The YA sci-fi/fantasy novel Red Rising was published on January 28 of this year (exactly four months ago to the day of this post). The author is 26 years old and this is his debut. His book currently has 618 reviews on Amazon, 459 of which are 5-stars. No small achievement, not at all.
I learned about the book because Colleen Oakes raved about this novel on her blog, and I thought, “Dang, I gotta read that.”
So I am. I started reading Red Rising two weeks ago.
I was prepared to love this book. I wanted to love this book. I wanted to be slammed into book awesomeness on the level of Daughter of Smoke and Bone and The Hunger Games. That’s what the hype about this book felt like.
But I. Am not. Enjoying this book. Whatsoever.
Ouch. This book is the mental equivalent of an ouch.
I wanted to stop reading after 10 pages. Then 20. Then 30. But I didn’t. I kept reading and reading, hoping the ouch would go away. Hoping the goodness would start. Hoping the awesomeness would start.
I’ve reached page 174. I’m almost halfway through, and it’s still ouch.
Why? Why can’t I just love this book, like so many other people? I wanted to love this book.
But I can’t. I just can’t. And I feel I need to explain this, because the disappointment, coupled with the frenzy and hype, feels so profound.
Let me start by sharing what some readers can tell right away, and what some readers can confirm for themselves in author interviews online: that this book was designed, consciously designed, to make money. This book began as a pitch: “What if I took The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Ender’s Game, mixed those stories together and set the tale on Mars? Hunger Games on Mars! That would make a lot of money! That would make a great movie!”
That is what Red Rising is. It’s a product designed to cash in.
In the article, “Why Pierce Brown Might Be Fiction’s Next Superstar” (published Feb. 6, 2014), Pierce Brown shares the initial inspiration for Red Rising. He was on a climbing trip with friends after rereading Antigone, and he started thinking about how climbing would be easier on Mars, because it has one third of Earth’s gravity… and then he started brainstorming with his friends.
That sounds organic, yes? That sounds like something any writer would do.
Except, what’s left out of this article is the “brainstorming” part. The part that came after this Antigone-on-Mars combination.
Allow me to read between the lines as to what this brainstorming entailed: a lot of cold calculation, and borrowing, and taking elements from other bestselling books. And when he was done, Pierce Brown sold an unfinished novel– three unwritten novels– to a publisher at age 23. Brown had a 3-book deal with Del Rey/Random House before the first book was even written. The first draft of Red Rising then took him two months to write.
He’s “already written the screenplay, which sold to Universal Pictures for seven figures” before the first book was even available for sale.
That bears repeating: he wrote and sold the screenplay for a book that wasn’t even for sale yet.
This is Pierce Brown’s book jacket photo. I think the picture was taken after the deal with Universal Pictures went through (but that’s just a guess).
Red Rising is not a product of subconscious art. Red Rising is all calculation. It is paper-thin characters, it is stolen-and-recombined plot, it is violence with children engineered to sell, sell, sell.
And you know what? It is selling. It will sell. It will be a movie soon. And people can call it art because it’s a novel, and because it will be a film, and those things are art. Only an idiot would say otherwise.
So let me say something else. Red Rising is art. Oh, yes. It is art.
But it is not subconscious art. Red Rising is money art. Profit art. Copycat art. There is a difference. I think that difference is huge.
The Hunger Games is subconscious art. So is Daughter of Smoke and Bone. So is The Fault in Our Stars. Just typing those titles, I am overcome with emotion for those books. The sheer power of those novels. And I didn’t even type Harry Potter.
I mean, my God. Harry Potter.
Harry Potter. God. We live in a world with Harry Potter. Sometimes I feel so bad for all of the people who died before The Sorcerer’s Stone was published. Because they never had a chance to read those wonderful books.
Which makes me feel like this:
Bracing myself full of sadness for what those people missed. The ones who died before Harry Potter was born, who never got to meet Harry Potter. Which is, oddly, the same way I feel when people say, “Only Jesus saves,” and I wonder about all the people who died before 33 CE.
Some people might curse me for comparing the Son of God to Harry Potter. But you know what? I’m fine with that. Curse away.
Harry Potter is definitely subconscious art.
Some novels arise from deep places, and find their way to writers in love with their craft. Writers in touch with their surroundings on a deep level, and in touch with themselves. Writers with something to say. Themes to share. Fevered thoughts to pen. Profound feelings to express. Characters full of soul. Characters who feel so alive, it’s like we could stroll down the street and see them walking toward us, and instantly recognize them. “Oh my God, you’re Gus!” Or “Oh my God, you’re Akiva! Wow!!”
