Jasper Fforde has accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time. His first novel, The Eyre Affair, was published in 2001, and in the 9 years since, he has published an additional seven novels, with announced plans for 4 more. I liked The Eyre Affair when I read it three years ago1, and at the time I criticized it for being a bit short on plot and long on context. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that Fforde writes series more than he writes books, and that the world-building in Book #1 always pays dividends later on.
I should have been smarter, then, in my initial disappointment with Shades of Grey—not with the plot, which was fascinating, but with the ending, which was frustrating in the extreme; it was only after I finished and fumed a bit did I do some research and find out that Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron is only the first in a planned trilogy. This makes me feel better, though I am now emotionally-invested enough in the characters to be required to (wait for and) read the forthcoming sequels.
The world of Shades of Grey is, without a doubt, a dystopia, though no character ever seems to come to that conclusion. The parallels with 1984 are so obvious as to preclude the need for explanation, but for those that haven’t read it, the situation is this: after a disastrous “Something That Happened,” a human-like civilization either far in our future or more likely in an alternate history is divided into distinct social castes based upon what part of the visible spectrum they can see. The Greys, a menial servant class, is entirely colorblind. Reds can see varying degrees of red, Yellows can see yellow, and so on up the scale, with Purples being the most prestigious and Ultraviolets being superlative class which is rarely mentioned. In Fforde’s invented universe, genetics function similar to additive color, so that a Purple who find themselves too high on blue and low on red will want to marry and procreate with a strong Red in order to produce a solidly Purple offspring. Much energy, attention, and time is spent on this caste system, since its various implications form the basis for several plots and subplots. It reminds me most of India’s caste system, and with the Greys of Fforde’s version acting as the “untouchable” (Dalits) class; but there are also other groups, including the apocryphal persons (more on this later) as will as the “riffraff,” who are feral humans who live outside of populated areas.
Everything is based upon color. The towns are named after colors: East Carmine, Jade-Under-Lime, High Saffron; the people are named after colors: Eddie Russet’s father replaces East Carmine’s old doctor, Robin Ochre. The most prized job is with a pseudo-governmental entity known as Nation Color, which is responsible for producing fake color—the distinction between a natural green, which a Red like Eddie cannot see, and a fake green, various shades of which are used as a painkiller, is never quite made clear, and I don’t know if Fforde simply won’t flesh out the technological context of his world, or if he’s saving it for later books. Perhaps you were confused when I said that shades of green are used as painkillers; remember that everything is based upon color, and the relation of the eyeballs to the brain is very different to the people of the novel2; green shades are narcotic, a certain unnamed color will induce ovulation, and others have the potential to help or harm in varying measures.
On the political side, the story more closely resembles typical dystopias: after some sort of societal collapse five centuries before the book takes place, a historical figure named Munsell3 apparently creates a New World Order which lives by his specific, innumerable, and inviolable Rules, which are enforced by a rigid hierarchy which begins at Head Office, runs to individual towns and their prefects, and then down through the chromatic hierarchy. The rules specify everything from the typically moral (no sex before marriage) to the chromatic (complimentary colors marrying would carry approximately the same moral opprobrium as incest) to the logistical (everyone must eat at least one meal per day in the communal mess hall) to the hierarchical (the chromatic hierarchy must be obeyed at all times) to the jingoistic (Munsell’s motto is “Apart we are together”). Fforde’s dystopia, in other words, is less frightening and offensive that Orwell’s, but in many ways just as onerous, since it reaches so far and attempts to regulate and control so much; the Two-Minute Hate has given way to the Great Leap(s) Back, which are occasional decrees from Head Office that such-and-such a piece of technology has been outlawed. Since Ford Flatheads were outlawed, for instance, people may only drive Model T’s on the rare occasions that they drive anywhere. On the other hand, there are remnants of very advanced technology left from before the Something That Happened, including a semi-intelligent organic polymer roadway that is smart enough to clear any debris which lands on it. The technology is so mixed that it’s difficult to get a bead on where Fforde’s universe would lay in comparison to our own, and I spent perhaps more time than was necessary trying to understand it—ultimately, I think it’s an arbitrary collection of the bits that the author found interesting, and would elude any attempts to systematize it.
As with most tales of dystopias, the main character is a somewhat feckless hero who begins to distrust the system. In Eddie’s case, it’s spurred by his early meeting with a Grey named Jane, who has the prettiest nose in the village and threatens to break his jaw (the impudence of which is, technically, a very serious matter), and with whom Eddie falls in love immediately, despite his semi-betrothal to conceited daughter of a rich Red string magnate and her apparent loathing for both him and the ridiculous society of which he is a part. This is the juncture of the political satire which brings 1984 to mind and the social satire which reminds us of India’s jÄtis, and for the most part, Fforde does a good job with it. Some of it is kind of predictable, such the reader’s ironic knowledge that the foundation of this new society and the forces which sustain it must necessarily differ from the accepted knowledge about it (i.e. something is rotten in the state of Denmark). Occasionally, Fforde’s treatment of the color-caste goes to ridiculous lengths, and I feel as though I’m watching an episode of The Flintstones, but instead of working “rock” or “stone” into everything, it’s now “hue” or “chrom-“; the chromogentsia rather than the intelligentsia; a swatchman instead of a corpsman (a town doctor, basically). The point seems a little belabored in order for the reader to appreciate how deeply color is embedded into society, which I suppose we can’t blame Fforde for.
Small flaws aside, Fforde has created a fascinating universe here, which engaged me quickly and completely. The proof of the story’s quality will be in how he completes the series; Shades of Grey has a lot of potential, but so did The Matrix, and the Wachowskis managed to screw that one up by the end, so I’m not holding my breath.