Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron was written by Jasper Fforde and published in 2009. I have been on this kick of reading dystopian novels. It has not been entirely purposeful, but it’s been what I have been reading. This novel, while dystopian, was not my selection because of this, though. I have read some of Fforde’s work before and enjoyed it. However, when I read the jacket and blurbs about this book – I knew I had to read it. The main thing that caught my eye was the cover (by Steven Wilson and Paul Buckley). The second thing that caught my attention was the uniqueness of the storyline. Pay attention here: this is a good novel. This is not that rubbish bestseller junk that is fan-fiction-porn (you know what books I am speaking of). This is not that and it would behoove you not to confuse the two.
This book is somewhat difficult to get into because we meet characters existing in the future in a society that is very different from our own. It is a highly regulated society – just like we met in 1984 or We or Brave New World. There are strict rules of social class and demands of Useful Work put on the members of society. The novel does not immediately expound all of these rules nor does it provide a great deal of explanation. The reader has to work a bit through the first quarter of the novel. This is done through the first-person narrative of the main character, Edward Russett.
Everything is determined by color. Social rank, employment, tasks, interactions, household living, surnames – all is based on a concept of color. The rules for society are presented to the society in the Word of Munsell. We are not really given much info on who this Munsell may be, except to learn that his “words” (The Rules) take up dozens and dozens of volumes and can be almost nitpicky in circumstances.
On one’s twentieth birthday one takes a test called the Ishihara. A Colorman tests individuals by showing them “spots” of color in which they identify objects/numbers. Basically, through looking at flash cards for a half hour, it can be determined how much of each color an individual can see – literally. And there are dozens of hues they test. This leads to a score in percentages – the higher the percentage, the better one’s status in society. More or less, relationships and interactions – to include marriage – are based on percentages. One is constantly trying to raise oneself (and one’s family) up in social ranking. The Rules guide all of these things and individuals earn merits and lose them based on behavior.
Anyway, the plot is that Edward Russett, accompanied by his father (a swatchman – which is like a doctor) are sent to East Carmine from their home city Jade-under-Lime. Russett has been given the “humility-building” task of doing a Chair Census. This is actually a punishment for Russett’s “revolutionary” idea of reorganizing queuing – yes, indeed: forming lines. So from the start we learn that Eddie is a bit of a “free-thinker.” While in East Carmine, he starts to become more enlightened about the society he has grown up a part of and the real concepts behind the Rules and Colortocracy. As his surname demonstrates, Eddie is a Red – that is, he sees a high amount of red. In East Carmine, he meets Yellows, Purples, and Greys. Greys are the lowest of society and are usually forced into menial tasks or servant-like employment. In fact, the Grey are so ostracized that they do not even live in the city proper, but in their own town on the outskirts of the city. The whole novel is merely a one or two week glimpse into Eddie’s life.
Russett, long before his train arrives in East Carmine, is intrigued by a female Grey named Jane who he meets in one of the stop-over points en route to East Carmine. The novel also follows the trajectory of Eddie and Jane’s relationship and Jane’s role in Eddie’s “enlightenment.” Jane’s behavior generally involves so much rule-breaking that everyone expects her to be sent to Reboot. Reboot is supposedly a place wherein citizens who have so many demerits are sent in order to be rehabilitated and trained.
All of these elements make Shades of Grey a fascinating story. All of this is so unique – maybe not the overarching dystopia, but the way it is worked out into this futuristic color-based society. Plus, Fforde has this light way of writing that combines dry humor with silliness that makes the whole story a bit more believable than one would expect. One thing about Fforde’s writing is that as Eddie learns and experiences things, the reader is not bludgeoned over the head with emotional outbursts. In other words, Fforde doesn’t tell us how each scene should make us feel – he leaves that up to the reader. And the last chapter of the book is actually quite sad, to be honest. Fforde does not tell you to feel sad, though; I think he just knows that the reader will. Some readers will find this novel a bit “dry” or “slow-paced,” but I think it’s really good.
Naturally, I want to read the rest of the series – I am curious to see how things turn out for Eddie. The end of the novel is a little troubling because it’s very obvious that the story doesn’t end here. The reader feels a bit like things are just getting started.