Friday, May 31, 2019

Best Book of 2009 - Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde
Published by: Viking
Book Provided by Viking
Publication Date: December 29th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 390 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Edward Russett lives in a very organized and hierarchical society. What color you can see is everything, creating color castes, from the regal purples to the proletarian greys. Eddie is a red living in a green world. Eddie has upset the balance of good behavior and polity by playing a prank on a purple, Bertie Magenta, son of Jade-under-Lime's purple prefect. But he also has dangerous notions on how to improve queuing. To atone for his errors in judgement and gain some humility he is being sent to the fringes of polite society to conduct a pointless chair census. His father, a Swatchman, who is, for all intents and purposes, a doctor, is accompanying him to East Carmine, to fill in for their recently deceased Swatchman, Robin Ochre. Little does Eddie realize what is about to happen to him could change everything. At a stop over at Vermillion, Eddie fails to see the last rabbit, but helps his dad save a grey illegally wrongspotting as a purple and is accosted by a girl with a very retrousse nose who is unaccountably rude and in danger of being sent to reboot to learn some manners. Eddie can't help being intrigued.

Arriving in East Carmine, a town where nothing interesting happens, a new Swatchman and his son sure cause a lot of excitement. From Eddie's new best friend, the shyster Tommo, trying to place him in the marriage market, to the prefects demanding respect and Eddie's return ticket to Jade-under-Lime, to a Lincoln swatch illegal drugs market, to suspicions of the old Swatchman being murdered, to the mysterious naked man who lives in their house that no one can openly admit to seeing, to the new surly maid, who happens to be Jane, the girl with the retrousse nose, Eddie's arrival has caused an avalanche of excitement to this small border town. But will Eddie, with his unwelcome queuing suggestions, be able to stay out of trouble? Can he avoid the everyday dangers of lightning, man-eating Yatveo plants, and swans, while staying on the right side of Tommo and the yellow prefect's son Courtland Gamboge? Plus what if he decides to abandon his half promise to the bitchy princess Constance Oxblood back home and make a go of it with Jane? That's if she, or the ill fated trip to High Saffron, doesn't kill him first...

Shades of Grey, the first book in a proposed series from Jasper Fforde, the author of the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime Series, is a cult favorite where ten years on fans of the book are still clamoring for more adventures from Brunswick and deMauve. From the man whose worldbuilding gave us a land where characters in books police their own plots, we are treated to another inventive story, this time centering on color. If you strip away all the color theory and color related aspects, you are left with a very basic, but solid, post apocalyptic, post something that happened world, akin to the best dystopian novels, the likes of Orwell's 1984. An evil, unseen government is trying to keep their people in line by separation, isolation, ignorance, and strict rules enforced by fear, even if the rules are more geared toward maintaining politeness than anything else. Enter plucky and likable Eddie, who has notions above his station and falls for a girl who hates his guts all the while butting heads with the local authorities and asking a few too many questions.

While the book is standing on firm dystopian soil, it's all the colorful bits of tosh that Fforde scatters throughout the narrative that makes this book easily one of my favorites. Of course, being in the arts, I could have a bias for color theory based jokes, but even with just a simple grasp of color gleaned from your box of Crayola's as a kid will make this book that much more multilayered and enjoyable. The color jokes run the gamut from the dictator's, I mean leader's, name being Munsell, the creator of the first workable and adapted color theory with the naming of hue, value, and chroma, to the test for the character's color placement, the Ishihara, being the test for color blindness in our world. But it's not just these, or the jokes of color pipes being upgraded from RGB to CMYK, sure to send any graphic designer into fits of hysterical laughter, but the way Fforde seamlessly integrates them into the plot and has color as the lynch pin of this society. Yet how did humans evolve so that they can only see specific color frequencies allowing this hierarchical society to form?

Because the thing is, color doesn't actually exist. I know this is a hard thing to grasp, especially if you start thinking about additive color when mixing paint. But the truth is that how we see color and how light works with subtractive color, where all colors combined equal white not black, gets you closer to understanding that everything we see is a product of our minds. Our minds interpret color and tell us what to see. Therefore what happened to these peoples minds that they can only see certain frequencies? Are their frequencies somehow jammed? There are only a few hints, one being that pupils aren't able to dilate anymore, always being a pinprick and making seeing in the dark impossible. The second is that when shown certain color swatches the brain starts to reconfigure, as if it's a computer. So did the evil overlords rewire human brains in order to exert control? Or did evolution take a weird and quirky step sideways. Every time I read this book I learn so much more but conversely end up with so many more questions.

But, as with any post apocalyptic society or even parallel society, it's the mystery of how our world devolved and became this world. Trying to work out exactly how things changed, and not just the physical changes, but other more significant ones. Like how did swans become large and such a danger? Why is there such a fear of lightning? Who knew rhododendrons would be such a threat? Also the little jokes where we know what things were, but that they have morphed into something totally different, like the titles of the mandatory musical theater adaptations being slightly off kilter... "Red Side Story" anyone? Or how they assume the RISK board game is not only a map of how the earth was, but of the color distribution of the inhabitants. Then of course you encounter the deeper mysteries of the plot that keep you reading late into the night. What really happened to Robin Ochre? What does reboot really entail? Because if someone told me they were sending me on the night train to Emerald City I know I'd be nervous.

Picking up this book again ten years after it was published I was still obsessed with the emotions facing Eddie when he learned what Mildew really is all while hoping that his spork loophole will solve the lack of spoons once and for all. And while there's a part of me that holds this book in a special place in my heart, it was the first unsolicited book that showed up on my doorstep after starting my blog, I re-read it with a critical eye. Fforde can sometimes get so caught up in his little jokes and Easter eggs, ones written for his own amusement, it's possible for the reader to feel alienated from the text; creating an unease that they are probably only catching ten percent of what is actually going on. Yet for me Shades of Grey is different. It works on so many different levels that even if you feel occasionally a little lost it's just another layer of the onion to discover when you next read it. Of course, I'm still desperate for any more information on Eddie's world. I want all the answers... but sometimes we are left wanting, just as Eddie and Jane were after their Ishiharas.


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