Monday, July 02, 2012

Monday Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

I knew there was a reason for picking up an old copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four around Christmas time. And it was this: to make sense of Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

Shades of Grey is the story of an ordinary young man, Eddie Russet, a largely unremarkable drone of the Colourtocracy, whose lot in life at the opening of the book is to undertake a chair census in the Outer Fringes.

And Eddie's adventures, for it is possible to have adventures in chair-counting, and his will they/won't they romance with the cute but feisty Jane Grey, lead us on a voyage of discovery about the world of Chromatacia, and the Rules by which its residents live.

Existing several centuries after the apocalyptic 'Something That Happened', Chromatacia is ruled by a hierarchy based on perception of colour, the monochromatic Greys being the working classes; Eddie, a Red, being fairly lowly; and the Purples being at the top of the pecking order. The technology is a strange mix of what had gone before: Model A Fords driving on self-healing organoplastoid roads, for instance; and life is lived under the ever watchful eye of Head Office - a name which, for certain sections of society, will instil rather more fear than that of Big Brother.

All of which is to say that this is a very Orwellian dystopia, but one with a dash of Ffordian madness. Shades of Grey is not as laugh out loud funny as some of Fforde's Thursday Next books, but it's a fun read if you like that kind of absurd humour, and definitely an original look at the dystopian genre, once you get your head around the premise of the Colourtocracy.

It could be said that Shades is a little light on plot; however, as the first book in a trilogy it does a good job of introducing the reader to a well-rounded world with plenty of hinted-at mystery, and sets the players up for the rest of the series. The supporting characters, too, seem to have taken a back seat to world-building, although I did find myself caring what happened to Eddie and Jane. But all that aside, the world itself is so much fun that who cares if the characters are only there to explore it and the plot doesn't kick in until book two.

From a Christian perspective, I have to mention the Word of Munsell, from which Chromatacia has derived its all-encompassing (but often nonsensical) Rulebook. The Rules start with a Golden Rule of sorts:
Everyone is expected to act with due regard for the well-being of others.
Then there are more potentially useful rules for the wellbeing of the state and its residents:
Marriage is an honourable estate, and should not be used simply as an excuse for legal intercourse.
A unanimous verdict by all the primes will countermand the Head Prefect.
But then the rules start to wander into the 'serving no useful purpose' territory:
Ovaltine may not be drunk at any time except before bed.
And of course, some are deliberately silly:
The cucumber and the tomato are both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirements of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month a chicken is officially a vegetable.
But the story makes the point that some of the rules are mind-bogglingly stupid. The number that lay between 72 and 74 was banned for reasons lost in history, as was counting sheep and making spoons. It also makes note that some rules were followed mindlessly for centuries, despite being obviously flawed:
Children under ten are to be given a glass of milk and a smack at 11 a.m.
Conversely, of course, such variations have also been abused by those seeking to take advantage of any tenuous loophole they could find; both approaches point out the potential for flaws in interpreting any ancient text, whether by mindless legalism or liberal loopholery.

Hopefully as the series progresses we will find out more about Munsell and his wisdom,but either way, I suspect this is going to be a series that gets better as it continues.


Oh, and let me just reassure my reader that there is absolutely no bandwagon-jumping intended here. Jasper Fforde does not specify how many shades of grey the title refers to. There may be fifty shades of grey, or there may only be three. It's probably not important. What's important is that this book will be a far better way to spend a few hours than certain other books you may have seen reviewed elsewhere on the interwebs.

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