And I’m not talking about recognizing the actor who played them in the movie. I’m talking about them. The characters. The people who exist only as words on a page, and then as a distinct memory in your head, a memory as individual as your thumbprint, your DNA, and the energy that makes you you. That’s what a book character becomes. Words transformed into felt memory. A unique consciousness. An exquisitely beautiful idea, something seen, sure. But more than that, something deeply felt in your heart.
This is what is missing from Red Rising. I am not meant to feel these characters. I am meant to absorb a plot (caste system! lies! slavery!), and then be manipulated into feeling things by a sacrificial death that is very much a deus ex machina (and the obvious Antigone part of the plot): innocent child gives up her life! oppression is bad! rise up! live for more!
This is how the story begins. It also begins with a LOT of world-building vocabulary (so much vocab, so much mind-numbing vocab), backstory (family history as well as futuristic world history), and name-dropping (characters and more characters who are quickly dropped from the plot, as the story moves away from where it begins, or even where it jumps to, as the story jumps again and again, with lots of characters introduced each time).
I had to read the first 100 pages, and then go back and reread the first 20 pages again, before I felt like I had a grasp on “the world” I was reading, and didn’t feel so utterly confused. And even then, there were still paragraphs that felt like gibberish.
After the blunt manipulation of the opening chapters (we are oppressed! rise up! you have been lied to!), I am then meant to be horrified by violence (blood! gore! murder of children!), which is connected to a main character (a sixteen-year-old boy named Darrow) who has the same level of emotional depth as a stick figure drawn on paper, one made with a circle and 4 straight lines.
Take Darrow’s thoughts on page 141, as he’s reflecting on his murder of a teenage boy (and also reflects on an earlier murder he assisted in committing, while he was still a slave in the system):
“I hate myself. I know they made me do this, yet it still feels like a choice. Like when I pulled Eo’s legs and felt the snap of her small spine. My choice. But what other choice was there with her? With Julian? They do this to make us wear the guilt.”
Keep in mind that Darrow has been artificially enhanced– both physically and mentally– to be super smart as well as super strong by this point in the story. He has advanced understanding of history and philosophy, and has read the world’s great literature as well as information about killing and war.
And he still believes that guilt is forced upon him by the powers that be, and that he has no “other choice” but to kill.
These are his thoughts as he’s looking at the broken body of the young boy he has just brutally murdered. He feels he was “made” to do this. He doesn’t change his mind later. He doesn’t have further reflections on this supposed lack of choice and take responsibility for his agency in the boy’s murder.
No, this is where his thoughts stand, and the plot moves on to other scenes and other violence. Darrow was made to kill. Guilt is forced upon him by his oppressors.
Also keep in mind that this is YA. This book targets readers age 12-18 (as well as adults).
So let me just say, for Darrow to be the “super smart hero” of the book, artificially enhanced with all of humanity’s knowledge, a role model for teenagers, sharing deep insights with the reader– I call bullshit on this. Because murder is always a choice. Every action you consciously take in life is your choice. And guilt is not something forced on you. Guilt arises from within. It’s the story you tell or don’t tell about the actions you take. That’s it. No one can force guilt upon anyone else.
I’m not artificially enhanced to be super-anything, and I haven’t read a fraction of the material Darrow has read in this book– and it makes me sad that this author, Pierce Brown, is presenting Darrow’s ideas to the reader as truth. Because that’s what writers do, when they have the heroic figure talk to the reader in a book like this. They are sharing truth.
But Darrow’s truth is bullshit. And it makes me sad.
Pierce Brown’s debut novel reads like reductionist logic. Like everything in life can be understood in short, simple sentences that communicate Absolute Truth. There is no room for nuance. There is no room for complication and subtlety. The book reads much like his interview statements. Darrow and Pierce Brown are both young men who Know Truth, and can State That Truth matter-of-factly.
For example, here is Pierce Brown describing Red Rising (as quoted in the article about “Fiction’s Next Superstar” cited above):
“The entire story is about rejecting the limits that others put on you, and it’s about evil. And evil is simply greed. So it’s about combatting greed and combatting selfishness and evil. And also trying to rise above what society has told you that you have to be.”
Let’s take that one sentence Brown shared: evil is simply greed. Truth distilled as an absolute. Like there’s no room for evil to be anything else. Objective reality, as understood by Pierce Brown.
