‘Red Rising’ Author Pierce Brown on Dystopia, Science Fiction and Ancient History


We’re a little less than a week  from the January 28 release of Red Rising, the groundbreaking science fiction novel of futuristic slavery and revolt from debut author Pierce Brown:

Darrow is a miner and a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he digs all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of the planet livable for future generations. Darrow has never seen the sky.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better future for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow and Reds like him are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow joins a resistance group in order to infiltrate the ruling class and destroy society from within. He will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

As you can imagine, this is a busy time for Brown, but he was able to spare a few minutes to talk with me about the book and its surprising real-life inspirations.

I know a good bit about Red Rising, but some of our readers may not. Can you tell them little bit about the book?

Red Rising is the story of a young man who pits himself against an oppressive regime which has coded humanity into a hierarchy based on colors: the color of your irises, not the color of your skin. Each person has a different worth assigned to them by this society: Golds are the rulers, Silvers run the businesses, and Reds toil in mines on Mars and throughout the rest of the solar system because humanity has colonized these planets. Our young hero Darrow, a Red, is inspired by a crime that has been committed against him by this government to transform himself into a weapon to pull his people out of bondage.

How does Darrow transform himself into a weapon?

I don’t want to give anything anyway, and I’m not sure how much I can say at this point!

Can you speak in generalities?

Basically, there are two things that Darrow has to do: He has to physically transform himself into a weapon which can infiltrate the Golds because that is the mission given to him by the freedom fighting group that calls itself the Sons of Ares, and more importantly he has to realize that he isn’t a weapon for revenge. He’s not a creature designed to hurt his enemies. What he is meant to do is help his people. He does this all for love. This isn’t simply a revenge tale set in space and on Mars: This is a young man learning the lessons of life and trying to sacrifice himself for a good cause.

When you talk about this idea of transforming yourself into a weapon after being taken advantage of by society, it reminds me of the stories I’ve read about real-life activists and their journeys. Have any real people inspired your character’s story?

You can look at the civil rights movement in the United States, and also the plight of immigrants throughout history; particular the Irish immigrants of the 1890s who came to New York and other areas. That’s where a lot of the stories about the Reds came from. In terms of individuals throughout history, Spartacus was a great influence. He revolted against the Romans. He was interesting because he didn’t want to necessarily war against Rome, he just wanted to escape Roman lands. It was extremely difficult for him. He was eventually penned in and couldn’t. Another inspiration was Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian general who led the assault against Rome coming through the Trans-Alpine Alps. He was eventually defeated by Rome as well. Rome is the society that the Gold’s high society – the one that spans the solar system – finds its roots. They find it in Greek and Roman myths, the structure of their government and in the deeds of a lot of the Romans.

I based my hero on a lot of these influences, and many of the tactics he uses are based on those used by these generals during their heydays.

Is the culture of Red Rising one that you see as being evolved from our present one, or is it wholly rooted in fiction?

It’s a culture that evolves from the next step. That step is that humanity will eventually colonize the moon, and does so years before the events of Red Rising.  Like any colony in history, it becomes powerful and begins to question whether or not they need the home states and why they’re being taxed. So in Red Rising the moon is colonized by a group of highly specialized individuals who are coded by color in order to understand their function because there can be no excess in space. They have a very rigid hierarchical system and jobs that they have to perform, and so the culture of Red Rising evolves after several hundred years of this highly rigid group that colonized the moon and became isolated from Earth. They began mining the moon for resources and then started colonizing the rest of the solar system. After that, they began wondering if they really needed Earth, this home institution that taxed them and brought them our there but they did the rest. With gravity 1/6th of the Earth’s, they’re the port of the solar system. They can launch ships for a fraction of the price and rain down punishment on Earth. That’s when the war started. It’s all evolution of the next step. I mean, you’ve heard  people saying that “We’ve got to get to colonizing the moon.” Once we get there then we’ll start talking about an evolution from our society.

When you talk about eye color used as a classification it reminds me of Jane Elliot’s experiments in eye color and racism in classrooms. She divided students into two groups: the brown eyes and the blue eyes to see if she could teach them a lesson about racism. Did that play any kind of influence in the book? I know that in Red Rising it’s the irises, though.

I did read that! It is. It’s fascinating. For those people who aren’t familiar with it, the brown-eyed children were given special special privileges and the blue-eyed children were not. The arbitrariness of the discrimination taught the children that racism was essentially a foolish idea.

That’s right. This was in the sixties and the kids had never been around African-American people at all.

Exactly, yes. They were wondering why this all mattered, and it doesn’t. The experiment might have influenced the book. I didn’t base it on this but that arbitrary nature of a government or society deciding your rights based on something you’re predisposed to having just by being born is something that goes back to the dawn of man. Our country has graduated from that – at least more than we ever have – but it is the history of humanity.

I think that she told the brown-eyed children that blue-eyed people were naturally more intelligent.

Yes, it prejudices people. If I remember correctly, the kids started behaving a certain way in the class, and why wouldn’t they? They were given extra rights.

Are the people in your book genetically modified in some way or are these classifications utterly arbitrary?

