The Death of Persephone: Reviewing “Red Rising” by Pierce Brown

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Review by Curtis Cole

Empire: it is a dirty word and for good reason. It stands for violence, oppression, exploitation and, perhaps most of all, lies. This is something the protagonist of Pierce Brown’s science-fiction debut knows all too well. Coming from the subterranean passages of Mars, male lead Darrow and his fellow miners, “Reds”, toil all day long in the dark, expecting their labor to propel humanity forward into the future by enabling the terraforming of Mars thanks to the precious Helium-3 gas they struggle to extract. But, as Darrow discovers, not all is as the ruling class claim: Mars was made habitable hundreds of years ago.

Darrow and all of Red kind are slaves. They are the lowest of cogs in a vast classist regime dedicated to the accumulation of wealth, of capital. The surface of Mars is littered with thousands of cities, all of which loudly proclaim the inebriation bestowed upon society through the machinations of capitalism; the romanticization of war, the subjugation of women as sex slaves, the unfettered consumption of alcohol enslaving the working class, while those who remain sober become bought with the super-profits reaped from those Reds who remain ignorant of the truth, all of which is heaped upon the single pivotal cornerstone of bourgeois society—that of obedience to those “higher” than yourself and of the overriding importance of class and caste in maintaining the power structure of the elite.

Darrow, recruited by a guerrilla organization called “The Sons of Ares”, quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a vast power-play: one ultimately between domination and emancipation. The Sons of Ares ask him to undertake a near-impossible mission: infiltrate the testing grounds of the imperial elite, the so-called “Golds”, best them at their own games and secure a place in their decadent society so as to one day use his power to support a Red uprising.

Brown’s text here is radical in content. It is the telling of a coming of age story through the lens of vicious class warfare; combining the best parts of a host of influences, from Ender’s Game, the A Song of Fire and Ice series, Divergence, The Hunger Games, and more, Brown moves beyond his literary contemporaries by offering a leftist take on alienation and class society. His fusion of Greek myth, and history (both military and socio-economic), and the accompanying layers of homoerotic subtext, create multifaceted layers to be explored, while his representation of a non-commodity based barter system (the underground society of the Reds, of whom over a billion are counted) act as a stand-in for a primitive communism in decline, one impacted with vices of bourgeois culture and ultimately on the precipice of revolutionary change. Darrow’s (anti-)hero’s journey into the belly of the beast isn’t merely one content to parrot dusty platitudes of peaceful reform: the central issue, after all, is one of class consciousness and of overcoming internal divisions inflicted upon one’s class in an effort to enforce weakness. Violence, in other words, and how it is used to liberate or oppress, is the theme which runs throughout. In this sense Darrow’s story, his journey into adulthood being refracted through the prism of social struggle, is a pure coming of age story, one which hits the heart of what such stories are about.

Red Rising is riddled with tension, anger, and frustration. Darrow’s campaign is not merely one of directionless angst but of focused discipline, one which can easily be extrapolated from contemporary society. All of which is to say that Brown is likely heavily preoccupied with socially pressing issues and perhaps has written this book at least as a partial lashing out against society’s ills. The pages overflow with emotion. Each chapter brings a new development and, more often than not, heralds an approaching twist (of which the plot has several which pull no punches). Characters are not merely alive or believable but filled with vibrancy and attitude; while at times platitudes appear too prevalent, Brown has a style of writing which repurposes clichés and archetypes into characters which you have not seen before or have, in the very least, not seen this way. The author’s skill with a pen shines through with each and every page: the tone, atmosphere, the world-building, the cast, the social critique… all is cast in stunning realism, if not one of a dark, gory nature.

For what it is—a piercingly violent assault on contemporary morality and values—Red Rising is something any fan of dark sci-fi/fantasy will want to read. While it will not hold up to the classics of the sci-fi genre, in terms of the young adult audience which is its target consumer, Brown’s story presents cogent and mature themes; while there are of course weaknesses in the thread, such as Darrow’s conflicted personage and many of the building blocks being recycled from other sources, in the end, Red Rising depicts a dystopia which is only just: one which is a distorted reflection of modernity.

Red Rising

Pierce Brown

382 pages. Published by Del Ray. $8.86 (Paperback), $16.77 (Hardcover), $6.99 (Kindle), $29.95 (Audible)[1]. 2014.