So let’s take this statement of his, reducing evil to greed, and examine that further. For the sake of simplicity, let’s define evil narrowly– let’s define evil as the killing of an innocent child. Because I think most people can agree that killing an innocent child can be classified as something evil.
Hitler killed children, soldiers have killed children, doctors have killed children, parents have killed children. Certainly, a lot of those killings can be labeled as being motivated by greed– or, to use a better word for this– desire. Wanting something we don’t yet have. Let’s start with the instance of a parent killing a child. For example, a post-partum mother in the grip of a paranoid delusion, a woman whose mind longs for peace but whose screaming child is exacerbating the voices in her head. So she takes a butcher knife and stabs her infant to death. This murder of a small child fits our criteria for “evil,” and we can even label this evil as being motivated by desire: the mother wanted peace of mind, saw her child as the person inhibiting that, and destroyed him. Evil as greed.
But it doesn’t feel quite right to do that, does it? Do we really think someone out of her mind is being motivated by greed? Maybe, maybe not.
Let’s take another example. What about the villages America bombed in Vietnam, villages populated with many small children. Let’s look at the motivation of the men who decided where to drop the bombs. Let’s say that those men were motivated by greed: those U.S. officials had a desire to win the war, and dropping those bombs helped them in their goal to win the war. Now we can link this evil (the killing of a small child by a U.S. bomb) with desire (the greed to win the war).
But what about a bomb that fell on a village full of small children with no enemy targets? A pilot made an accident behind the controls of the bomber, misread his map, and napalmed the wrong place. Fortunately, for the goal of winning the war, he had another bomb to drop on the correct target, so the village with enemies (and other small children) was also wiped out.
But let’s consider that first village he bombed.
When a man makes a mistake about where he drops a bomb, and napalms a village of people not even targeted to die– is this an evil motivated by greed?
Or can evil be caused by something as banal as mediocrity? As a simple mistake? And be nothing more than a consequence of not thinking carefully?
One more example. Let’s take a home in New York that is powered by electricity from a nuclear power plant. Inside this home, a small child plugs in a computer and plays a game. All is well with this child. At the nuclear power plant, unknown to anyone, waste is being leaked into the river, radioactive waste that another small child downriver drinks, develops cancer from, and dies at age nine.
Is that evil motivated by greed? Or something much closer to ignorance? Who is really to blame? The people running the nuclear power plant, or the people who wanted the power plant to begin with, or the people using the electricity made by the power plant? Is the small child using his computer culpable?
And what about the towns beside Hitler’s concentration camps, all those people who watched the ash falling down and claimed not to know those were children being cooked in the ovens. Were they motivated into silence and acceptance by greed? They weren’t trying to get something they didn’t already have– their towns had existed before the camps were built. I think they were actually trying to cling to something they knew was already gone. The concentration camp had been built. Jews and other victims were being taken in, and never coming out. Normal life was gone.
Can we say this evil was motivated by greed for normal life? A greed for the camp not to be there? Or was theirs a desire to not have to act, to not have to know, to not have to die to stop the children of strangers from being cooked in an oven? Is that the same thing as greed?
Is dread the same thing as greed?
Is denial the same thing as greed?
I don’t pretend to know.
But for myself, I cannot label evil as greed. Evil, I believe, is far too multifaceted for one label. I can’t even label evil as simply “fear” either. Or “ignorance.” Though I think “ignorance and fear” are a bit better descriptors of evil than “greed” by itself. I think fear is one of the underlying emotions of greed, but truly, any emotion can drive greed.
Or so I believe.
And here is something else I consider a truth.
All emotions contain good and bad, because there’s such a variety of expression that can arise from any emotion. Fear can keep you alive, or it can kill you. Love can motivate you to self-sacrifice, or it can motivate violent aggression. Desire can end an abhorrent system of slavery, or it can create those slaves to begin with.
The world, as I see it, is a place of infinite nuance– infinite complexity– a place where tragedy and grace are, and always will be, intertwined.
Which brings me back to Red Rising.
Darrow is a young man who is chasing a dream. Not the dream of his dead wife, or the dream of freeing his people from slavery. He dreams he is Katniss, or Ender, or Harry Potter, or Karou. Because the real dream was a movie contract. A 3-book deal. Money in the bank.
And it happened. He did it. Darrow is making money. He is the dream come true.
And people will love him for that. They already do.