Books: Shades of Grey

I got this book from the library because the one I really wanted, the second book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, was not available. But I figured if I like one Jasper Fforde book that much, I’d probably like them all.

Shades of Grey is an excellent novel, but quite different from Fforde’s earlier books. (I did find his Nursery Crimes series on the shelf, but decided to let it wait until after I finish the Thursday Next books.) It is very imaginative, sometimes in off-the-wall ways.  But it is much darker than the Thursday Next books.

The Eyre Affair was entertaining, but only tangentially thought-provoking. (What would make a society so interested in literature, to the point they even fight over it? Could I think of a hypothetical invention as original as a 2B pencil with a built-in spell checker?)

Shades of Grey starts out seeming like just entertainment (and it is definitely enjoyable to read). But somewhere in the middle of the book you realize that there is some social commentary going on.

There are no direct references to anything in our world (unless you count a Parker Brothers game board, which people in the far future think is an actual world map, though they don’t know what the letters RISK stand for). But people are people, and even the genetically distinct people of the future (homo colorensis) act out of the same kind of motivations as people today.

It is a post-apocalyptic novel different from most in that people have no idea what the Something that Happened was. There are remnants of technology created by the Previous people, such as organic roads (they can heal themselves, digest organic matter, and move non-organic matter off to the roadside) and Everspin motors. But getting curious about the past – or even aspects of the present that are not one’s business to know – is seen as disruptive to the well-ordered society based on the Rules of Munsell.

That society is strictly stratified based on color – not the color of one’s skin, but the color(s) one is able to see. Everyone is at least partially colorblind, and a color perception test at age 20 determines one’s place in the Collective. It is possible to marry into a higher-status (i.e. higher on the color spectrum) family, but that costs a lot of money.

Not surprisingly, people’s loyalty is to others of their own color, and they treat people of other colors with distrust, disdain, and/or resentment. The Rules dictate many of the smallest details of one’s behavior, but people have found ways to use loopholes to get around many of them. The idea that there is a moral code higher than the Rules of Munsell is a strange thought to these people.

One could read this as an indictment of totalitarian systems. But the motivations of greed, jealousy, and fear are quite active in all people, regardless of political or economic structures. There are always people willing to take risks to help others even if it won’t benefit them personally, but there are also many people who would rather turn a blind eye to the unpleasant realities around them.

Those unpleasant realities become more and more apparent as the book progresses. This doesn’t make the book unpleasant reading, for the most part, but it gives it a depth that a purely entertaining novel does not have.


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