Sunday, May 1, 2016

Red Rising Rises to the Top…Almost

An unsolicited review of Red Rising by Pierce Brown

If you enjoy a fast-moving story about rebelling against social injustice, you’ll love Red Rising by Pierce Brown. There’s a reason Red Rising hit #20 on New York Times’ Best Selling List ((February 16, 2014) and received an A- from Kirkus Reviews (January 29, 2014). Pierce Brown creates a likeable protagonist in Darrow, a man who steps out of his station in life to avenge the woman he loves and the clan he’s grown up with. Darrow exemplifies the theme of Red Rising, which focuses on how social change is instigated by individuals brave enough, not just to see, but to act, outside the box. Red Rising is set in a futurist world on Mars, with rigid social stratification, similar to Aldrous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s coupled with ruthless invasions, comparable to the Roman Empire’s expansionism. In fact, Pierce Brown uses both the warrior attitude of conquest in ancient Rome and the mythology born out of it to create an exciting story of anguish and conquest. With these established tools Brown builds a world the reader wants to rebel against, so we cheer for the underdog, Darrow. What’s not to like in that scenario?

The tension begins immediately in the Prologue, when the narrator says, “I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”

The narrator is listening to a speaker proclaiming that, “The weak have deceived you. … You and I are Gold. We are the end of the evolutionary line. … Rule, dominion, empire purchased with blood. … Soon, we will teach you why Gold rules mankind.”

The Golds rule, much as the Alphas did in Brave New World. However, the Golds have no interest in placating the lower the ranks. There is no concept of a government which wants everyone to be happy with who they are and what they do. And there’s no substitute drug for “soma” to keep each color in its place. Slavery and servitude were dedicated by genetic manipulation generations ago and there is no crossing the color barrier that defines each class.

Then we learn that the narrator is not “Gold. I am a Red. … He thinks men like me weak. … He is wrong.” Hence the social divide is set: Reds, who live in the caverns under Mars and mine the helium-3 needed to Tera-form Mars; and the Golds, who enjoy the luxuries of life on the surface of Mars, as well as the conquest of other planets.

With the main plot defined, we are introduced to Darrow in the first chapter. We see Darrow’s stoicism when he doesn’t cry at his father’s trial or public hanging. He doesn’t even cry when he has to “pull the feet to break [his] neck” because of Mars’ low gravity. Then we see Darrow’s bravery as he works as a Helldiver, doing the dangerous work of gouging into the hard rock of Mars on a massive drill in heat “so thick and noxious it feels like I’m swaddled in a heavy quilt of hot piss” while dodging pitvipers that can bite through a frysuit. We admire this 16-year-old’s agility and audacious risk-taking right away, even though his Uncle Narol reminds him that “Patience is the better part of valor. And obedience the better part of humanity.” However, it is Darrow’s love for Eo, his wife, that captures our heart and helps us understand his personal motivation. The motivation Society uses for the mining colony, Lykos, is a little trickier.

The clans of Lykos are kept in poverty. Always slightly hunger. Always lacking in essential supplies. Only winning the Laurel gives them “more food than you can eat. It means more burners to smoke. Imported quilts from Earth.” Of the twenty-four clans in Lyros, only one can earn the Laurel each quarter. It’s usually the Gamma clan who earns the Laural, but Darrow wants to win it for his clan of Lambda so his wife won’t go without food. In this way, the clans of Lykos are kept in competition with one another for the basics. Their meager living forces rivalry for higher mining quotas, but it also fosters hatred for the Society that created it. That hatred it made more intense by rigid rules enforced by the Grays, Society’s garrison troops. When Darrow’s wife is punished for showing him a secret cavern with “a transparent bubble that peers at the sky,” revenge becomes a narrow concept for Darrow. But the fates have a larger mission in store for him.

A nameless group of revolutionaries wants Darrow to be their front man for revolution, so even though Darrow wants revenge, he must modify his own feelings for the greater good. Like any other noble quest, Darrow must go through many trials on the way to becoming a revolutionary leader. He must enter his enemy’s camp and infiltrate his ranks. He must learn what it means to be a Gold, which teachers Darrow that even being a Gold has its demands. Darrow must change physically, emotionally and intellectually. With each change there is built-in torment and challenge. Murder, war and battles of growing magnitude make Darrow’s journey a compelling read, even if the continuous action makes it more of an escapism than literature. Perhaps that’s why Publishers Weekly wasn’t as gracious with its review of the novel, calling it “Hollwood-ready … with plenty of action and thrills but painfully little originality or plausibility.” Indeed, Hollywood’s Universal Pictures has already taken the bid on the movie version of Red Rising, so PW was right on track about the novel’s direction.

Like so many of today’s other dystopian novels-made-movies, Red Rising is first book in a trilogy. It’s followed by Golden Son, then Morning Star. Red Rising is only the first step in Darrow’s long journey to conquer the enemy which “brought [him] war.” But regardless of whether you call Red Rising escapism or literature, it is still a fun and surprising book to add to your must-read list.

Add Your Comments

I look forward to reading your comments regarding Red Rising. Whether you agree or disagree with my review, I’d like to hear from you. I hope you’ll follow my blog, share it with your friends and join me in reading the next book on my list.

Read Along With Me

First Light by Scott Nicholson. First Light is the first book in the After Series and was hailed as a “read or regret it” novel.

