Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde – Book Review
I have a confession to make. I haven’t gotten around to reading any of Fforde’s previous work. I hear it’s quiet good. Quite weird, but quite good. But having read Fforde’s first novel in a new series makes me want to hunt down all his previous works.
Shades of Grey is set in the civilization of Chromatica. Social status is determined by the one colour you can perceive and how well you see it. At the top are the Purples and at the bottom are the achromatic Grey’s, Chromatica’s workforce.
On top of that is Munsell’s rules. A set of complicated and sometimes contradictory laws that literally govern all aspects of their citizens’ life. Failure to comply with them results in demerit points. Acquire too many demerits and you’re sent off to Reboot and reeducation with your trusty spoon.
Spoons you say? Why yes, because in Chromatica there’s a list of allowed manufactured goods and spoons aren’t on them, causing people to hold on to their spoons for dear life. In fact there’s a lucrative trade in prying spoons out of people’s cold dead hands.
Plus every ten years or so they have the ‘Great leap Backwards’ where certain technology becomes banned and the denizens of Chromatica are forced to destroy any equipment that hasn’t been given official exemption. So now people have to get around on Penny farthings and T-Model fords.
All of this was developed by the great man Munsell several hundred years before the story’s set. That is to say a few centuries from now. Because “Something Happened” as the folks of Chromatica would say. Something that resulted in people only being able to see only one shade of colour. Something that resulted in abandoned “flak towers” and armored tracked vehicles around every village. Something that left every creature with a barcode growing out of them. Even people.
But it’s not all dull in Chromatica as the council manufactures and ships artifical colours to all the town’s botanical gardens. Colour they make by digging up the Previous’ rubbish dumps.
It’s as if P. G. Wodehouse had read a John Wyndham novel and decided to give this post apocalyptic thing a crack. The protagonist Eddie Russett is menaced by carnivorous trees, man eating swans, ball lightning, Mildew and unwanted marriage proposals.
The story starts with Eddie being sent to do a chair census in the town of East Carmine after a prank on a head prefect’s son. It’s a dullard town on the fringe’s of Chromatica. Full of misfits and tyrants who take great delight in reminding him that he’s stuck there, and/or making his life hell. Only they’re wrong because he’s got to get back home to marry the heir to the local string factory. Plus they don’t really appreciate his work on advanced queuing theory.
Fortunately his father chose to accompany him to East Carmine as a locum Swatchman (A Swatchman is a kind of doctor that heals with small coloured swatches). The previous Swatchman seems to have died under mysterious circumstances.
And along the way Eddie bumps into Jane, a violent Grey who seems destined for Reboot. Jane also appears to be involved in some sort of shady dealings.
Despite this and the prospect of fortuitous marriage into a string making dynasty, Eddie become smitten with her. She in turn promises only death or enlightenment. In the end she winds up giving both to Eddie, as he discovers the horrific secret his society is based on.
In the end its a light, breezy comedy that raises some interesting questions about how social norms can be used to control us. Its a comedy of manners hiding as a science fiction novel. Or is it a science fiction novel hiding as a comedy of manners. The characters are all delightfully stupid or gloriously nasty.
The setting is like looking at pieces of a jigsaw. By themselves each element of Shades of Grey seem bizarre for bizarre’s sake. But as you continue reading they start locking into place with one another. I can’t see the big picture yet. But I’m sure that by the third book in this series we’ll know the mystery of the spoons.
So is Shades of Grey a colourful literary feast? Or a drab art wank? Tell us what you think.
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