By Angelica Chong, Highlighter staff columnist
This is the third installment of Salt & Pepper, a new fortnightly column where I blab about two pieces of media that I feel go together well—like PB & J, Bert & Ernie, and salt & pepper. There is no method to the madness, just what my gut tells me. Today I will be writing about the “Red Rising” trilogy, written by Pierce Brown, 2014-2016, and “Snowpiercer,” directed by Bong Joon-ho, 2013.
It seems that revolutionary struggles in post-apocalyptic landscapes and dystopian societies are the flavor of the day. Even though the concept has existed since the 18th century, it has become especially resonant today (with good reason, if the NSA’s panoptical aspirations and our increasingly hellish politicians are anything to go by). The “Red Rising” trilogy and “Snowpiercer” are cut from the same thematic cloth: in their most basic forms, both feature a single protagonist from the lower classes who leads a revolution to dismantle the oppressive hierarchy of the society they live in. Nothing we haven’t already seen before—but the devil’s in the details, and for both these works, so is the allure.
The “Red Rising” trilogy, which contains three books—”Red Rising,” “Golden Son,” and “Morning Star”—tells the story of Darrow, a lowborn Red miner on Mars in a multi-planetary society that has been divided into Colors, where Reds are at the bottom of the heap and the physically superior Golds rule society with an iron fist. When Darrow’s wife Eo is killed for singing a forbidden revolutionary song, he vows to get revenge on the Golds who have murdered her and subjugated his entire community to servitude for centuries. To do this, he infiltrates Gold society by becoming one of them. While the first book focuses on his education in the elite Gold Institute and the relationships he forms there, the sequels raise the stakes rapidly when Darrow reaches the top echelons of Gold command and subsequently tries to destroy the system from within.
Meanwhile, “Snowpiercer” takes place on a train in perpetual motion around the world which holds the last remnants of humanity after an attempt at reversing global warming ends up ushering in an ice age instead. The train is divided into sections, where those in the tail end live in squalor while those up front, closest to the engine, luxuriate in excess. The story follows Curtis, a tail-ender who fights his way forward to the Engine with his motley group of allies.
Neither story is subtle. The “Red Rising” trilogy is operatic—like “Ender’s Game” and “Star Wars” mashed together—with space battles that within two pages eradicate thousands of soldiers and, more often than not, a few supporting characters. Even its main characters are dramatized and larger-than-life. Author Pierce Brown is keenly aware that Darrow is a messianic protagonist, who literally remakes himself and is rebirthed as a Gold, and thus often tries to humanize him—but the Darrow that the story loves best is the one that plans military strategy and gives rallying battle cries. At their best, the quieter moments in the trilogy, where Darrow and his beleaguered allies are allowed to reflect and be human, are poignant and a reminder of the weight of an individual. At their worst, they are places where the reader can catch their breath before jumping headfirst into the next enthralling fight sequence.
On the other hand, “Snowpiercer” is able to balance its story less clumsily. It is equally pointed and at times perhaps too on-the-nose about its allegorical aspirations—the threat of global warming and a cruel, capitalist society literally built on the backs of the oppressed—but director Bong Joon-ho includes some truly affecting iconography, like the repetition of “you are a shoe” to the tail-enders by Wilfred’s right-hand woman Mason, that lends a somberness to what could have otherwise been a ludicrous story.
Ironically, both these works approach the revolutionary struggle in almost completely different ways. “Red Rising” has Darrow, who start off filled with hatred for everything Gold, but ends up finding humanity in every aspect of the Society. He learns that people, not Golds or Reds, are more complex than their biology. They can and do work together to make the Society a better place. Conversely, Curtis’ journey seems to start off organically, but the truth is anything but: his revolution had been manufactured all along by Wilfred, with the help of his old mentor Gilliam (who used to be and perhaps still is Wilfred’s closest friend), and now Wilfred wants Curtis to replace him as the Engine’s caretaker. The cycle doesn’t end; it just changes faces. Curtis cannot do what Darrow does; to stop the Engine’s tyranny he must stop the train. And in the end, the film comes back full circle: after the train is blown up, two child survivors of the crash are seen in a background of fresh white snow, gazing into the distance at a polar bear. Nature has endured and survived man’s machinations; now man, free from his shackles, goes back to the wilderness.
Just as both trilogy and film are products of our time, where social and civil rights are being debated with increasing fervor, they also ask important questions regarding the paths we take now, be it civil disobedience, courtroom negotiations, or dissent on the streets. It would be unwise to take organizational or even ideological advice from Darrow and Curtis, but what is compelling and perhaps even inspirational for us is the passion behind the words they speak, and their righteous belief in a better world for the future.