Monday, May 24, 2010

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron

Title: Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron
Author: Jasper Fforde
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Dystopia

Publisher: Viking (US)
Publication Date: December 2009 (US)
Hardcover: 400 pages (US)

Stand Alone or series: Book 1 of a planned trilogy

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Eddie's world wasn't always like this. There's evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion.

Stunningly imaginative, very funny, tightly plotted, and with sly satirical digs at our own society, this novel is for those who loved Thursday Next but want to be transported somewhere equally wild, only darker; a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey.


Where does one even start with a book like this? This book is not so easily explained. Full of interesting ideas and strange terminology, Shades of Grey is one of the most bizarre books I've ever read. So I apologize now if I confuse the crap out of you.

As the summary explains, Shades of Grey is about a boy named Eddie who lives in a world, Chromatocia, dominated by color. Referred to as a Colortocracy, the entire social hierarchy of Chromatocia is based on what colors a person can see and how much they can see of it. Called the Chromatic Scale, Purples are at the top followed by Greens, Yellows, Blues, Oranges, Reds, and monochromatic Greys are at the bottom. At the age of twenty each citizen in Chromatocia has their Ishihara, or color test, to determine their Color perception. The test is considered infallible and a person's entire life is determined by the results. From who a person can marry to social standing and career options, color perception is all that matters.

This book trailer is also really helpful with explaining the basic premise of Shades of Grey:

Eddie Russet is the son of son of a Swatchman (basically a doctor) and is able to see a high percentage of Red. While Eddie is almost engaged to Constance Oxblood and has high hopes for his future, his life is thrown into a loop when he is sent to East Carmine, the Outer Fringes of society, to conduct a census of all the chairs in the town and learn some humility. Filled with strange characters and a fiery Grey, Eddie begins to question the rigid society he lives in and finds out that some answers only lead to more questions.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:
We clattered over some points, banked to the right and then rumbled across a wooden trestle bridge to steam up a broad treeless valley. Scattered herds of ground sloth and bouncing goat were grazing quietly to themselves, but paid us little attention. The line shifted direction to the North and plunged into a steep valley of almost indescribable loveliness. The track ran alongside a cascading rock-strewn river while steep hills laced with oak and silver birches rose either side, with buzzards wheeling in the limestone crags high above.

I stared out of the window, my eyes searching for glimpses of Red. It was mid summer and we were past the welcome cascade of early orchid, and it was now the time of the poppies, Sorrel and pink campions. Once they were done the Snapdragons and Maiden Pink would sustain me until the end of the season, and it was in this manner that we Reds leapfrogged through the Spring and Summer on a frugal diet of seasonal blooms. It was the same story for the other colours but in greater or lesser degree. The Yellows had more seasonal bloom, Blues and Oranges had less. Greens, as they constantly reminded us, had only two chromatic seasons - the abundant muted, and the abundant vibrant.

But seeing only one natural colour wasn’t the end of it. The enjoyment of synthetic colour, although lacking in subtlety, limited in range and only a low-chroma imitation of its organic cousin, was universal. I would never see a naturally hued primrose nor revel in the alleged splendor of a Bluebell spring, but I would enjoy the approximations delivered to us by the dedication of National Colour’s skilled workforce.

The Yellow sitting opposite me in the railway carriage looked around for a moment, reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver swatch-case. He snapped open the compact, took a deep gaze of the colour hidden inside, then said:

“Do you want to do some Lime?”

I paused for a moment. I hadn’t Green-peeked for months. Dad was quite strict because he thought Lime could lead onto harder colours, such as Lincoln, but was realistic. ‘As soon as you’ve taken your Ishihara and become an adult,’ he had told me, ‘you can stare at magnolia for all I care.’

“Go on then,” I said.

The Yellow turned the compact toward me, and as my eyes fell upon the calming shade I felt my muscles relax and my anxieties about travelling to East Carmine fade away. Everything about the world suddenly seemed rather jolly - even the crummy bits, of which there were many. But I was unused to peeking and my head was suddenly jammed full of crossfires as the Lime wobbled my cortex. I could see Handel’s Messiah and smell the sensation of water on my skin.

“That’s good Lime,” I said, rubbing my temples as small bursts of pink mixed with the smell of toffee-apples erupted on the periphery of my vision.

“Best there is,” he replied cheerfully, “you know what they say: Yellows do the best

They might have done the best Green, or even become Green with a bit of Blue parentage, but that was as far as it went. No amount of Colourgenics would ever make a yellow family Purple, so they could never rise to the exulted position of head Prefect, a post reserved solely for the Purples. We Reds might be at the bottom end of the spectrum and only one notch above Grey, but with a suitable Blue partner our progeny could have the top spot in a generation. It annoyed the Yellows something rotten - no wonder they couldn’t stand us.

The Yellow had another reason to hate me, although he didn’t know it. The thing is, I can see a lot of Red. I was quietly confident that I could make Prefect, but I wasn’t certain. Colour perception was notoriously subjective, and the very human vagaries of deceit, hyperbole and selfdelusion all conspired to make pre-test claims pretty much worthless. But all doubts came to nought the morning of your Ishihara. No-one could cheat the Colourman and the colour test. What you got was what you were, forever. Your life, career and social standing decided right there and then, and all worrisome life-uncertainties eradicated forever. You knew who you were, what you would do, where you would go, and what was expected of you. In return, you simply accepted your position within the Colortocracy, and assiduously followed the Rulebook. Your life
was mapped. And all in the time it takes to bake a tray of scones.


Most of the fun of reading this book comes from figuring it out as you go (which I hope I didn't just ruin). I love that Fforde doesn't explain ever single thing in a lot of detail. Instead, as a reader I felt like I had room to use my imagination. I love that in a book. The only downside is that I felt like some things were quite under explained. Since this is the first book of a trilogy some ambiguity might have been necessary, but there are some things I would have liked to know more about (like Ultraviolets). Then again, Eddie is pretty ignorant of most things so maybe Fforde wanted the reader to experience some of that not-knowing as well.

Overall, I adored this book though. It is by far one of the most interesting books I've ever read. I can't wait to read the second two books and I just know this book will be one of my favorites this year.

Great interview of Fforde:

Rating: 9. Damn near perfection

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