In the future, mankind has colonized the Solar System; societies exist on all the major rocky planets and moons within reach, creating vast wealth. However, this has not improved the lives of people in general – in fact, most people live in a rigidly-controlled and permanent caste system, with a small population enjoying unimaginable wealth and power at the expense of the rest of the population. Red Rising takes place in the middle of this and shows us what happens when one young person tries to turn the system on its head against impossible odds.
Author Pierce Brown summarizes his main idea for the book in a Goodreads interview:“The origin here is in Plato’s Republic, where he says that in a perfect society men should form a natural hierarchy….The problem is that he didn’t see that people would want to accumulate wealth or power and pass it down to those they love. So I thought that would be interesting: We have a meritocracy, but how could it be poisoned?”
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The opening paragraph Rising is a flash-forward, and serves as a mission statement for the tone of the story.
“I was forged in the bowels of this hard world. Sharpened by hate. Strengthened by love. He is wrong. None of them will survive.”
Darrow, our protagonist, tells us on the first page why he is doing what he is doing, and how he is going to do it (because he’s very pissed off, and violently, to answer to those questions). In the 1956 book The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester presents a striking, no-holds-barred vision of vengeance in space, as nomad Gully Foyle tears his way across the solar system, manipulating, torturing, murdering, and just generally smashing anything that stands in his way. Presenting a main character as brutal and completely amoral was new in sci-fi at the time, and Brown takes note here when crafting Darrow. The Red Rising son of Mars does not hesitate to do anything necessary to achieve his goals, and we are shown scenes of seduction, manipulation, theft, and endless varieties of extreme violence throughout the work.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Alex DeLarge, the psychotic leader of the droogs in A Clockwork Orange shares many similarities with Darrow. They are about the same age (Alex is 15, Darrow is 16 at the start of Rising). Both are natural leaders, though they use their power for different ends. Both use a dialect of sorts – in Burgess’s case, he uses the lingo constantly throughout the book:
“‘We’ll try it, yes?’ And he sort of shrugged his pletchoes, making with a frog’s rot.”
“‘Do you feel ill now?’ he said, still with the old droogy smile on his litso.”
Darrow has to mask his brogue, for fear of being discovered, but the text is peppered with Martian slang, like “bloodydamn,” “goryballs,” and “gamma turd.” Alex grows out of his impulses at the end of Orange, but Darrow grows into them.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress could serve as the spiritual prequel for Rising; it is the tale of downtrodden Moon colonists and their rebellion against an oppressive Terran regime, much like the backstory for Rising. The “Loonies” have a strange, looping gait due to the low gravity, and speak in odd dialect created by Heinlein, characteristics which heavily influence Pierce Brown’s novel. The Loonies riot after the death of a young woman, much like Darrow’s people use the death of Eo as a springboard for their insurrection. Heinlein’s brand of “hard science-fiction” can also be found in Risen with lines like “To beat Gamma, I’ve got to keep a rate of 156.5 kilos an hour. It’ll take two and a half hours for the scanCrew to get here and do their deal…” Heinlein, like his peers Arthur C. Clarke and Poul Anderson wanted to infuse their works with scientific realism and credibility, and so specific mathematical values can be found regularly in their stories.
It’s also hard not to see elements of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, or more specifically the Paul Verhoeven adaptation – a brand of casual violence, and the cast of characters’ ambivalence toward it is central to Rising.
In an interview with Unbound Worlds, Brown talks about the critical influence of Moon:
“…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?”
