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RED RISING...AND FALLING: Too Much Is A Bad Thing
Pierce Brown's incredible Red Rising series has been a welcome shot in the arm to the mainstream sci-fi genre over the last decade.
However, after the end of the initial trilogy, the most recent installments have me asking some hard questions about its future.
In 2014, wunderkind author Pierce Brown, then 26, burst onto the scene with his debut novel RED RISING, which promised us a protagonist on par with Ender Wiggin and Katniss Everdeen--a hotheaded young rebel who would turn an established power structure on its head, leaving the world forever changed. Readers were treated to the exploits of Martian miner Darrow of Lycos, a machine operator relegated to a short life of underground labor so that Mars could be terraformed for future generations.
Only the problem is that Darrow learns the surface of Mars is already terraformed, and he and billions of other laborers are basically enslaved dupes who will die without ever seeing the vast civilization over their heads. He ends up joining a secret rebellion with the purpose of infiltrating the ruling class, working his way into their upper ranks, and eventually taking them down from the inside.
It's a simple enough premise on its face, but Brown wowed his readers with a complex yet accessible world, showing us familiar elements and exciting twists. In this future--800 years ahead of our own--humanity has been recast and genetically re-engineered into different Colors, basically assigned a role (and a fate) depending on how you're born. If you're a Gold, things are good, you get to stay at the top and rule the empire. If you're a Silver, well, you'll be a rich banker and you'll keep the finances in order. Greens and Oranges? Engineers and mechanics. Yellows? Doctors, etc.
But if you're a Red, well, sucks to be you. You're at the bottom of the food chain, the grunts, the uneducated idiots, designed to live fast and die young, crushed under the weight of sixty-hour work weeks from puberty until death. Somebody's gotta keep the toilets running and it sure as hell ain't going to be the Golds.
The rebellion hires a surgeon to remake Darrow into a Gold. Now he's taller, stronger, has denser bones, and is all-around physically superior. They give him a fake backstory, minor noble lineage, and a modest bank account, then send him off to the uber-secretive Institute, where teen Golds are taught how to keep the empire moving in perpetuity. Even his handlers don't know what it looks like inside the Institute, but they prepare him with the broadest education they can give him beforehand.
Surprise! The Institute is basically the Hunger Games on Mars. The only difference is, instead of killing 23 other kids, you have to conquer 11 other Houses and form a miniature empire of your own, with scant resources and fellow House members who may have ambitions of your own. It's just like real life, only worse. The point is to make the young Golds learn firsthand just how hard it is to build an empire, so that when they eventually assume control of the real one, they don't piss it away like every other empire in human history.
Fascinating concept, and utterly Roman in its practical brutality. As hard as the Institute is to navigate, Darrow has to do so while also concealing his true origins as a Red, as a future mole in the empire. RED RISING was a high-speed thrill ride and I was pleased to read it again and again.
The next two sequels, forming the original trilogy of books, are called GOLDEN SON and MORNING STAR, in order. I won't say anything about them because if you read RED RISING, chances are good you'll keep going. In several spots my expectations were subverted (but in the right way, and not the way that Disney might subvert the hopes of Star Wars fans.) Brown demonstrated a daft hand at storytelling that many writers twice his age couldn't do.
I've read this whole trilogy multiple times. It challenged numerous others on my bookshelf for supremacy. And I guess that's why the next leg of his publishing journey was so damned disappointing.
TFW you delved too greedily, and too deep.
MORNING STAR had a tremendously satisfying third act and conclusion. The series could have ended there without any problems. Call it a "happily ever after," in a sense. (Although the bumpy road to get there is 100% worth the trip to read it every time.) For me, personally, I keep the trilogy on my shelf and I don't worry about what came next.
Or at least, I try not to. Because it was...not great.
Don't get me wrong: I understand the urge to continue the story. Brown appears to be a man with a strong classical education and an understanding of human nature, based on the decisions that his characters make in their never-ending quests for power. When you're telling a story about a revolution against an evil empire, most times they end nice and tidy, with the good guys beating the bad guys and riding off into the sunset.