I hope you’ll read this book with me and prepare your own comment on the quality. Let’s see if we can predict if this 2015 novel will be added to the contenders for the Nebula Award. If you’re interested in submitting a book review, read the review guidelines and we’ll share our thoughts.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Universal Divide, both Social and Spatial

An unsolicited review of Across the Universe by Beth Revis
Across the Universe, by Beth Revis, is a Young Adult dystopian novel about a 300-year mission to settle a new home on Centauri-Earth because resources on Sol-Earth have been depleted. The story is told from the first-person point-of-view of two teenagers. Amy was born on Earth and raised in a traditional family. Elder was cloned on the space ship, Godspeed, during its trip and doesn’t understand the concept of family. The chapters alternate between these two main characters to set up the contrast between Earth-that-was and the social changes that have occurred during the multi-generational trip.

The story’s opening grabs the audience with Amy facing a teenagers’ worst fears: leaving her home, her boyfriend, losing her parents, and seeing them naked. Amy’s mother is a scientist renowned for her genetic splicing work, which will help grow crops in the alien soil. She’s essential to the mission and must go. Her father is a battlefield analyst in the Army, a tertiary figure in the overall goal to claim a new planet for humanity. Amy’s mother wants her to go with them, so thinks Amy should be the first to be processed in the cryogenics chambers. Amy’s father insists that Mom goes first so Amy can see the process. And what a process it is! Amy sees her mother naked for the first time and it surprised by “her…rice-paper-thin” skin and “her stomach [which] sagged in a wrinkly sort of way that made her look even more vulnerable and weak.” No wonder Amy is disconcerted by the workers’ indifference while processing Mom in a clear cryo box that looks like a coffin. These uncaring workers pierce Mom’s pale skin with IV needles and simple say, “Relax,” which is “not a kind suggestion.” The fluid in the IV bag is as thick as honey and Mom “hissed in pain… [her eyes] filled with water.” If that weren’t bad enough, the second IV bag is filled with “blue goo… [that] glowed…her eyes were clamped shut, two hot tears dangling on her lashes.” As the indifferent worker squeezes the IV bag to force the fluid faster, Mom bites her lip until it bleeds and she “whimper[s], soft, like a dying kitten.” Watching Mom in the cryo bed reminds Amy of another coffin when she was “looking down at Grandma last year at the church, when we all said goodbye.” The workers are impatient to “get on with it” as they push lens into Mom’s eyes with “big, calloused” hands. Then they force three thick tubes down Mom’s throat and the cryo bed fills with “water flecked with sky-blue sparkles.” After watching this terrifying process, Daddy surprises Amy by giving her a choice of whether to go through the cryo process and travel to the new planet with them or to stay on Earth with her aunt and friends. He then goes through the process himself, leaving Amy to choose without parental input. The choice between the familiarities of the life she’s known or the uncertain life that would keep Amy with her parents is difficult. Dad giving Amy this choice shows he respects her as a young adult. It’s an adult choice thrust upon on a teenager, but what teenager doesn’t want that respect from their parents? Both prospects seem terrifying to Amy, however she chooses to go with her parents. Amy’s goes through the painful freezing process, consoling herself with, “At least I’ll sleep. I will forget, for three hundred and one years, everything else.” But Amy’s cryogenic state is anything but unconscious. She thinks about her old life and floats in an uncertain consciousness the entire time she’s frozen.
By contrast, Elder doesn’t have a choice which path his life takes. He was cloned specifically to be the next leader of the Godspeed as it hurdles half-way through its journey to Centauri-Earth. The ship is divided into different levels and the only the current and future leaders are allowed on the Keeper Level. Eldest and Elder share this level, but not all the knowledge of its workings. The Shipper Level is only for those who maintain the ship and the Feeder Level is for the simpler farmers and their fields. Though the ship is huge, it’s still confining for the growing population, so privacy and closed doors are greatly respected. Therefore there are no locked doors on Godspeed… except one. Eldest keeps his room locked and keeps secrets that are important for Elder to know as future leader. Eldest has also kept Elder from seeing the great engine that powers the ship and the hatches through which the stars can be viewed. And certain files about the Plague that wiped out a large portion of the population. It’s little wonder that 16-year-old Elder is frustrated by his mentor’s secretiveness. Eldest reluctantly reveals his secrets one at a time and only as needed for training his student. It is a sign that Eldest lacks respect and trust for Elder. Though the people see Eldest as a compassionate protector who is always kind to them, Elder sees his flashes of rage and his threatening demeanor. The tension between Elder and Eldest is apparent and we know there is trouble brewing.

The previous leaders of Godspeed tried to eliminate potential trouble among their people by altering them to be the same. Everyone on the ship has “the same olive skin, the same dark brown hair and eyes” and speak the same language. However, the leaders couldn’t have predicted that someone would thaw the cryo tube sleepers early, killing some and leaving only one alive. Amy is thawed and almost dies during the unsanctioned awakening. Her creamy white skin and flaming red hair are a curiosity and a danger to the mono-ethnic stability of Godspeed. The introduction of someone so different upsets Eldest and he tries to keep Amy under wraps in the hospital. What upsets Eldest more is that Elder is captivated by Amy’s stark differences in appearance and her fiery temper, which causes her to stand up against Eldest. Elder and Amy form a friendship that angers Eldest. He wants to keep them apart so Elder’s vision for Godspeed will the same as his. What is worse, Elder sneaks Amy out of the hospital to explore the ship and together they secretly investigate the murders of the other sleepers.
The plot moves smoothly from one crisis to another, leaving small clues as to the next predicament awaiting the two teenagers. It is resplendent with description of the new culture that has evolved over generations in space, but not to the point of being a distraction to the reader. I recommend this book, not only to young readers, but to adults who sometimes need a simpler read without impediments. My sister recommended this book to me, so I, in turn, recommend it to you.

Happy reading until the next book review. If you care to join me, I’ll be reading Red Rising by Pierce Brown. Please don’t forget to add your comments agreeing or disagreeing with my opinion and adding your take on the story.