-fi debut is a big, ambitious novel, the first in a trilogy. Red Rising follows the story of Darrow, a teenage Helldiver who works in the gas mines deep beneath Mars’ crust. It’s a hard life for the Helldivers – “Reds” - and their families. Told that they are the glorious vanguard of humanity in space, they toil away in ignorance for generation after generation, never seeing the sun, exposed to hazard every day and usually dying young. In reality, they are slaves.
Organised into tribes, the Reds compete for special favours from their overlords. Darrow’s tribe never has the resources to hit certain targets in order to get a bonus – but Darrow is no ordinary Helldiver. When his skill and recklessness bucks the odds one day, he discovers that the bonus was never meant to go to his tribe, and that the competition is an illusion. This triggers a tragic chain of events which sees everything Darrow loves destroyed. His only honourable way out is to kill himself.
He is rescued from the gibbet by the Sons of Ares, a terrorist organisation who want to wipe out the Colours caste system and overthrow the old order. The Colours hierarchy goes all the way up to Golds, an ultra-elite bred to rule and maintain order. The term “democracy” is a hilarious archaism in this world; but the Sons of Ares are looking to bring it back – with Darrow as their inside man.
In order to do this, Darrow must change from a Red into a trainee Gold, undergoing a painstaking physical and mental transformation. From there, he infiltrates the command school. In the Great Hall, students are confronted by the Sorting Hat, which organises them into four different Houses – Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor and…
Hang on. Wrong franchise. Pardon me.
From there, the trainee Golds face off with each other in a contest known as The Hunger Games. And – Bloody hell, age is a terrible thing. Scratch that.
The Golds must compete at their academy in order to seize Primacy, a status which will help Darrow achieve his goal and take command of men and starships.
It’s a harsh novel, far removed from the muted brutishness of much YA. Darrow loses all he knows in a heartbeat, and from there he has to make tough decisions and carry out acts of dreadful violence in order to get ahead. In the “capture the flag” exercises at the academy he learns to utilise Machiavellian cunning as well as blunt force. Indeed, the truly subversive message which nags at Darrow is how great it would be to be a Gold, and to command with absolute ruthlessness. Darrow’s soul is at stake, as much as his mission.
This is an ambitious novel with an irresistible social impulse. It has some neat little signposts to our own world’s tiresome prejudices and affectations. For example, although the Athenian ideal of democracy is scorned by the Golds, the upper classes cling to other classical codifiers and referents, much as snobs the world over do today.
If Red Rising’s allegory seems too heavy-handed, then ask yourself just how many novels have tackled the western world’s current lack of social mobility and grotesquely top-heavy economic structure. Damned few.
In the UK, we live in a society in which we see record food bank usage at the same time as the news tells us we are entering a period of rising wages and economic stability. Red Rising’s message and mission statement irritates only in the sense that it still needs to be delivered, here and now.
I’ll take Red Rising over any of today’s crash-and-bluster stories of free market primary-coloured superheroes and ideologically blinkered, quasi-military psychopaths. An important book, begging to be utterly ruined by a Hollywood adaptation.