Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shades of Grey

Jasper Fforde
Shades of Grey
Published 2009
ISBN: 0670019631

Reading Jasper Fforde is very hard to describe. For me, it’s kind of like watching a French art film but getting it, or reading Flatland again but enjoying it. His latest novel, Shades of Grey, is a bit more serious than his romps into the world of fiction with Thursday Next, as odd as that will sound to someone who has never read him. The plot of this book is largely building. Those familiar with fantasy trilogies will recognize the book as the one that establishes the world and the quest. I mention this mainly because many reviews have stated that the conclusion was underwhelming; I personally don’t think these reviewers read much fantasy. The conclusion of this book is not the end; it is the beginning of a new trilogy that holds a lot of promise.

The world in Shades of Grey is a Colortocracy. The “Something That Happened” in the far distant past (our current world) severely limited the ability of people to see color. For those who can see colors, they can usually only see a few shades of one. So, the hierarchy is first of all established by what color you can see. Purple is the most desired; if you are a Purple you are pretty much set for life. If you can’t see colors at all you are a Grey, and are fit only for manual labor. Within your color you are placed by how much of your color you can see. If you can see a lot, you can be made Prefect or work for National Color, and enjoy a position of authority. If you can’t see much, better make sure to earn a lot of merits so you’ll be able to marry someone with a higher percentage than you and keep your lineage out of the Grey.

Eddie, our main character, sees Red very well, but he isn’t old enough to have taken his color perception test yet, so he isn’t quite sure of his percentage. Eddie needs to learn humility for questioning one of the Rules of Munsell. Munsell was a prophet who created rules for everything, and his wisdom is what these people live and breathe. Quotes are speckled across the book, like rule number “ Juggling shall not be practiced after 4:00 p.m.” or number “ The cucumber and tomato are both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirement of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month the chicken is officially a vegetable.”

As silly as these rules sound, they are enforced rigorously. Change is fiercely discouraged, and, though Eddie did not technically break a rule, his trouble making has gotten him and his father sent to a backwater town on the edge of the boundary for him to conduct a chair census. His crime? Figuring out a more efficient way for people to stand in line.

This “queuing problem” has not only sent him out to the Fringes, it has endangered his half-promise (meaning he is promised, she can still change her mind) engagement to Constance Oxblood, who would be a great catch for a promising and ambitious young man like Eddie Russet. But then he meets a pretty young Grey named Jane, who flaunts her disobedience of the Rules and all those who enforce them. The things she shows him will change Eddie’s life forever.
This is just scraping the top off of this plot. Fforde’s details are always exquisitely rendered in every line of dialogue, and despite the excessively strange world that he creates he manages to keep exposition (the enemy of all speculative fiction) to a minimum. Randomly, some facts about the world he creates include:

• The only map that survived the “Epiphanic event” was a Risk board.
• Technological achievements have mostly all been purged due to the government imposing “Leap-backs,” thus people must make do with less and less technology all the time.
• Communication after curfew is only had by banging Morse code on the radiators.
• Curfew is at dark as the people in Eddie’s time have pupils the size of pinpricks and believe there is absolutely no light in the darkness and are terrified of it.
• National Color mines troves of items from before the “Something That Happened” period to produce artificial color that everyone can see.
• Spoons are extraordinarily valuable, as making new ones is against the Rules.

Despite the weirdness of the plot, the level of cleverness is never overpowered by the ridiculousness of everything. Maybe that’s Jasper Fforde’s biggest skill: pushing the boundaries of ridiculousness farther and farther, until you are just sure that eventually it’s gotta give and explode and there will be ridiculous all over you – and then you’ll say, “This is a very silly book,” and put it down. But that never happens. Instead, like Voltaire, he uses the absurd to push back at the world a bit, show the silliness inherent in our rules and policies, and the danger inherent in obedience to authority.

ETA: On Amazon I found a link to this PDF "Cheat Sheet" for the book. It gives a better summary of some of the people, places, and things in it than I have.