But the real world--and real history--shows that not to be the case. You can topple a tyrant, replace a dictatorship with a republic, and give people rights they deserve, but there are always complications. Nascent republics struggle to keep their footing, and the ones born in the middle of a war have no shortage of enemies trying to move in on them. It makes sense that Brown would want to show that story, show the complexities of living in a post-revolution world.
I just wonder why he chose to go the route that he went. While RED RISING and GOLDEN SON were no strangers to coarse language, and MORNING STAR had half a dozen F-bombs in it, the next two books (IRON GOLD and DARK AGE) were on another level altogether. It felt like Brown was trying to channel Game of Thrones into his trilogy, with heightened violence, a severe shift in attitude and tone, and a smattering of new first-person POV characters running in different directions around the solar system.
The poetic overtones of his prose were still intact, making the writing itself beautiful to read, but the substance and subject matter were much, much more dour by comparison. Gone were the optimism and hope of the first three books. Now we got treated to long speeches on how the rich didn't give a damn about displaced refugees, the traditional families looked down on homosexuals, and the military leaders who won the revolution in the original trilogy were now bungling the ongoing war effort, killing millions of people pointlessly.
It was as if you, the reader, went from Return of the Jedi to The Last Jedi in about a two-year span. Heroes were deconstructed, relationships were shattered, real-world social agendas were rammed into the text, and hundreds and hundreds of pages concluded with ultimately nothing happening. You got the same feeling that you'd get if you sat down to watch the entire Afghanistan War campaign (2001-2021) in a couple of hours: "Why the $@%# did it go in this direction?"
And for me, a devoted fan to those first books, that was a frustrating question to ask. Brown had shown that he knew what we was doing, so what was the point in derailing it all? In dumping on his hero and making him a terrible person? In threatening characters with rape and dismemberment on the battlefield? In killing off beloved side characters almost as carelessly as J.J. Abrams discarded Han Solo? In DARK AGE, we even got treated to a near-mirror version of George R.R. Martin's "Red Wedding," killing off most of the Solar Republic's Senate in a single chapter.
An exciting series, in a dynamic world, with incredible characters an magnificent insights into forms of man-made government, had swiftly and needlessly devolved into Big Boy Epic Fiction, slapping the reader over and over again with hollow R-rated content that meant nothing. Violence and death for the sake of violence and death. It almost hurts to think about.
In a world where every major intellectual property is pinned down and smothered with the Pillow of Post-Modernism, it gave me a nice respite to know that this great sci-fi trilogy--placed with a major publisher, gaining traction with large amounts of readers--might provide an alternative to the general mood of popular entertainment. Then, at the peak of its success, it said "to hell with this" and cut a hard left, steering the bus straight off a bridge and onto a puppy shelter.
I don't get it. I don't understand the need to take properties in this direction. It didn't have to be this way--a sequel, even with these characters, exploring these post-revolution themes in an unstable new system of government, was totally worthy of exploration. There were great ideas in that concept and the author had shown he could develop great ideas. What we got instead was proof that too much of a good thing can too easily become a bad thing.
I guess my point in all of this is that as a reader, I wish I had a more reliable channel toward good, exciting entertainment. Books that challenge me, teach me, and ultimately uplift me. In a sense that's the goal of Upstream Reviews, to find those gems and get them in front of you, so you can keep finding your next favorite read.
And as a writer, stuff like this is still instructional, it just becomes a literary Janus, where the one face says "learn how to write this well," and the other face says "be careful not to go this way." I would love nothing more than to find out that the sixth book in Brown's series, tentatively called LIGHTBRINGER, ends as well as MORNING STAR and finds a way to make all of this suffering and darkness and death mean something. I might revisit books 4 and 5 if that turns out to be the case.
Right now though, hope is in short supply. God speed, Mister Brown, and good luck. I want to be excited again for the future. Take us there, like you have before.