[1] Prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

Finding Wildness: Author Dave Gessner Visits UMF for Visiting Writer’s Series

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David Gessner reads from “All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West.”

After a year and a half of planning, Dave Gessner, author of nine successful books, visited UMF to read from his latest non-fiction “All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West.” UMF Student Nathaniel Duggan gave Gessner an elaborate introduction, mentioning his other books, Return of the Osprey, Sick of Nature, My Green Manifesto, and The Tarball Chronicles, which won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012. He has published essays in many magazines, including Outside magazine and the New York Times Magazine, and has won the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Nonrequired Reading.

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UMF English Student Nathaniel Duggan introduces Gessner.

Gessner has taught Environmental Writing at Harvard and currently teaches at University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Also a fan of blogging, Gessner and Bill Roorbach write for Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour; a fun website full of reviews and non-fiction accounts.

Technology is destroying us. Nature can restore us.

That’s how Gessner starts off his forum. A topic of conversation that many college students can relate to, even me, as I type these words on my laptop computer and check my phone. Gessner shares his experience of growing up in Worchester, Massachusetts, a place where nature is hard to appreciate. Only later in his life when he was accepted to University of Colorado in Boulder and traveled west towards the Rocky Mountains is when nature started to dominate in his writing, reading, and overall outlook on life.

What is it about nature that inspired us humans so much? Gessner tells us: WILDNESS. Our primal instincts are alive in places where organic beauty is a reality. But then he turns around to argue that our most wildest moments can happen right at home – where domestic and family life is most crucial. He gives crushing examples of life and death experiences where he holds his father’s hand while he exhales his last breath or when he watched his wife through giving birth to his daughter.

There is nothing tame about a C-Section. Life and death experiences take us to our primal selves. These are the wildest places I have ever known.

He moved on to another topic dear to his heart: Ultimate Frisbee. Clearly UMF students can relate. According to Gessner, Ultimate Frisbee is one of the wildest actions that humans can be involved in. My favorite quote being:

Playing Frisbee is like being a writer: you’re throwing yourself into a passion that most people find ridiculous.

Reading from one of his books, Sick of Nature, he retold the moment where his father was hit straight in the temple with a frisbee from one of his teammates. A moment of unleashed passion, directed right at his father’s head. Humorous and profound somehow – it works.

IMG_6732After moving to Colorado, Gessner was blown away by the authors and literature of the area, most importantly Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Abbey and Stegner were both environmentalist writers with completely different styles both in writing and lifestyle. Although not familiar with them myself, they had an incredibly impact on Gessner as he toured the American West and seeked out the places that were the most important to these authors. All the Wild that Remains is the account of this trip. My favorite example that Gessner gave was from Edward Abbey who was describing the moment he first witnessed the Rocky Mountains, being like a young boy’s first time witnessing the naked body of a woman – magical beauty.

All in all, it was an incredible performance for UMF. Gessner is a man passionate about his work, environmental and political literary work, and the environment around us both in nature and in the home. For more information on his books, click here for his website.

Dan Gunn’s “Noisy, Wild, and Extremely Troublesome: Children in Jane Austen’s Novels” Forum at Emery

In the English Department’s recent forum on Jane Austen’s perception of young children in her novels, Professor Dan Gunn presented the research he had been compiling about Austen’s attitude throughout her works of literature. Originally presented in Le Mans, France last March, Gunn gave UMF an extraordinary lesson on Austen’s background and an analysis on her minor characters: children.

Where was there room for children in Austen’s time period? Certainly not in literature. According to Gunn’s research, many times the children in Austen’s novels were used for comedy or plot devices. Her depiction of them were generally awful, tiny, selfish human beings. These examples are found throughout Mansfield Park, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice where children are described as “full of monkey tricks” and “thumping and hallooing” and “pushing the maiden about.” Their constant noise and disorder prevented ordinary social intercourse from happening.

So why did Austen depict children in such a negative light? Gunn explained that Austen had no children of her own, yet adored her nieces and nephews. Austen thought children were incredibly selfish and if not taught properly, turned into problematic adult characters–present in her novels. These types of characters are examples such as Kitty and Lydia in Pride and Prejudice and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.  With this, Gunn concluded that Austen actually had a great deal of affection for children but also a frustration with parents who did not raise their children correctly as she might have.

Any questions or comments can be directed to Professor Dan Gunn at dpgunn@maine.edu