Shades of Grey is the new novel by British author Jasper Fforde. I loved Fforde’s debut novel The Eyre Affair, but the rest of the Thursday Next series and the entire Jack Spratt series were too light and silly for my taste. Fforde’s writing is at its best when there’s a darker edge to his satirical fantasies. Happily, he is back in top form with Shades of Grey, the story of a Dystopian society ruled by a “Colortocracy.”
In the bizarre world of Shades of Grey, everyone is born mostly color blind. Individual vision typically contains one predominant color perception, which is heavily influenced by heredity. So a “Red” family may have members who see various shades from pink to crimson.
Since their society is strictly divided into social castes based on color, every aspect of life – home, work, even marriage – is based on what color a person can see. Greens are the top class, Yellows are usually politicians or law enforcement, and Greys are the slave class. Parents arrange marriages in order to strengthen the “hue” of their family, and “complimentary colors” (such as Green and Red) are forbidden to marry.
“The chromatic scale” is the central focus of everything, but the rulers oppress the common people with various other strange rules and teachings. History has been all but erased , anyone or anything that isn’t easily explained is ignored as invisible (a.k.a “Apocryphal”), and those who receive too many demerits (for such offences as bad manners) are terminated (a.k.a. “Rebooted”).
The protagonist is Eddie Russett, a Red who is sent to a “Fringe” town as punishment for a rebellious act (he suggested a new method of queuing). Despite the occasional question and idea, Eddie is mostly satisfied with the status quo and plans to marry into a more prominent Red family. But Eddie’s devotion to the system is rocked by a series of revelatory events and discoveries, and his inexplicable attraction to a volatile Grey named Jane.
There are several other inventive details in Fforde’s colorful new world – man-eating plants, psychotropic color addiction, and cryptic references to the “Something That Happened” – that are sometimes annoyingly over-the-top, but mostly entertaining. That could be said of the entire novel. The humor tends to overshadow the intelligence of the writing, but it’s still a clever and solid narrative. Fforde is no Vonnegut, Huxley, Kafka, or Orwell, but he’s as close as we get these days and has certainly been inspired by them.
I have mixed feelings over Fforde’s plans to turn Shades of Grey into a new series. I enjoyed this novel immensely and the cliff-hanger ending certainly left enough unanswered questions for at least a sequel, but I can’t help but expect this series to unravel like the previous two. Still, this novel is one of my favorites of recent years.