Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (Del Rey, 2014) 400 pages

RR Brown

It’s hard for me to tell you how good I think this book is. I mean, I understand that I can really like Ann Leckie’s trilogy start Ancillary Justice (I wrote about that book last month: ) and you might be left cold by the premise and the execution of the world. The science fiction/fantasy genre mansion has many rooms and many corners within those rooms. But when you are not just enjoying, but swept away by a story, all you can do is let it sweep you away and tell as many people as you can about the experience.

I was literally taking the book around with me and saying “listen to this” as I read one passage or another to them. I don’t usually quote stuff from the books in these things. But watch this. This is as they hang the narrator Darrow’s father for, of all things, forbidden singing and dancing in the deep mines of Mars:

“My brother Kieran was supposed to be the stoic one. He was the elder, I the younger. I was supposed to cry. Instead, Kieran bawled like a girl when Little Eo tucked a haemanthus into Father’s left workboot and ran back to her own father’s side. My sister Leanna murmured a lament beside me. I just watched and thought it a shame that he died dancing but without his dancing shoes. On Mars there is not much gravity. So you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.” (This is on page 3.)

This is the story (no spoilers, I promise) of a downtrodden miner on Mars named Darrow who is hung but revived to be “carved” into a Gold, the leading plutocrats of the solar system. He cheats his way through school and exams (bravo!) and is plunked down in a great valley to compete with the privileged offspring of the other Golds to become Primus of the group (named after Olympic gods) and get a good job after this post-grad experience ends. So it’s sort of like real life, except they’d find him out in five minutes today and send him back to the riff-raff in the trailer park.

I found this book different than my usual read. It’s one of those books I could “live in,” which I realize makes little sense to most people and I should explain more. For now, all you need to know is that it means I don’t want the book to end, even though I know it must. The first blurb you see at Amazon is a quote from Scott Sigler: “Ender, Katniss, and now Darrow.” But I tell you honestly, this undervalues Pierce Brown. Nothing against Orson Scott Card and Suzanne Collins (both of whom will likely be unhappy with my remark, and everyone should go right ahead and read their books too) , but I got sucked into Brown’s book and couldn’t pull myself out.

Who is this guy? Pierce Brown has the standard bio blurb in the back and apparently graduated college in 2010, kicked around at some interesting jobs, and then produced  a debut novel Red Rising as the first book of a trilogy (I am halfway through the second book). What I really want to know is how the heck he can write like this in fifteen minutes when most of us can’t write like this in fifteen years.

I am almost done with this program at Arizona State University (ASU) called Your Novel Year (YNY), and we had to read all these classics of science fiction, from Frankenstein to Heinlein and Asimov. Many of them I had read, but many I had not, or had not stuck with long enough to get into (action starts seem to have emerged sometime in the mid-1980s…I guess we can blame MTV for that). I found two of them not just good or great, but “transcendent,” which to me means that these are somehow more than just a series of words put to paper: The Stars My Destination by Alfie Bester and A Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Why do I say that? Well, in The Stars My Destination, for example, the hero is trapped in a small room the size of a locker drifting in the asteroid belt among the wreckage of a destroyed spaceship. To survive, he must periodically leave to scavenge more oxygen bottles while hoping someone finds him. But when a passing spaceship nearly kills him, he gets so pissed off that he reads the ship’s repair manual and fixes the engines enough to make it to a nearby asteroid. There, he is set upon by a tattooed sect of salvage folk who marries him off to the ugliest woman among them, after tattooing his face to match the rest of the tribe. Locked in a space yacht to celebrate their wedding night, he attacks his wife and kicks her outside while he blasts off for earth. And all this happens in the first 30 pages.

At this point in the book, you should fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the wild ride. This guy will do anything to survive, and make your dull life seem boring in the process. That’s how Red Rising was for me.

I’m not claiming that Red Rising is a perfect book, or that everyone will like it as much as I did. Of course it’s not perfect. It took me a while to get used to Brown’s rhythms and present tense frenzy, but it fits the desperate mood of the story.  There are characters that are mentioned doing earth-shaking things (like Lilanth) but they never have role in the narrative proper. One can only hope that Lilanth has a bigger part in the next two books besides eye-gouging. And I never really sorted out the whole cast of thousands, although there are enough memory-joggers to say “oh, yeah, that’s the girl from when they first arrived…” There’s a map at the start, but it confused me more than enlightened me as the book went on.

Brown uses a lot of neologisms, but he’s 700 years or so in the future. They never seem contrived or forced and there is enough context (well, but the second or third occurrence) to quickly puzzle out the meaning. Just keep going.

Another potential drawback is that the hero Darrow is a step or three ahead of everyone else and always has a plan. That’s okay, but with few exceptions, everyone who Darrow depends on acting a certain way to fall into his brilliant traps acts precisely that way and Darrow triumphs. But it never goes so far that the book fails. And Darrow gets slapped down by the proctors enough to give him challenges every stage along the way.

There’s enough blood to satisfy the most manic video game player. But competitions with high stakes, financial or otherwise, are often vicious, even when everyone is in all senses a winner to begin with. I can’t resist noting that Henry Kissinger said that academic arguments among professors are so vicious because the stakes are so low. In that world, the size of the name on the office door can mean everything.

Also, I give Brown really high marks for gender equality. The females in this book are as blood-thirsty, devious, and powerful as the males. And everyone who postpones their quest for a round of sex comes to a bad end. How’s that for a cautionary tale?

I’m not saying the Pierce Brown is my new favorite author – yet. But he’s right up there. The bio says that he’s “available for select readings and lectures” but I wonder about that. Does that mean he’ll read to the Golds but not the Reds? Does it mean that he gets paid a lot to lecture on social justice? Probably the publisher added that part.

