Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy is one of my favorite book series. Brimming with action, schemes, betrayals, thrilling victories, and crushing defeats, Red Rising takes readers on a gut wrenching journey from the bowels of Mars to the panicle of Luna. The electric action, vibrant world, and well realized characters are all strengths of this work.
However, one facet that sets it apart are the themes that are seamlessly woven into the narrative. There are several themes at play here but I’m going to discuss three that had the greatest effect on my interpretation of the story and how you can apply lessons from these themes to grow in your writing journey starting with Identity.
Seven hundred years have past since mankind left Earth to colonize the remainder of the solar system. After generations of genetic alterations, the human race has split into fourteen distinct subspecies represented by colors. These colors make up a caste-like pyramidal hierarchy known as the Society, ruled by the genetically superior Golds.
Protagonist Darrow was born a Red; fated to live out his existence at the bottom of the hierarchy, toiling as a miner in the bowels of Mars. But when his wife Eo is executed by the ArchGovernor for singing a song of hope and rebellion, he is recruited by the rebel group, the Sons of Aries, to infiltrate the Gold's order and end their tyranny.
To accomplish this, Darrow’s Sons of Aries contact, Dancer has his frail Red body surgically reconstructed into a physically and mentally superior Gold one. After exhaustive training to make Darrow, move, think, and act like a Gold, Dancer arranges for him to attend the Institute; a brutal and grueling proving ground that serves as a rite of passage for the next generation of Gold rulers. After several trails culminating in the murder of Julian au Bellona, brother to Darrow’s new friend Cassius, Darrow is assigned to house Mars where he and his compatriots must conquer the other house to achieve victory.
Despite the need for cooperation, house Mars immediately splinters and Darrow must join forces with Cassius to bring order to their house while fending off the other houses. Darrow allies with house Minerva, led by a young woman he has nicknamed Mustang, and the group is able defeat and imprison Titus, one of the Mars faction leaders. After enlisting the help of misfit Sevro and his group of Howlers, Darrow is able to reclaim house Mars castle and send Mustang into hiding. Yet when a messenger from house Pluto’s leader, the Jackal, reveals to Cassius that Darrow killed his brother, Cassius challenges Darrow to a duel and critically wounds him.
Mustang rescues Darrow and following his recovery, the two begin to amass an army of runaways who had been defeated and enslaved by the other houses. After reuniting with Sevro and the Howlers, Darrow is able to conquer his way across the Institute, eventually cornering the Jackal who manages to escape by cutting off his own hand. House Mars Proctor Fitchner, reveals to Darrow that the Jackal is actually the son of Mars ArchGovernor Augustus (the man who had his wife Eo executed). To make matters worse, the other Proctors have been aiding the Jackal throughout the exercise. Fed up with their interference, Darrow storms the Proctors' fortress, killing Proctor Apollo and capturing the rest. Fitchner offers a final revelation: Mustang is actually Virginia au Augustus, daughter of the ArchGovernor and the Jackal’s twin sister. Despite this, Mustang delivers the Jackal to Darrow and with him, victory.
Analysis Part 1: Darrow's Identity Crisis
Red Rising tackles several themes revolving around identity, personhood, and truth (or rather the absence of it). This analysis focuses on identity.
The major obstacle facing Darrow along his journey is the Society itself. His quest to avenge his wife Eo and topple the hierarchy requires him to get close to those in power. The success of this mission is contingent upon his ability to assimilate into the Gold ranks, allowing him to get within striking distance of his oppressors. Early in the story, Darrow meets the Violet Carver Mickey who gives him the appearance and abilities of a Gold through intense reconstructive surgery.
Carvers are a uniquely talented group of Violets who subvert the concept of identity through their “art”.
Not only do they accomplish this in a very literal way by surgically combining common animals to make mythical creatures (think unicorns, gryphons, and angels like Evey). But the messages they send with their more extreme carvings raise questions of what constitutes identity.
When Mickey is done with him, Darrow is biologically a Gold. From his appearance to his strength and stamina to his mental acuity, he has every characteristic of a Gold. He is even able to father his son Pax with Mustang later in the series (reproducing outside one’s color is biologically impossible).
However, his memories, thoughts, and feeling are still that of a Red. This complicated things because even though he is Gold in every physical sense, his mind is still Red, raising the question of how to actually categorize him. It would seem you can take the Red out of the mine but you can’t take the mine out of the Red. This is no more evident than when Darrow discovers his Gold Institute classmate Titus is another carved Red. Darrow makes this discovery when Titus uses the slang term “bloodydamn” under duress, which is ascribed to low colors, especially Reds. In times of stress, their true colors seem to come out (terrible pun).
All this raises the question of where one’s identity truly resides and harkens back to the teachings of philosopher John Locke. Consider this scenario:
Neuroscience advances to the point that with the press of a button, I can switch my consciousness with my brother Milan’s Freaky Friday style. If we do this and remain two coherent human beings, which of us is Brandon and which is Milan? Am I the mind the resides in Milan’s body? Or am I the body that Milan’s mind now occupies?
Locke makes the distinction between being the same human being and being the same person (lots of being in this sentence). Being the same human being means having the same arrangement of matter that constitutes a specific living body. Essentially, having the same physical self. This excludes clones or twins as the life must be a communicated through the same organism. Being the same person however, requires a continuity of consciousness; basically the same memories, thoughts, and feelings. In this, Locke argues for the person and not the human being.
If Milan and I switch bodies, I am still me despite being in Milan’s body.
Identity follows the consciousness, not the physical body. Like most philosophical arguments, Locke’s assertion does have problems. If identity is tied to memories, thoughts and feelings, how do we account for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other ailments that cause dementia and memory loss? Is a person who slips into a persistent vegetative state still a person? What if I were able to backup my consciousness into another body like I backup my phone. Are we the same person? These are heavy issues that I won’t attempt to cover here but they do warrant consideration.
Darrow struggles with his identity throughout the trilogy and his dilemma brings up several questions about our own concept of identity. With advances in technology and medicine, the concept of becoming another person physically is more reality than fiction. Regardless of what you believe about surgically altering one’s anatomy, it is important to remember that placing people into strict categories is far less simple than one may think. Red Rising expands upon this as it explores social stratification and personhood which I will talk in part two of this analysis.
So what do you think? Does the self reside in the body, or the mind? Can a mind be separated from a body without becoming something different entirely?
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