Love, betrayal, life, death, a retro-futuristic society trussed up by its own Rules like tortured turkeys, Jasper Fforde’s new novel seemingly has it all. Except the author has elected, in Shades of Grey, to divvy up the visible color spectrum and dole out drips of color to the members of the Collective as an indication of the hierarchy of castes. The colorfulness of the world Fforde describes is largely artificial.
People in the Collective, a gradually retrogressing society distant from the one we know, can generally only see one color out of the many that make up the natural world (and all the synthetic manufactured junk left behind by other societies). The ability to see a specific color passes along genetic lines, and marriages are arranged with little regard for the feelings of individuals, but rather an eye to improving a family’s color perception and associated social standing.
Our narrator is a 20-year-old Red named Eddie Russett and the woman who generally wants to harm him (as well as everyone else who follows the constrictive Rules to the letter) is Jane, a Grey who belongs to the lowest caste, the slaves of society. Though she can’t see color, Jane seems to be the only one around who is capable of seeing the larger picture and the disadvantages of adhering to the Collective’s Rules.
Purple at the top, Grey at the bottom; a Green is a mix of Yellow and Blue. Fforde’s hierarchy of color works with our own historical knowledge of the importance of color and associated rank. National Color controls artificial color supply to communities, and every village aspires to own a fully stocked color garden to impress residents and visitors.
Artificial color costs, and those who can afford it can show off to everyone, because no matter what color an individual can see in the natural spectrum, artificial color is visible to all. The supply of color is limited, as members must mine the remains of former civilizations to procure pigment, which is then recycled. It’s an arduous, sometimes dangerous, but all-important task.
When a person is 20-years-old, they must take a highly specialized test, the Ishihara, to determine exactly how much of which color they can perceive. Bloodlines help predict what the offspring will be capable of, but surprises do arise. And certain mixes are banned due to prejudices that are ingrained in society — the complementary mix of Green and Red would negate each other and produce undesirable offspring.
Much of the book’s humor stems from the inscrutable Rules that guide members of the Collective. “Vulgar mispronunciations of everyday words will not be tolerated.” No spoons are to be manufactured; as a population control mechanism each individual has a personalized spoon engraved with their own code, and the implement is transferred only after death. Thus a very ordinary and formerly abundant item takes on reverential importance.
A merit-based system of behavior assessment is a crucial indicator of an individual’s value to society, and anyone who demonstrates the great evil of curiosity about why society functions as it does tends to lose merits rapidly. Those with few or negative merits are candidates for “Reboot”, where one is sent away on the train, never to return, but to apparently be reprogrammed. Jane is one such candidate, as her refusal to play by the Rules and her blatant disrespect for the caste system frequently earns negative attention.
Eddie and his father find themselves sent to the remote village of East Carmine, where his father’s services as the equivalent of a doctor are temporarily required. Healing hues are shown to patients according to their symptoms, as the brain perceives the artificial color and translates it as a treatment.
East Carmine is a far cry from the Russett’s home of Jade-upon-Lime and Eddie can’t wait to return home to his wealthier, more colorful community and Constance Oxblood, who may or may not be his fiancée, as her family status allows her to pick and choose between suitors. Constance represents an upcolor move for Eddie and that is all a young man can really aspire to in this world of complex color relationships. Jane is a Grey wrench in the plan, however.
Eddie has never met anyone like Jane before, someone who seems to know something larger about the system, someone who has nothing to lose. Through Fforde’s story, Eddie is continually questioning his role in the system, though he tries to keep it quiet, and tries to play his cards right so he can marry Constance and take over her family’s string manufacturing business. A sensible young man can aspire to nothing more. Jane’s candor and outright defiance aren’t helping, however. Eddie finds himself drawn into Jane’s power plays and strange knowledge of the highest levels of society and the lengths they’re willing to go to to keep the Collective functioning as it has for five hundred years.
Mixing the outlandish remains of former civilizations with frighteningly plausible behavior on the part of members faced with the strict system of Rules in the Collective, Fforde has created a brave new world with a peculiar logic of its own. A cinematic storyteller, Fforde fills just a few days of Eddie’s experience in East Carmine with details that allow the reader to completely envision this odd society.
I didn’t want to finish the book because the story was so well-told and crazy; I was thrilled when I turned the last page and there was the only mention I have seen anywhere so far of volumes two and three in the Shades of Grey series. We have more colorful and strange adventures to look forward to.