Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 8, 2010

Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 6:42 pm

Fforde is one of the most quintessentially English novelists writing today. His humour is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, without gag lines or signposted comedy moments, but it has a delightful quality of extended surreality, and utterly absurd passages that nevertheless make complete logical sense in context.

The premise of Shades of Grey is completely science-fictional, and follows a rather English tradition of dictatorship novels, more or less started by 1984. Fairly far (probably, anyway) into the future, society is seemingly happy but regimented and controlled by the sinisterly manipulative Government. Much of history has been suppressed, and nobody knows what’s really going on, but if our hero and his antisocially rebellious (but nevertheless extremely attractive) girlfriend can avoid being sent to the Mysterious Government Facility for reeducation, they may get to the bottom of things.

Fforde’s take on the System, here, is unusual and very English—it’s run not by a legion of faceless oppressors, but by The Rules, which are followed because they’re The Rules, and because they’re obviously right. (Well, except perhaps for the one about the spoons.) Of course, the Rules are labyrinthine and complex, and there are a great many loopholes and inconsistencies. For instance, even persons engaged in heavy manual work must wear a collar and tie, but shirts are optional. Libraries have been denuded of most of their books in successive Great Leaps Backward, but staffing levels are required to be maintained. Despite the mass simplification of the world, new cultural tropes grow up, and the human tendency to name & categorize is in full force—as ably demonstrated by Caravaggio’s Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head, and the Museum of the Something That Happened.

Society is organised chromatically, from Grey through Red to Purple, but it’s not a strict hierarchical ladder—the classifications are awarded by the amount of colour perception one has, and unexpected genetics can change a family’s status quite quickly. Since the society depends on all the colours, Red-perceptors have as vital a function as Yellows or Blues, despite a formally lower status, so there’s some interesting social crosslinking going on.

The way the colour technology & the influence of colour on society is introduced is entirely immersive, since the whole book is narrated by a smart but rather gormless teenager who already knows all of this and assumes we do too. As I’m rather a fan of this particular kind of worldbuilding, it worked well for me, and having a clueless protagonist is a very good way to introduce the truth about the world (well, something a bit closer to the truth, anyway) to both of us at the same time.

If you’re already a Fforde fan, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this, though it has far fewer pop-cultural allusions and a strongly SFnal ancestry. If you haven’t read Fforde, and this is the kind of SF you like (mindbending rather than -blowing, and rather funny) then you’ll probably enjoy this. If you don’t enjoy this, there may well be something Not Entirely Right about you.

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