They’re genetically modified. They use eugenics and bio-modifications, and then there’s additional “DNA sculpting” as they call it. They have a 600 year-old template from which they have perfected their system, and they haven’t deviated from that. For instance there are the Pinks, who are the pleasure slaves of the society and are destined for lives of sexual servitude. They aren’t able to reproduce on their own and they have to have a special implant to enable them to conceive, because there’s no reason to have an abundance population and they limit and govern based on their requirements and needs. They’re can be no “cross-pollination,” so a Green couldn’t have sex with a Blue and conceive an Aquamarine child. They would be punished if it was found out that they were having relations between colors, much like the anti-miscegenation laws that they had in Virginia  up until what – the late fifties? Actually it may have gone further than that – but the color system hierarchy is maintained by the Golds, who have an entity named the Board of Quality Control which monitors it.

I know that it might be easy to see a politically-toned story, especially one that is about a group called the Reds engaged in an uprising against a class-based society. Was that your intention?

It was my intention to reflect what I see to be the nature of humanity. It was not my intention to reflect on our current political state and to indict anyone by saying they’re acting like Golds and ruling over us. In terms of directly relating to the past ten years of American history, no. This is more in the scope of human history.

Let’s talk about your science fiction influences. What are some of the books and movies that have inspired you?

Oh, man. There’s such an abundance of influences in my work…

Can I just throw one out to you to get the conversation started?


How about Logan’s Run?

Hmmm. Logan’s Run. I haven’t seen that since I was a kid. It wasn’t that much of an influence on what I was trying to do in Red Rising.

Alright, let’s think of a few more. How about Soylent Green?

Soylent Green! Ah, man. That’s the first movie of Charlton Heston’s that I ever saw, and I think that I watched it when I was maybe nine. I didn’t understand why they were harvesting people as crops, but…

Well, it is made of people, after all.

(Laughs) Yes! It is definitely an influence, because that’s the first time I saw human beings as a commodity. I didn’t understand slavery when I was nine, but I could understand this idea. Science fiction is beautiful because it can so often put our world into perspective. So, yeah, Soylent Green. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is another one. It fascinated me because it helped me to create a backstory and a history for the society in Red Rising. I think that I should be honest and say that without The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I would have never thought of the idea of the story at all. When we do reach out to the moon, and if we can terraform it, why wouldn’t the moon become more important than the Earth? There really is no reason. It’s why Portugal became powerful. Why England and the Netherlands became powerful: They’re on the tip of Europe and could colonize the New World.

Gene Wolfe is another one that I gravitated toward. Wolfe, Heinlein and Asimov. Asimov’s for the scope with the Foundation series, because I had never really conceived that humanity could enter a new Dark Age. With Heinlein it was the political relevancy of a lot of his books: The criticism of Fascism and the military-industrial complex in Starship Troopers is definitely there, as well as some of the technology. With William Golding it was The Lord of the Flies, which isn’t necessarily science fiction.

It’s a great book, though, and it is post-apocalyptic: There’s been a nuclear war.

It is! I had forgotten about that. It’s been a long time since I did that book report! It was one of my favorite books as a kid, and simply seeing how quickly humanity can turn into basically a jungle hierarchy was fascinating to me as a kid. You know, you can apply The Lord of the Flies to any context where there’s humans. It could be fantasy, it could be sci-fi, it could be anything. With Red Rising, I mixed that in there in seeing how it decays so quickly and how it all comes down to power when you remove the creeds of mankind, and the laws, it all comes down to power.

Are you a student of history?

Yes, history is my favorite thing – it really is! I could say the trite thing here – that we learn a lot form history, and we do – but I think that it’s because it’s the vastest tapestry of stories that ever existed. All of the stories that we’ve ever had have been pulled from history; from real life. They reflect real life in ways. You look at the history of a tiny group of Greek islands and this little Greek peninsula and how it affected history – that’s the stuff I love: how one thing can affect everyone. Their myths are still present in Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s work is almost like our version of the modern myths. When I look at history I find so much more inspiration than literature.

Do you consider your book dystopian?

To be honest, I never considered it dystopian. The idea that it could be dystopian never entered my head. I guess when I was pitching it to agents and publishers they were talking about dystopia, but it never really registered with me because I didn’t necessarily think it had to be put in that category. It’s a story for me. It always starts that way for an author. It always starts with an idea, and the idea isn’t saying, “I want to come up with a dystopian story.” You just start writing and then the world unfolds. I saw it as science fiction.

Aren’t dystopian tales science fiction by definition? Unless, of course, you’re writing about the present as a dystopia. I suppose that is an argument that could be made...

Unless you want to have a story without any tension, then yes. There always has to be something wrong. Any science fiction story with scope has to be dystopian. There has to be tension within the set-up of the society. Bladerunner is dystopian but I never, ever call it a dystopian. In a lot of ways, Gene Wolfe’s Shadow and Claw series could be called dystopian. A lot of people call it fantasy, but it’s not: It’s science fiction.

In that sense, it’s like Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books. It is set in a future where science has become indistinguishable from magic and everything is falling apart. It’s beautifully written, but the entire world is going down the tubes!

Sure, and look at the Hyperion series.:It also uses the idea of another Dark Age.

What’s next for you? The book drops next week, right?

Yes, on my birthday: Tuesday, January 28th. I’ll be turning 26 on the 28th, and that’s when the book comes out.

Well happy early birthday! I turn 41 the next day!

Well, you don’t look a day over 34. (Laughs.)

Thanks! Alright, so tell me how you’re going to celebrate your birthday.

I’m going to go to Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego. Those guys have been great to me. I met the store’s owner, Patrick, at Comic Con. He was one of the first people to write a good review. That’s a good way to get on my good side! I’ll be heading down there to do a little shindig and launch party, and then I think my hooligan friends here want to throw something, so we’ll find out what they want to do.