Jasper Fforde is a well-known satirist whose THURSDAY NEXT series (first book: THE EYRE AFFAIR) features parallel worlds, multiple identities, and cross-cultural icons run amuck; what he wasn’t known for, prior to his novel SHADES OF GREY, was pointed satire of the scarier, Orwellian 1984 variety — but he should be now, as the society Fforde postulates in SHADES OF GREY is definitely one of the more dystopian ones I’ve ever read, despite its mundanity.
See, in SHADES OF GRAY, we have something called a Colortocracy. The elites of the Colortocracy rule society through, of all things, what color (or colors) a person is most able to see. Purples (a mix of Red and Blue perception) are highest on the totem pole, while Greys are at the bottom; our hero, Eddie Russet, comes from a Red family and believes his perception of that color will be strong enough to move upward, at least within the Red community.
But his plans for a somewhat benign social climb (marrying into the Oxblood family, who have more red than the Russets) get skewered when his father, who is a type of physician and heals by means of colors, gets sent to the remote village of East Carmine. There, he meets Jane Grey, an intriguing young woman who keeps swearing at him and won’t give him the time of day; he also meets an Apocryphal Man — a historian — who tells him things the rest of the world doesn’t want to hear.
You see, the Colortocracy, like all castes, believes mostly in perpetuating itself. This can be hard to do, as genetically, you’re as likely to be a Blue as a Red unless genetic engineering of some sort takes place, and this is difficult to do in a world where many facts have been deliberately forgotten (Fforde calls this “deFacting”). Because of things like “the Great Leap(s) Backward” and the periodic “deFacting” that goes on, those who actually do know what’s going on tend to get discredited, then lost. And because Eddie has an inquiring mind, this means he’s the most likely one to get scheduled to take the next “Night Train” to High Saffron for what is euphemistically called “ReBoot,” but is actually a way for the highest Colortocrats to commit genocide without getting their own hands dirty.
We find out these ominous facts about Chromatacia all because Eddie falls in love with Jane. Eddie starts out SHADES OF GREY tremendously naïve, but Jane knows the score from the beginning as the Greys are the ones who do just about all the “useful work” in this society as they’re the lowest on the Colortocracy totem pole. The Colortocrats figure it doesn’t matter what the Greys know, because no one of a “higher color” is likely to listen; that Eddie does listen to Jane is something the Colortocrats definitely wouldn’t like, if they weren’t so tuned out and clueless.
Now, as to why the Greys, who know so many useful things, haven’t revolted against the Colortocracy before now? They work an average of 68 hours per week; this means they’re too tired to foment rebellion. (Just because the Colortocracy is often stupid doesn’t mean they always are.)
This is why the Greys mostly seem to pin their yearnings to breathe free (or at least work less often) on the few Greys who test into a higher color on the day of their 20th birthday, when every prospective citizen takes the Ishihara. Depending on how the Ishihara goes, a citizen of Chromatacia may be able to marry the woman of his dreams — or not. Because if your intended ends up testing to be a complimentary color, it doesn’t matter how well you two get on: you will not be allowed to marry.
SHADES OF GREY is a devastating send-up of contemporary society which features some laughs and a great deal of satire and intrigue. Most reviewers have commented on the fluffier overall style and haven’t really seen the darker underpinnings of this novel, which, quite frankly, I don’t understand; to me, the parallels to Orwell’s 1984 are obvious — there’s the deFacting, the “Great Leap(s) Backward,” that the libraries in SHADES OF GREY contain almost no books excepting erotic romances (as they’ve been deemed “safe” by the Powers that Be), and that the Apocryphal Man, the world’s foremost historian, isn’t even allowed to be listened to directly — his comments must be filtered through someone else before ultimately being dismissed.
Yes, there are laughs here. Yes, the writing carries you along, as you’d expect of any Fforde novel. And yes, I couldn’t help but root for Eddie, who learns terrible things on his own, personal quest for enlightenment in an age where enlightenment, per se, is no longer viewed as necessary.
On the whole, I’d recommend the extremely disquieting, often-scary SHADES OF GREY, but be warned: the strongest, sneakiest and scariest satires are often the quiet ones, and that’s definitely the case here.
— reviewed by Barb