The Lord of the Rings by J R. R. Tolkien
The influence of Tolkien on every genre of modern literature is vast, and Red Rising is no exception. It starts with the inclusion of hand-drawn maps – the author wants to immerse the reader in their world-building and lore, and provide a reference point for what can be a geographically complex plot. The Institute of Mars battleground features Tolkienesque topography; rivers, lakes and streams, mountains, forests, grassy plains and snow-filled valleys. Pierce Brown, like Tolkien, also includes relatively lengthy verse in his work, in order give his people an oral tradition, and thus a deep history. The actual institute is described as:
“…built into the side of the eight-kilometer-high walls of the Valles Marineris. The walls rise like tidal waves of green stone cradling civilization with flora. The institute itself is made of white stone – a place of columns and sculpture…”
This description could easily apply to Tolkien’s Minas Tirith, the center of his Middle Earth civilization. The Golds’ “high speech” is also reminiscent of the structured language in LOTR – Tolkien’s Elves, technically a higher order of being, have their own ethereal languages.
The inhabitants of Darrow’s hometown of Lykos populate “smoky taverns;” one of which is called the “Soggy Drop.” Here they dance and fight and sing; these images will be familiar to any reader who has spent a night in Bree or Hobbiton.
Gladiator by Ridley Scott
Darrow is mocked and frustrated by the omniscient Proctors, to the point where he ineffectually throws a spear at them:
“A quick rage overtakes me along with another, darker passion – one of arrogance, furious, mad arrogance. I grab the pulseSpear, cock my arm, and hurl the weapon as hard as I can at the gathered Proctors. My army watches this act of impudence. The three proctors scatter after the pulseSpear goes through their shielding. They turn to look at me. Fire glitters in their eyes. But the passion in me was not quenched by a mere spear throw. I hate these scheming fools. I will ruin them.”
A similar scene can be found in the classic movie Gladiator, in which Maximus throws a sword from the basin of a fighting arena into the onlooking crowd, screaming “Are you not entertained?” Maximus is taken from slavery and trained in politics and combat, eventually killing his emperor in order that he may free his people – a journey that is similar to the one Darrow is trying to take in Rising.
Total Recall by Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall is a tale of Martian-dwelling humans, twisted by labor and radiation, held hostage by an evil profit-seeking Earth corporation. The imagery of choking red dust, underground networks of roads and caves, drilling and industry on the red planet is something to be found in both Recall and Rising. Both the mutants of Verhoeven’s Mars and Darrow’s reds are powerless in the face of overwhelming might.
Total Recall is based on the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, published in 1966.
Tor.com: “All too soon this short section segues into a few fantastic chapters in the mode of Man Plus, as our Red rises in society’s eyes, then into a tactical take on The Hunger Games. Indeed, the competition between the Institute’s twelve tribes dominates the novel, but Brown doesn’t simply follow Suzanne Collins’ formula.”
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Earth is facing extinction after its conflict with an insect-like race in this 1985 novel. The government responds by placing the brightest and most capable children they can find into a war college, to prepare them to lead Earth’s forces against the coming battle with the “buggers.” Deliberately placing kids in violent games and battle scenarios to make them hardened military officers was a literary novelty at the time; like Darrow, the character of Ender is forced to kill someone early in the narrative, and it haunts him.
“We don’t want him to go to nightclubs and eat caviar like the rest of those worthless Golds. We want him to command fleets.”
“After orientation tomorrow, you will go to war with your fellow students to dominate the valley by any means at your disposal. Consider it a case study in gaining and ruling an empire.”
Ender also manages to use his “outside-the-box” thinking to bend the rules; he eventually completely breaks the game he is forced to participate in, much like Darrow in Rising. Both Ender and Darrow are given specific, seemingly impossible tests, with simple outcomes; succeed, or die. Both young men have the deck stacked against them unfairly, and both persevere nonetheless. Pierce Brown, as is his preference, takes an idea and expands it to fit his imagination. What is a Command School in Ender’s Game becomes an enormous territorial expanse in Red Rising. Military jargon and logistical analysis feature heavily in both works- platoons, squadrons, squads, subordinates, honors, and flags.
Barnes and Noble’s site reviews the comparisons between Ender’s Game and other works, saying: “…it exceeds The Hunger Games across the board: The backstory is richer and deeper. The hero, Darrow, is far more complex than Katniss Everdeen. And, yes, Red Rising—the first in a projected trilogy—would make a better movie than The Hunger Games.”
