Coloring Outside the Lines
Shades of Grey
Science fiction, more than any other genre, relies upon the importance of questions. How are these people like us? How are they different? What are the rules of this other society? If we came first, what happened in the interim? What’s the line from us to them?
British author Jasper Fforde’s newest book, Shades of Grey, is aware of the conventions of sci fi / fantasy and uses them to pull us through a starkly different world. In it, people are stratified into color groups, not based on what they look like, but what colors they can see. Yellows, Purples, Reds, Greens and Blues each have their role in the caste system, with Greys as the worker untouchables. The society is structured by unyielding Rules concerning behavior and purpose. Marriage is forbidden between complementary colors, hierarchies are rigid and no new spoons can ever be made, as the society’s founder did not include spoons on a list of acceptable material items.
Fforde counts on our finding the world in Shades of Grey strange, inviting us to figure it out.
The main character, Edward Russet, a Red, is sent from his city home to the Outer Fringes as punishment for a minor infringement involving a new way to queue. Accompanied by his father, Edward sets out for the literal end of their world, a place a bit woolier than he’s ever seen before. The assignment (conducting a chair census) is to only last a month, allowing Edward to return back to his almost-fiancée—whom he does not love but who is a lower shade of Red with money and is, therefore, a good match. But the Outer Fringes’ looser understanding of the Rules opens gaps through which Edward begins to see other truths, holes which are expanded by a lovely, back-talking Grey named Jane.
Marriage is forbidden between complementary colors, hierarchies are rigid and no new spoons can ever be made, as the society’s founder did not include spoons on a list of acceptable material items.
The Colortocracy in Shades of Grey controls all aspects of its citizens’ lives, and it has done so for as long as anyone knows. But there is vast evidence of a previous civilization called the Previous, and while their existence is a given, what happened to them is not. Though this mystery isn’t answered, the presence of the question is vital. The reader’s attempts to understand this world mirror Edward’s attempts to understand what else there is besides what he’s grown up with. As in the best sci-fi/fantasy works, the audience’s knowledge is a key component of the puzzle we’re asked to work out.
In structure, Shades of Grey moves like most other books in this genre, but in tone, it has more in common with comic novels such as Catch-22. Like Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, the ridiculousness of such Rules as “Team sports are mandatory in order to build character. Character is there to give purpose to team sports” is played straight. The Rules may make little sense to an outsider, but for those in the Colortocracy, they’re the bedrock of their civilization. The absoluteness of the strictures provides support and purpose, and most importantly, quells curiosity. Mostly.
Fforde counts on our finding the world in Shades of Grey strange, inviting us to figure it out. Luckily, this is a wholly compelling construction that, though it deals with weighty issues, never takes itself too seriously. Shades of Grey is fun and thoughtful, a combination as rare as a Green-Red marriage. Read it; you’ll understand.
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