So it’s not that I want to follow him around like a Grateful Dead groupie.  I just want to know his secret.


Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013) 386 pages (other stuff plumps this out to 409 pages)

AJ Leckie

You know, I was all set to do a post on Baxter’s Proxima, but then I read this book and someone asked me to pass it along, so I’ll write this up now. (I have the paperback, but how do you pass on an ebook? A lot of them are still in the “cloud” somewhere. What have you really bought beside the right to access some squiggles and bits from a reader somewhere? We’ll talk about that when I get to Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. For now, just wonder how your collection of “rare” first-edition ebooks gets bequeathed to anyone.)

I read Anicillary Justice because the blurb I saw (who knows where? Or when?) played up the AI aspects of the story. That alone sold me, because I don’t usually like the way that AI is presented in modern fiction. A lot of them, like Douglas Preston’s The Kraken Project (and I read all of Preston and Child’s books), just posit that the computer is thinking and acting and behaving just like a human, and that’s that. I give Leckie a lot of credit for actually working on the AI implications. I don’t want to sound like a crank: I’ve done doctoral work on AI, although I’ve struggled to keep up with the latest trends…more on those books later.

I realized recently that I enjoy a lot of science fiction written by women. I have no idea what that means, or might mean. But I’m not sure it has to mean anything more than a lot of books I like are written by females. And that is that.

So is there anything here about the actual book we’re talking about? Yeah, here goes: you want a whole universe to get lost in, you got one.  As Peter Mendelsund points out in What We See When We Read (my first post), we all start a book as dislocated and somewhat lost explorers, and science fiction and fantasy books emphasize this. Some books let you feel at home early and some books later, and Leckie’s book was definitely a slow build for me.

One reason it took so long, I think, is that there are interlocking and alternating narratives in the odd and even chapters, although eventually they merge. One strand is in the here-and-now of book-time and follows the narrator’s adventures on an ice world and a rescue and nicely done chase scene, ending with a shootout. It’s a nice action start and continues in the odd chapters. The other strand, some 20 years before, begins the story of how the narrator got to be on the ice world in the first place. These even chapters are filled with empire-related politics and the diplomatic consequences of “annexation” (which sounds better than “subjugation” I guess).

Once the stands merge, they propel the reader to a very suspenseful conclusion. This is a story where you see terms you do not know constantly and trust that you’ll pick them up as you go. For example, the absolutely essential concept of the book’s gods, temples, offerings, “omens,” and so on are first outlined on page 33, where the four “emanations” from good old Amaat are enumerated. The essential history and connections of the other characters are not announced, but slipped in here and there, and one big issue (how the heck is the narrator so rich?) is not answered until page 374.

The narrator, posing as a human named Breq, is really the consciousness of a vast space battleship named Justice of Toren. She is the last “ancillary,” which is a human form vacated to make room for the shared group consciousness running the ship – officers in the book actually go “Ship, do X” when they want something to happen  – left over when the Justice is destroyed by the evil emperor. One reviewer called this a “space opera” and there is a constant lure to see the empire of the Radch (which in my head sounds like “Radish”) through the lenses of Star Wars. If so, fight that force (sorry). This story deserves to stand on its own.

Leckie does a really good job of narrating the experience of being a multiple person who can be here and there at the same time, reporting what’s happening on the street as other AIs are on guard duty or carrying on a conversation. It sounds wild, but it works.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so engaged in this tale. I have a stack of books abandoned before the ending – which I like to think is because I am such a picky reader, but maybe it’s just laziness. I was also happy to see that such a stately, Asimov-ian (two people talking) narrative could not only be popular, but win major prizes in this day and age (and in first person, and in simple past tense). No vaporized bad guys, no flowing space battles for a change! Instead, we have lots of tea drinking, something I can appreciate more than barroom brawls (which happen, like other forms of mayhem in the story, off-camera).

Once I had penetrated the mysteries of the text (everybody is “she”? That’s cool. The humans are people or AIs? OK…), I realized that the story was a fairly straightforward alternating of chapters between the narrative present, as I said, involving the saving of a drug-addled former officer, and events twenty years before. These events all culminate in a satisfying climax that closes one door and opens another: this is, after all, a trilogy.

Overall, the book is much like a roller coaster ride. There is a slow build to an initial peak, then some up and down hills before the finish. I have to admit there were places in the mid-200s where I resorted to reading the dialog and scanning the descriptions, which are good but seemed to bog down the story for me in places. That was where I sort of gave up puzzling out all the nuances of the world. There are humans (the ancillaries apparently count as human bodies, but with fake minds) and aliens (some weird Presger beings play a large role, and the Rrrrrr (really) are mentioned, but there is not a lot of description to go on as far as their appearance. Details are lavished mainly on internal mind states, which is fine because that’s what counts in the end.

I have to say, I’d hate to have to narrate the audio book version of this book. I don’t know how the names translate to spoken English. Even the “Radchaai” gave me a hard time. Is it “rad-chi-ah-aye”? Or “rad-cha-ay”? And what about Seivarden? Skaaiat? Anaander Mianaai? See what I meaain?

I liked the ending, but one thing bothered me. Breq is portrayed as “not really human” and occasionally is dismissive of her own being as “not worth saving” or some such. Now, perhaps as an AI, you can just load them up again: but this is not true of Breq, the story says. She’s the last survivor of the group-consciousness – 20 of them – of the destroyed Justice of Toren. Yet in spite of this, Breq is human enough not only to carry the story, but appear to be the most humane of the humans, especially when it comes to the rescued drugged-out former officer. How did the AI that is Breq come so far? If the answer is in there, I missed it.