The Matrix by the Wachowskis
In The Matrix, mankind is enslaved by robots, their bodies held in stasis while their minds are plugged into a virtual reality fantasy land, keeping them oblivious to their plight. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is pulled from the simulation by a mysterious group of ragtags, and trained by them so that he may lead humans to freedom. Darrow finds himself in a similar situation; he is pulled from seeming death, and given tools and training by the Sons of Ares so that he may have a chance against a massively powerful enemy. Like Neo, he has an intrinsic “ability” that sets him above everyone else.
“‘Martyrs are a dime a dozen.’ Harmony yawns.
I slip forward like a serpent and grab her around the throat; waves of anger ripple through my face till it goes numb and I feel tears welling behind my eyes. Scorchers whine as they’re primed around me. One jams into the back of my neck. I feel its cold muzzle.”
Darrow has a contentious relationship with his “trainers.” Some of them don’t like or trust him, and the feeling is mutual. Neo fights with the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix – guns are drawn as he is recruited in the back of a black sedan while it drives around the streets at night, and he almost walks away. He is eventually betrayed by the character of Cipher, a member of his group.
In an iconic scene in The Matrix, Morpheus takes Neo into a simulation, and shows him what the real world actually looks like. Lightning crackles across a burned sky, and ruined skyscrapers perch on a dark and destroyed landscape as Neo hears Morpheus say “Welcome to the desert of the real.” In Rising, Darrow experiences a similar reveal. Having seen nothing but red dust and stone his whole life, he is taken on a lengthy vertical elevator journey, to see this:
“Everything is so smooth. Beyond the instrument, beyond the glass, lies something I don’t understand. I stumble toward the light, and fall to my knees, pressing my hands against the barrier. I moan one long note.
‘Now you understand, Dancer says. ‘We are deceived.’
Beyond the glass sprawls a city.”
Dancer has a role like that of Morpheus – he explains he hidden history of humans to Darrow, with exposition and backstory to fill in the roots of the tale. People have been colonizing the Solar System for hundreds of years, and have populated all rocky bodies within their reach in a quest for resources. In Rising, it is the powerful Lunar people that rebel against Earth; in The Matrix, it is Earth’s own artificial intelligence system that revolts. Red Rising also has its own virtual reality system, in the cyberpunk tradition – Darrow is able to experience physical training in another world with the aid of a mechanical suit and faceplate, much like Neo is able to “plug in” to training simulations in The Matrix.
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
“I follow her through a long series of turns in the small shaft til we exit out a grate into a world of inhuman sounds. A buzz murmurs in the darkness. She takes my hand. It’s the only familiar thing.
‘What’s that?’ I ask of the sound.
‘Animals,’ she says, and leads me into the strange night. Something soft is beneath my feet. I nervously let her pull me forward. ‘Grass. Trees. Darrow, Trees. We’re in a forest.’”
This sudden exit from the realm of the ordinary to a seemingly magical alternate dimension is reminiscent of Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
“‘This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!’ thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. ‘I wonder is that more moth-balls?’ she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hands. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold, ‘This is very queer,’ she said, and went on a step or two further.
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. ‘Why, it is just like branches of trees!’ exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.”
The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin
Eo has this exchange with Darrow early in the book, in which she tries to explain her powerful vision to him:
“‘You’re not even living!’ She snaps. ‘We are machine men with machine minds, machine lives…’”
This seems to be a direct reference to the Chaplain film The Great Dictator, in which he tearfully proclaims at conclusion:
“Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes — men who despise you — enslave you — who regiment your lives — tell you what to do — what to think or what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men — machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate — the unloved and the unnatural!”
