It’s the details that make fictional worlds so interesting. Plot and character are important, of course – they’re what get you hooked and keep you reading. But it’s the details, especially the ordinary, off-hand details, that stick in your mind. You find out a lot about the society by what they see as normal and what they see as unusual.
Shades of Grey is the newest book by Jasper Fforde. I got my copy at a reading he did this week in Nottingham. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world that operates on a caste system based around visual colour acuity. No one in this world can see the entire colour spectrum – some can only see red, some blue, some yellow. Some can see orange, green, or purple. Purples are at the top of the hierarchy, Reds are at the bottom. Greys – who can’t see colour, obviously – are the labour force, below all the Colours. The society is completely run through a set of rules. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) adheres almost blindly to these rules. The story here starts when Eddie Russett meets Jane, a Grey who makes a habit of defying the rules.
I’m not going to say anything more about the plot: you should definitely read it yourself, and it is the first in a series so the plot isn’t really concluded yet. But, like I said at the beginning, it’s the details that make fictional worlds special. Details like the barcodes that are on everything, including living things. Or the animals that are mentioned (and further described on the website). Or the idea that everyone in the world has fixed pupils, and therefore no night vision. And the thing that made me actually laugh out loud: a Caravaggio called “Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head.”
One of the things this book does (or certainly tries to do – you can decide for yourself how successful it is) is explore the dangers of unquestioning obedience. The Colourtocracy is stable and sustainable and peaceful and productive. But we know from real life that it can’t possibly be that easy – and of course it’s not.
Another thing that I was thinking about after I finished the book was the social taboos around marriage. Colour perception is generally passed on genetically – a Red and a Yellow will most likely have an Orange child; a low perception Red and a high perception Red will have a medium-to-high perception Red child. And there is a strict taboo against complementary colours (colours opposite each other on the colour wheel, like Red and Green) having a relationship. This means that no one acceptable in this world ever can see the entire colour spectrum. I am sure that this will be important later in the series; there were a few hints of it even in this book.
I described this to a friend as a dystopia, but not a negative dystopia like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, etc. It’s a dystopia because it’s a “perfect world” that’s not, but it’s not nearly as dark as the classic dystopias. I don’t think Jasper Fforde could write something dark and depressing. His style (and, after meeting him, his personality) naturally turn everything to a humorous bent.
One tiny thing that disconcerted me in this book: it’s not unexpected that Jasper Fforde would treat figurative language literally. There was one line that, at the time, I wondered if that were the case. At that point, with some of the descriptions (such as the fixed pupils), I wondered if this world were a painting or drawing come to life. It’s a reasonable thought, given the Thursday Next series, which features “living” literature. So when he describes a room at dawn as “reassembling itself”, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was literal or figurative. It’s a lovely passage, either way, but it did make me wonder. After finishing the book, though, there was nothing else that pointed to the literality of it – but it distracted me for a little while.