Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

In place of horror, I sometimes read dystopian novels. It often does the trick: when I go to bed reading one, I’m not haunted by thoughts of a serial killer or some unholy creature lurking in my closet, but a microphone.

But I always thought a funny one of these would definitely worth a look, also. Fortunately an author with an unnecessary “f” in his name has written just that, and he’s even been recommended to me on a couple occasions for his bibliophiliac Thursday Next series.

Swans there -- and of the giant and carnivorous variety.

Shades of Grey is essentially Brave New World if it had been written by Douglas Adams. It wears its influences on its sleeve (the fact that the only automobiles still in operation are Fords is a definite nod to Huxley’s novel), but there are plenty of new ideas here–mostly of the silly kind, but new nonetheless. So the book was to me both fresh and familiar.

Centuries into the future, the world is reeling from a near-apocalypse referred to only as the Something That Happened. Eddie Russett, a likable chap about to turn twenty, lives in a society run by a “Chromatocracy.” That is, each citizen can see limited color, if at all, and is assigned a caste based on his or her predominant hue. Mr. Russett is, if you remember your crayons, a Red. As a Red, Eddie is bossed around by the Greens, condescended to by the Yellows (whom everyone hates), and he hopes to marry Constance Oxblood, whose family carries a high red saturation that would guarantee him a bourgeois life.

But Eddie had the audacity to suggest a new mode of queuing, and the Collective is punishing him by sending him to the fringe village East Carmine to conduct a chair census. There he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to topple the Collective and falls in love with a Grey who threatens him with violence at every interaction.

Jasper Fforde is never quite as funny as some other comic novel writers I might compare him to, like Adams or Christopher Moore, but I think he writes a better story. Shades bounds along on its murder mystery, and the departures from the main plot that concern different areas of Chromatic life are interesting and worthwhile. Easily my favorite moments involved the Apocryphal man–an eccentric who is by law never to be acknowledged by anyone in the Collective, even if he is passing through a cafeteria naked and taking food from strangers’ plates.

A Shade Darker Than Expected

This government, for being such a hopeless bureaucratic bramblepatch, is extremely sinister in its policies of population control. “One in, one out,” goes the motto that’s repeated nonchalantly by the citizens, who accept that if a couple is to receive authorization to bring a life into the Collective, someone else in the Collective must have forfeited their own. And it’s revealed that death is more or less regulated by the government, too.

As terrifying as Eddie Russett’s world is, Fforde keeps things buoyant with silliness and Eddie’s what-can-you-do attitude. This is why the sometimes profound critiques occurring in the satire have no teeth. Would 1984 hit as hard if the outskirts of Oceania were populated with rhinoceroses and bouncing goats? Of course not, but that should give you an idea of this book’s priorities.

(And make you grateful that Orwell resisted the almost certain temptation of adding bouncing goats).

The ending is disappointing. While I should have kept in mind going in that this book is meant to kick off a whole series, not enough is resolved for the time being. So many questions are not only left unanswered, they’re mostly ignored.

This puts me in an odd place because I don’t gravitate toward series; one of my reading neuroses is that life is too short to read too many books by a single author. The times when I break from that is when an obsession develops, and while Shades of Grey was a pretty good read, I’m not gripped in its literary talons. Still, the temptation to read on — when the next installment hits — is there, and that counts for something.

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4 thoughts on “Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

  1. Funny review! It was bound to happen some day. Huxley’s novel is apt for parody, but in combination with Douglas Adams I would thinks this wouldn’t be a book to miss. But judging by your review, it’s only so-so.

    I’m actually looking for something new to read and it’s funny, we’re alike. I also don’t really like “series” novels. Well, “don’t” is too strong a word, but I prefer to read a book and move on to a new experience. Anyways, this was interesting. Thanks.

  2. “(the fact that the only automobiles still in operation are Fords is a definite nod to Huxley’s novel)”

    I think it might also (and maybe more) be a nod to the fact that the author’s last name is pronounced “Ford,” too.

    I found The Eyre Affair to be too busy being clever to keep my interest. This book doesn’t sound like it would change my mind.

  3. You know, Mike, I could argue that Fforde is an old Scandinavian name pronounced “fyord”, where that lower-case “f” arose from a corruption of the spelling “Fsorde”, back when “s” was scripted differently and could thus be confused with an f, but that would not hide the fact that I overlooked a painfully obvious detail and was duly called out on it, so touché, Mike.

  4. “where that lower-case ‘f’ arose from a corruption of the spelling ‘Fsorde’, back when ‘s’ was scripted differently”

    I got bitched out once in a blog post I made where I used an “f” instead of the actual typographical symbol that, come on guys, looks like an “f.”

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