Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Now before anyone gets excited, no: this book has nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m also going to apologize for what may be a somewhat confusing review; the book has the same lightning jumping from detail to detail of Fforde’s Thursday Next series, but is much denser. Other science fiction writers would do well to take a look at the amount of world-building included here!

The basic plot device is a post-catastrophe dystopia, in which people can see only one naturally occurring color1, and society is stratified according to the color one can see through the visible light spectrum, from purple and ultraviolet at the top to Red at the bottom, with the completely color-blind, or “Greys”, in a sub-class. Some five centuries before the events in Shades of Grey, an event occurred to which the society refers simply as “Something that Happened”, and the people who lived at the time are called the “Previous”. The government controls information with “deFacting” and technology with “LeapBacking”; curiously spoons are in short supply to the point that those lucky enough to have this utensil get only one for their lifetime, and that one is marked with their barcode.

Shadows of Orwell, as the government of Shades of Grey has enacted rules governing even so fine a detail as how men’s ties are knotted and the line of women’s skirts. Transportation is by steam locomotive drawn trains. Houses are timbered and plastered. Lighting is by mirrors reflecting down into the house. Shades (forgive the pun!) of Brave New World, as there’s more than a few hints that people in the world of Shades of Grey are not quite as we, the readers, are. Just a touch of Flatland, with the genetic heritability of color vision and the blending of two visual capabilities to produce a range of colors and positioning along the saturation spectrum. In addition to the limitation on what colors are visible, we find out partway through the book that the residents of this future England have limited night vision; they cannot see the stars at night and the moon is barely visible. Given Fforde’s convolutedly whimsical writing style, his future comes across as simply amusing, at least until you stop to think about it.

Eddie Russett has been sent from Jade-under-Lime, in the well-mannered and -ordered center of the new society, out to East Carmine in the fringes, for a variety of reasons, not least because he lacks humility. The Powers that Be have decided he must do a Chair Census in the area, as the residents may be falling below the requisite 1.8 chairs per resident. His father is serving as holiday substitute for the town’s Swatchman, the society’s equivalent to a doctor using colors rather than drugs for treatment; his predecessor, Ochre, officially died of the Mildew (pretty much exactly what it sounds like), but scuttlebutt has it that he was fatally selfmisdiagnosed.

There are the usual problems ensuing from settling into a new house in any new environment, getting to know your neighbors and the local real power stratification. Additionally, there is an Apocryphal living in their house. The Rules, though extensive and all-controlling, do not cover everything; the only solution to things not covered in the Rules is pretend the thing not covered isn’t there…meaning the Apocryphal has the protection of false invisibility to do what he pleases. Eddie, though hoping he’ll get a good score on his Ishihara test, in this world a method of testing precisely where the young person falls on the color vision spectrum and thus their place in society, and return to his beloved Connie Oxblood, heiress to a string factory, finds himself sucked ever deeper into the world of his servant, Jane Grey.

I’ll stop there before I confuse the people who aren’t going to read this, and before I inadvertently include spoilers for the people who will.

Unlike The Eyre Affair, this is clearly intended to have sequels; the book begins with Our Protagonist in a thoroughly untenable position, but ends with his safe return to East Carmine—while it’s possible Fforde’s enough of a money maker that his publisher’s willing to skip the editing process entirely, I’d hope that he was too conscientious a writer to commit such a flub…or it’s a hook for sequels, in other words. Unlike The Eyre Affair, sequels have been slow to follow; there’s a prequel slated (sorry! but I had to include the pun) for 2015, but two years in the life of a writer is a long time. In fairness to Fforde, however, I as a reader and a fan would much rather he took his time over novels than forced an inspiration that does not exist. That’s the surest way to lose me—I can think of several authors who should have stopped several novels earlier in their series….Fforde included.

The Guardian
Los Angeles Times

1artificial dyes are visible to those not of your own color-class

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