23 October 2011

Books: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde (2010)

Taking a page from 1984 and other dystopian novels, Jasper Fforde creates a horrid English future, but without the usual tropes of the genre such as storm troopers, surveillance robots, or a super-computer. What time in the future this new series is set is not fully revealed, but Fforde does give hints, suggesting that (from my point of view) its somewhere in the late 24th or early 25th Century. History is relegated to a centuries-ago "Previous," which came to an abrupt end by "Something That Happened."

In Shades of Grey we are introduced to the citizens of Chromatacia who are layered by color, which are funneled and continually adjusted by underground pipes that also maintain the greener than green parks and brightly hued storefronts of a society whose leader, the axiom-prone Munsell, may or may not exist. Chromatacia has a sort of Boy Scout way of doing things insomuch as merits are given out for good behavior and keeping the status quo. Demerits are given for some of the smallest infractions, and they come with instructions on how humility is better. Humility keeps people from asking too many questions and thus keeps it populace busy doing pointless tasks. At the top are the arrogant Yellows and the bottom is the Greys, who are treated with a sort of respect (because “rules are rules,”) but are treated like cheap labor –which is a problem, as there seems to be a labor shortage going on. What we have in between is an assortment of color-coded middles with Last Names right out of any paint catalog. All these middles are in an endless quest for any sort of minor upward mobility that will enhance their color. And here, you are what you see, and perception is limited by an individual's access to gradations of his own or other colors, and social order depends upon the incuriosity of its citizens from birth until they die, appropriately, of the dread disease Mildew. But like any totalitarian society, there are leaks and there are traces of that long gone society all over the place. The traces that remain of that bygone world are available to a ghostly underclass that roams free because the populace is under orders to pretend they're invisible, or to those with enhanced perception. 

Entering stage left, is 20 year-old Eddie Russett and his father into the Outer Fringe town of East Carmine. Eddie has a middling color, but he’s also gifted with a powerful ability to see more Red than he should, but he’s been sort of “exiled” here after running afoul of Prefects of his home town, Jade-Under-Lime, who did not like his idea of improving queue lines. But things go a bit out of hand almost as so as he arrives, as he discovers Jane –a Grey with an attitude who threatens to break Eddie’s jaw- who seems to hold secrets about many things. Soon Eddie discovers the leaks within Chromatacia, East Carmine and the Head Office. And his curiosity about the death of a resident and his desire to be closer to Jane may end up getting him killed as he begins to understand that all is not well.

In Shades of Grey, we see a lot of bad things happen to good people (keep in mind Spock’s saying of the “needs of the many”), and we see a creative spin on a totalitarian society by the ever clever Jasper Fforde, who also created another brilliant universe with his Thursday Next series. The one drawback to Shades of Grey is that Fforde seems to enjoy this World Building so much so, at times, it costs in the narrative flow of the book. Like the first Thursday Next book, which seemed to take forever to get going due to this, Grey suffers the same fate. Still, if you stick with it, your rewarded with Fforde’s brilliant, literate humor and supporting characters right out of a Charles Dickens novel.

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