Fforde, Jasper. Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron. New York: Viking Press, 2009.
Reviewed by T. Hatch
As the narrative begins our narrator and protagonist Eddie Russett is being digested by a carnivorous yateveo tree. Eddie is a Chromatocracy up-and-comer who, because of his 86.7 percent Red perception, is likely a future prefect. His potential up-spectrum social mobility is threatened, and the fact that he is being macerated inside a tree in the first place is because of his relationship with the subversive Jane Grey. She is an anarchist (only in the most positive sense of the word) who infatuates and leads young Russett through a harrowing experience beyond the established boundaries of the Collective. These actions set the stage for further collaboration in undermining the rigidly enforced hierarchy that is Chromatica.
Fforde who is the author of the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series has said that reading requires a greater amount of imagination than writing. Little surprise then that Shades of Grey, even more than his previous work, has Fforde - to create a Ffordean trope of our own - becoming the master enabler of reckless invention. Like his previous seven novels, Fforde continues to create a genre of his own which looks to the influence of Swift, Carroll, and Waugh and manifests itself as a satirical mystery wrapped in a solid science fiction shell. It has been suggested that Shades of Grey is thematically darker than previous works by Fforde; there is a grain of truth in this, if for no other reason than politics and corrupt hierarchies are inherently more sinister than Jack Sprat tracking down Humpty Dumpty's killer.
The world Fforde creates is remarkable both for the copious amount of absurd details that litter the narrative and his ability to manage the life-is-long-art-is-short problem of providing the reader with the necessary information in the beginning of this complex creation. This is the first of three books thus making the task even more daunting. Another wondrous aspect of Shades is the structural integrity of Fforde's created world of Chromatica. All the details “fit.”
The first thing about twenty-sixth century Chromatica is that it is a society with an iron-clad hierarchy. The Colortocracy assiduously follows the Rulebook based entirely on The Word of Munsell and the crackpot prophet's chef d'ouvre, The Munsell Book of Wisdom written four hundred years ago (i.e. circa 2100). Munsell was widely credited with bringing peace to the Collective. The number seventy-three was forbidden, there was no counting of sheep, spoons were not to be made, and there was absolutely no using acronyms. Additionally, Gross Impertinence was a criminal charge. Munsell may have his eccentricities but no one can argue with results.
Little is known of the Epiphany which occurred circa 2083 but The Something That Happened was the societal rupture that ended the chaos associated with what came to be known simply as The Previous. The prophet opined that: “Imaginative thought is to be discouraged. No good ever comes of it – don't.” His particular genius (not unlike Glen Beck's philosophical system) was that he made the world knowable to everyone by simply reducing the number of facts. The prefects who managed society took a dim view of “irresponsible levels of creative expressions.” Libraries had more librarians than books. Librarians fondly remembered what books used to sit on the now empty shelves, acting as oral historians reminiscing about the books there used to be, they were now consigned to checking out Racy Novels and the Collected Thoughts of Munsell. A succession of National Color engineered Great Leaps Backward had seen to this. The long-term secular trend in Chromatica was defacting, which made continuous sustainability both safe and possible.
Chromatican society is organized around the hue of it various members. Chromaticans are required to display prominently the color spot that identifies their hue for all to see. Their entire existence is defined by what color they are and how much of it they can perceive. At the bottom of the Colortocracy are the Greys. About thirty-five percent of the population, Greys are unable to distinguish any color at all. Theirs is a second-class citizenship. Jane (the anarchist in a good way) resists the dominant paradigm. Her chance meeting with Eddie Russett has serious implications for the history of Chromatica.
The most difficult and mysterious character in the book is the Apocryphal man. A four hundred and fifty two year-old historian who pops in from time to time and only occasionally makes himself visible to Eddie. Even then the only way to get a straight answer out of him is to bribe him with loganberry jam. The Apocryphal man says he exists because without him no one's life would have any meaning. It's difficult to say what all of this means. We will have to wait until 2014, when the second installment of Shades of Grey is scheduled to be published, to find out.
Jasper Fforde at Grinnell College Libraries
Thursday Day Next Lost in a Good Book: A Novel
Burling 3rd Floor PR6106.F67 T48 2003
At Drake Community Library
The Eyre Affair, 2002
Thursday Next in the Well of Lost Plots, 2004