Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde – Is it Dystopian? Is it Irreal?

[posted by Alice]

When I picked up Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde at the library last week, I thought it must either be a Thursday Next novel or a Nursery Crime tale, and I didn’t stop to take a close look. Instead, happy to get my hands on it so soon after the library acquired it, I quickly checked it out. But when I began to read it, I found no mention of Fforde’s earlier literary creations – instead I entered a strikingly original world that was sometimes as hard to decipher as a very challenging puzzle. There are many reviews of the book online if you’d care to take a look (especially if you want a detailed synopsis), but I would just like to talk a little about whether the book is dystopian and whether it’s irreal.

First of all, in answer to the question of whether or not Shades of Grey is dystopian, I would have to say yes and no. The world depicted in Shades of Grey is darker and more negative than in previous Fforde novels, and he himself acknowledged his debt to classic dystopias and negative utopias in interviews he did with the Guardian and for the Bookgasm website, among other places. The protagonist in Shades of Grey, Eddie Russett, lives at some point in Earth’s future, after the Something That Happened, in which a person’s ability to see color determines his or her social status, potential marriage partners, and other vital things. If you’ve read any books in the Thursday Next series, you know that Fforde’s knowledge of fiction is vast, and he is inclined to make frequent references to other works. In Shades of Grey these are often references to some of the most famous negative utopias ever written; he pays homage to them and he takes important cues and ideas from them. Here are some examples: in the world of Shades of Grey people use social engineering and eugenics in a way that calls to mind Huxley’s Brave New World; we see individuals pitted against a society that prizes the collective good over individual rights as in Zamyatin’s We;  people are expected to tell the authorities about their neighbors’ transgressions against the established order, as in Orwell’s 1984; there are also echoes of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake in which humans are purposefully changed in a way that’s supposed to lead to peace and harmony (but which also results in the destruction of humans as we know–and are–them). But in the previously mentioned Guardian interview, Fforde himself says that not everything about the world of Shades of Grey is meant to be negative: over-population is no longer a problem; people have to do unpaid work for the collective good; and men and women seem to be on much more equal footing than they are in our own world. In addition Shades of Grey is written with a playfulness, lightness, and sense of humor that would be missing from a true dystopia; and Fforde borrows ideas from gentler works, such as The Wizard of Oz, something that would be out of place in a true negative utopia. There is an explicit reference to a Wizard of Oz statue in the book’s beginning and to a place called the Emerald City, but there are seem to me to be other nods to the children’s books by Frank Baum. In the Oz books, Oz itself is divided into lands which are distinguished by their characteristic color, similar to the color-coding in Shades of Grey, and the importance of the Yellow Brick Road in Oz is paralleled by the importance of the Perpetulite roadway in Fforde’s story. If Oz seems a strange place from which to glean ideas for a book like this, remember that many people consider Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz to be an allegory of early 20th century American populism.

And now I’ll ask whether or not Shades of Grey is an irreal novel, and, again, I’ll answer: yes and no.  Much is explained in typical science fiction style in the novel, and it doesn’t have the dreamlike quality that much irreal fiction displays. But in an irreal work there is always some key idea or element that can be seen as providing “many pointers toward an unknown meaning,” and in the case of Shades of Grey this element is color itself. In the world that Fforde creates, the ability to see color determines one’s social status, as I mentioned before, and the spectrum creates an ordered hierarchy with purple at the top. This hierarchy is then complicated by the existence of primary colors so that red isn’t simply at the bottom, but can also serve, when a red marries a blue, to bring forth offspring who can see the much-vaunted purple. As a result color is used in the novel to make obvious references to issues of class, and in a less obvious way to race (those who can see no color, the greys, are often forced to do long hours of menial work). But color in Shades of Grey points to meanings other than that. The swatchman is a kind of healer who uses color to help people overcome all sorts of health problems, and the right color can cure impotence or trigger ovulation. In addition, color can be used as a drug, can be addictive and even deadly. Color also represents the ultimate commodity in a world which, as a result of “leapbacks,” has a technology level similar to that of the early 20th century (there are still trains and Model T Fords but no radios). Color is prized and sought after; people of means colorize their gardens and custard puddings; communities look for ways to bring color into people’s lives; there are even treasure-hunting expeditions to find valuable objects from the time before the Something That Happened from which color can be extracted. In other words, color indicates wealth and success and confers an elite status like gold or diamonds do in our world. Owning a painting (a Vermeer or other work from the time before the Something That Happened) is such a privilege that the owner must allow anyone to come and look at the painting on request—in order to enjoy the colors. Because color is something more than the sum of all these parts, it does give an irreal edge to the novel, and the book also calls to mind some other recent works of British irrealism. I’m reminded of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in which a group of never-quite-defined and identified beings are shockingly expendable and don’t realize their fate until it’s too late; of Magnus Mills’ Explorers of the New Century, in which a group of beings that serve as pack animals in an expedition are also treated as expendable, and we don’t find out until close to the end who they are; and of the Neanderthals in Fforde’s own Thursday Next series who have been brought back from extinction by genetic experiments and live in uneasy association with humans, doing menial work and not loving it (particularly since they are not able to reproduce). All of these works feature groups of sentient beings who are being pushed, with a minimum of fuss and a little humor and a great deal of disregard of rights, into a fate that seems to benefit others but not to benefit themselves. Maybe such depictions are becoming more common because they bear a resemblance to our own lives, but one thing that does prevail at the end of Shades of Grey is a kind of hope that Jane (a Grey) and Eddie (a Red) can work together to figure out what’s really going on in their world and to begin to change it to benefit all. Two sequels are promised, and if we’re lucky, we may see in future Shades of Grey novels the making of an irreal revolution.

2 thoughts on “Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde – Is it Dystopian? Is it Irreal?

  1. Hi, Tom,

    Yes, you’re right! I was on Jasper Fforde’s site and read the answers to the Great Shades of Grey Sleuthing Competition. In regard to the Oz statue in the book Fforde says: “I was, of course, referring to Frank Oz, the well-known muppeteer, and not the L Frank Baum Oz, which only gets a fleeting mention in SoG with ‘Emerald City’. The reason the memorial is here at all is because Vermillion – formerly Hereford – was the birthplace of Frank Oz.” Thanks for pointing this out to me.


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