Oil! by Upton Sinclair
Brown drops some hints in the narrative that Earth’s quest for oil may have been their downfall; the substance is mentioned twice in the book, both times ominously:
“I’ve been bitten before. Still dream of the beast – black, like a thick tendril of oil…”
“I roll first from the duct and extend a hand back to her when I hear a voice. It is accented, oily, from Earth.”
Dune by Frank Herbert
Page one of Rising shows how much it owes to this classic work:
“I smell my own stink inside my frysuit. The suit is some kind of nanoplastic and is hot as its name suggests.”
In Dune, the native inhabitants of the titular desert planet obsess over accounting for every possible drop of water:
“‘They all wear those great flowing robes. And they stink to heaven in any closed space. It’s from those suits they wear – call them ‘stillsuits’ – that reclaim the body’s own water.’ Paul swallowed, suddenly aware of the moisture in his mouth, remembering a dream of thirst. That people could want so for water they had to recycle their body moisture struck him with a feeling of desolation. ‘Water’s precious there,’ he said.”
Like Darrow’s people, the people of Dune are beholden to a harsh planet, until the time their savior can lead them in an uprising to reclaim their land. The miners in Rising seek helium-3; in Dune, the commodity is “spice,” a substance that is critical to interstellar navigation.
One of the Golds notes the power of the reds in a speech:
“The girl did not even know the video would be leaked. Yet it is her willingness to suffer hardship that gave her power. Martyrs, you see, are like bees. Their only power comes in death. How many of you would sacrifice yourself not to kill, but merely to hurt your enemy? Not one of you, I wager.”
The willingness of the Reds to make personal sacrifices make them akin to the Fremen of Dune:
“A flaming roar shook the basin. Rocks tumbled from the cliff walls all around. A geyser of red-orange shot skyward from the sand where the carrier and its companion ‘thopters had been–everything there caught in the flame. It was the Fremen who took off in that captured ‘thopter, Hawat thought. He deliberately sacrificed himself to get that carrier. Great Mother! What are these Fremen? ‘A reasonable exchange,’ said the Fremen beside Hawat. ‘There must’ve been three hundred men in that carrier.’”
The Golds have a class-specific martial art of sorts, being trained since youth to “duel,” to such a degree that the previously invincible Darrow is almost killed offhandedly by Cassius near the end of the book. Dune similarly spends a lot of time describing the mechanics of one-on-one combat, Paul Atreides finding himself in a fight to the death:
“…dangerous, she thought. Now he’s desperate and can do anything. He sees that this is not like a child of his own people, but a fighting machine born and trained to it from infancy. Now the fear I planted in him has come to bloom.”
In a Teen Reads interview, Brown says “A crossing of ancient Greek myth and futurism, which is so fantastically interesting to me. It draws together all those influences, such as Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ and tries something new by introducing a critique of a lot of what I see in current society.”
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Ugly Dan says to Darrow “The toughest ant is yet but an ant.” This echoes Moore’s Watchmen, in which Doctor Manhattan calmy states “The world’s smartest man poses no more threat to me than does its smartest termite.”
Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and Philip K. Dick
In Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character John Anderton desperately seeks an escape from the ever-present surveillance of the future. In grand cyberpunk tradition, he finds a grimy back-alley “doctor” who replaces his eyes and then vanishes into the night. This futuristic, torturous modification is present in Red Rising when Darrow meets “Mickey the Carver” and begins his transformation into a Gold. The modifications of the cyberpunk future are usually portrayed as ad-hoc, dirty, and dangerous, performed by mad geniuses on the fringes of the technological future, and Red Rising fits this mold.
Star Wars by George Lucas
“‘G-g-gotta take your shooters’ Three others move toward us, scorchers half up. Harmony opens her vest and shows them a bomb strapped to her stomach. She rolls a blinking detonator over her nimble red fingers.
‘Nah. We’re good.’”
The universe of Red Rising does not draw closely from Star Wars, it taking place soon, in a galaxy very, very near, but that doesn’t mean it can’t drop in a couple of sly references – the image of a red blinking “detonator” as means of parlaying an escape being an obvious cultural touchstone.
