Red Rising Analysis: Social Stratification and Opression
Updated: Oct 11, 2018
Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series masterfully blends intense sci-fi action with weighty themes that both entertain and serve as a cautionary tale of how advancement in some aspects of society, can lead to regression in others. This can be especially true when technology outpaces sociopolitical development and ethics become secondary to efficiency.
Red Rising takes place in the (somewhat) distant future where mankind has conquered the solar system and has established civilizations on other planets and their moons. Generations of selective breeding and genetic modification has broken the human race into 14 distinct species, represented by a color. Each color has a specified purpose and set skillset that they employ to contribute to the interplanetary civilization known as Society. This leads to a very rigid caste-like socioeconomic system in which the "low colors" are slaves in all but name, and the "high colors" rule as tyrannical overlords. Social stratification is nothing new in our world; and by examining indoctrination, deception, and perception, we can better understand the real world implications of the Society.
The Society's rigid caste system thrives on the oppression of low colors. Red, Pinks, Obsidians, and Browns sit at the bottom of the pyramid and serve as the unskilled worker, sex slaves, expendable warriors, and domestic servants to the Society. One would think that being relegated to such menial, deadly, traumatizing, and degrading work would cause rebellion (which it eventually does). However, the Society manages to keep their low color majority docile through skillful manipulation. One of the most effective way to do this is through indoctrination.
The process of indoctrination is a potent tool of oppression because it robs the target audience of the ability to think critically. A few definitions of indoctrination is are
To imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle
The process of inculcating a person with ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or professional methodologies
The process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically
Early in their lives, low colors are made to believe that the work they are doing vital to the Society and that they must toil for the good of their people. This is partially true yet what is never explicitly stated is that their people will never see any progress or advancement from their work. Like most indoctrination, the Society is built on a lies but these lies are so integral to its foundation that any who threaten their integrity are swiftly dealt with. In most cases, this means violence and the Society is no different. Darrow experiences this first hand when his father and wife Eo are executed for acts of defiance against the overlords. He himself is even hanged for retrieving Eo's body from the gallows which was forbidden by the Grays who lorded over the Reds in his mine. This is the greatest weakness of indoctrination because it requires swift and often extreme action to quell dissent. Because the battleground is the collective mind of the target audience, it's often difficult to know who is truly following orders and who is appearing to while biding their time. Since indoctrination relies so heavily on lies, incorporating deception is key to maintaining control; a task the high colors of the Society perform quite well.
Oppressive and socially stratified civilizations are often built on a great lie. This lie is usually a justification for why certain groups are in power while others are not. In 18th and 19th century America, race based slavery was justified by the assertion that African slaves were intellectually inferior to the slave masters that oppressed them. This argument has been used up to the present day to justify racism in America. The Golds of the Society take this a step further by feeding the Reds and Obsidians propaganda that has become entrenched in their culture, religion, and ethnic identity.
As laborers, the Reds' primary work exists in the bowels of the Society. Darrow, lives and works in the mines of Mars, extracting helium 3 which is used as fuel for space travel. Reds in the mines believe that they are mining helium 3 to aid in the terraforming effort on Mars. They are told that once Mars is habitable, they will be brought to the surface to live in peace on the new world they toiled to create. The issue with this, of course, is that Mars has been habitable for centuries and there is plan or intention to bring Reds to the surface. Yet as long as they believe this lie, they will continue to work to fuel the machine.
The Society subjects the Obsidians to a similar form of deception to maintain docility. Imprisoned on the frozen poles of Mars, Obsidians have been given a culture and religious tradition almost identical to Norse mythology. This causes them to value courage, loyalty, and heroism, which makes them ideal foot soldier. To Obsidians, Golds are the gods from their legends who periodically descend from the heavens to take great warriors into battle for for the opportunity to enter Valhalla. Like the Reds, this lie has the Obsidians willingly fueling the insatiable appetite of the Gold war machine.
What is most interesting about the Society's deception is that it extends even to the Gold ruling class. Considering the authoritarian regime requires strength to maintain its hold on a people to which Gold is the minority, it is no surprise that Golds even deceive their children. The Institute is the ultimate stage of that deception. Students are made to believe that their actions directly affect their fate within the Institute. However, this is a half-truth. External politics have a greater affect on the outcome of the game than internal performance. This is most apparent when Fitchner reveals to Darrow that the proctors of the Institute have been aiding his rival, the Jackal. This serves to illustrate that even societies with strict codes can fall to backdoor politics and corruption. In this, the Institute is a microcosm of the Society, which is riddled with secret alliances and dubious intentions. Because of this, perception drives the inner workings of the Society and is one of the key factors that ultimately leads to its downfall.
Consider this scenario:
You and two others have spent your entire lives in a cave chained to a wall.
Your head is in a fixed position so all you can see is the cave wall in front of you.
People behind you (who you cannot see) use puppets and a light to cast shadows against the wall.
These shadows are the only other living things you ever see and you believe that the entire world is the cave inhabited by these shadow people.
Now imagine you are released one day and you exit the cave to find the light, the sun, the puppet, the people deceiving you etc.
You are told this is the real world.
But because the sun hurts your eyes and everything is so incredibly unfamiliar, you don't believe this and return to the comfort of your cave.
Eventually, your eyes adjust to the light and you are able to see the world as it truly is.
You return to the cave to free the other two prisoners but because your eyes have adjusted to the outside, you can no longer see in the dim cave.
When the other prisoners see you in your lost state, they assume the outside world has damaged you and fearing the same fate, kill you to avoid being removed from the safety of the cave.
This may seem like a lot to process but the symbolism of this scenario, known as the Allegory of the Cave, from Plato's Republic is fairly straight forward. The cave represents our superficial reality as we know it. The chains and shadows all feed that reality to keep us ignorant of the truth. When we finally escape the false reality, it is at first painful and we doubt the true reality. But once we come to terms with this new truth, we see the world for what it really is.
Darrow literally escapes his cave in Red Rising, where his people have been fed a false reality for centuries. Their perception of the world is limited to their mine. Likewise, the Obsidians' worldview is limited to the polar wasteland where they reside. None know the true nature of the world; and this is precisely why the Golds are able to maintain control. Only when the Reds leave the mines are their eyes open to the painful truth: they have been slaves to a thriving empire that has no regard for them. By controlling the perception of the people, the ruling class is able to alter their reality to one that best serves the elite.
Oppression is an insidious thing because it causes us to believe that the hell we live in is our only reality. Societies have thrived on the backs of the disenfranchised throughout history and though it is not always apparent, this still occurs; in the developed world at that. Western civilization may be progressive, but there are people right now who live as slaves. Drug addiction, alcoholism, and human trafficking are all tools of oppression that trap people within the bottom tiers of society. But another form of oppression is unfolding right now as you read this analysis. With the advent of technology and connectedness, our perception of reality is being constantly modified. The artificial is so prevalent, that we are beginning to prefer it over the real. How long will it be before we are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and we find ourselves in cave of simulacrums?
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