NPR.com’s review of Rising delves more fully into the Star Wars comparision: “…like George Lucas, Pierce Brown ought to be held up as one of literature’s great borrowers…”
Pygmalion and My Fair Lady by Gerorge Bernard Shaw
In the Red Rising universe, how you talk is important as how you look, and Darrow has to learn this. There is no other work of creative fiction that features this plot device as well as Shaw’s Pygmalion, later made into the the more famous My Fair Lady. The character of Dancer fills the role in Rising of teacher, trying to teach Darrow the specific high-class mannerisms of the Golds: dance; speech, manners; dress. How to eat and how to talk and how to move are among the lessons, in order that Darrow might pass off unnoticed. WIth Higgins and Eliza, the plot is more a satirical comedy, but Brown raises the stakes to adapt it into a Serious game with deadly consequences.
The review from USA Today notes the link from My Fair Lady to Rising, and that “Brown also wins originality points for avoiding a YA-ready love triangle with his star Darrow.”
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
After he is transformed into a “Gold,” Darrow goes on a journey to The Institute, in a sequence of events which is very similar in nature and content to Harry’s matriculation in Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Darrow goes on a shuttle ride, where he meets some unfamiliar people, some of which will become friends, and some enemies. They discuss rumors of what is about to come, sharing fears and expectations. This is like the journey Harry takes in the first Potter book, where he takes the Hogwarts train, and meets Ron, Hermione, and Draco Malfoy, who will feature heavily in the following books.
In Potter, the students are put into four different “houses” by the Sorting Hat, a magical object that senses the students’ personalities and desires. Pierce Brown takes this concept and expands it in Rising. He extends the number of houses to thirteen, and creates a large “board” where the students are scrutinized and chosen by the house leaders. The wands of Rowling’s universe are approximated by the “razor,” a weapon carried at the side of the Gold people. It is a deadly and versatile tool that can transform into a sword, or a whip, or in the case of Darrow, a scythe.
Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick
The seminal Kubrick movie showed us the black comedy of drill instructors represented by the foul-mouthed, funny, and terrifying R. Lee Ermey. Young men from all walks of life are equalized; stripped down to their skin, they are remade in a different image by a man who couldn’t seem to care less if they lived or died.
“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon; you will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes; you are the lowest form of life on Earth – you are not even human fucking beings…”
After the Institute’s sorting, Gold cadets are given their first trial, they are met by their Proctor, Fitchner, who delivers something very similar to the recruits:
“But let us make it crystal. Right now you are babies. Stupid little babies. Your parents handed you everything…tonight you finally did something yourselves. You beat a baby just like you. But that’s worth about as much as a Pinkwhore’s fart…”
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
This novel tells a story of children who are taken to a remote island and forced to participate in combat against each other, all live on TV. This idea is taken and expanded by Rising; everything the students do is carefully watched by the “proctors,” who gleefully spend their time directly observing the combatants, or perusing the video highlights.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
This 1954 novel by Pulitzer Prize winner William Golding serves as the prime influence behind the Rising books, and many others. A group of youngish British children are stranded with no adult supervision on a remote island, and are forced to survive and form a society One of the many fascinating insights that Lord of the Flies offers is its examination of the psychology of the children, and how their manners and breeding evaporate into feuding, and eventually violent tribalism. The Gold young people of Rising experience their own descent into anarchy, bloodshed, and chaos, with Ralph’s struggle to lead the young children in the face of a psychotic antagonist being echoed by Darrow’s fight to form order among a group of unhinged students.
The Entertainment Weekly review says that “to write it off as merely derivative would be lazy. Sure, Brown has culled familiar elements — dystopian rituals, personality-based stratification, rebellious unrest, and plenty of flashy tech — but he’s woven the worn threads into a wholly fresh revenge tale that will send your imagination into hyperdrive.”