Monday, March 26, 2012

Shades of Grey

It's roughly 500 years after a great cataclysm known as the Something That Happened (which occurs sometime in our distant future). The exact circumstances of the cataclysm are unknown, and only remnants of the Previous remain to give clues to their history and way of life, a life that the great leader Munsell teaches was filled with selfishness and greed. Munsell rebuilds society into the great Collective, with each citizen striving to put his civic duty before his own needs and wants.

This new society is structured according to color perception. Some can see red, some can see blue, and some can see mixed colors like purple and green. Purples and Greens dominate the top teir of the colortocracy with the laboring Greys at the very bottom. Greater privileges are given to those who can see a higher percentage of their color, and those with a perception higher than 70% are able to sit on their local council of Prefects.

Eddie Russet and his father are Reds on their way to their temporary home in East Carmine, a town in the socially questionable Outer Fringes. Eddie has yet to be officially tested in his color perception, but can see a lot more red than he lets on to others. He's also insatiably curious and has been assigned learn greater humility by completing a Chair Census during his stay in Easy Carmine. Unfortunately Eddie's curiosity only leads him to greater trouble and eventually into the jaws of a giant man-eating plant.

While reading Shades of Grey, it's easy to forget that it's supposed to be a dystopian book. True, any aristocratic society is much less than ideal, but the citizens seem content and the Collective truly seems to be providing for the needs of its citizens. The people are fed, clothed, and are required to engage in leisure activities. They are given ample opportunities to see beauty and color outside their normal spectrum through the use of synthesized color. Though the ideologies of the Collective are obviously flawed to us, we feel that they are motivated by good intentions to a create strong, stable society. It's easy to get swept along in the world of color and, like the citizens who live there, numbly forget about the importance of individuality and creativity. These are replaced with a feeling contentment and comfort. We follow along with Eddie Russet in our contentment and, like him, are jarred out of our comfort and indifference through shocking events like the disappearance of Travis Canary, the revelations of the Apocryphal Man, the poor treatment of the Greys, and the plight of the poor lovers Imogen and Dorian. As we travel with Eddie to High Saffron we feel the sting of social injustice priming us for the shocking revelations Eddie will learn there.

When we finally learn the truth about the Collective, it is all the more shocking and painful because of the comfort and indifference we have felt all throughout the book. The Collective hasn't been sending children to an arena to kill each other or turning them into soldiers. Unlike many dystopian books, the tone of Shades of Grey is light and the Collective's misdeeds are much less obvious. Fforde's subtlety and our naiveté (as well as Eddie's) make the betrayal all the more poignant. Suddenly we see our entire experience in the Collective in a different light and we feel overwhelmingly sickened.

But like a true hero, Eddie Russet rises from his sudden enlightenment, not with despair, but with purpose. He's ready to take his life into his own hands for the first time and make choices that will make him happy. With over 80% red he's ready to take on the Collective and lead the people of East Carmine towards true knowledge and happiness. Unfortunately, life in a dystopia is never that simple, and Eddie instead finds himself faced with a whole new set of pitfalls. Many of his hopes are dashed before they can even begin to form, and with his final interaction with the Colorman, we feel that he might break - and if he does, we will break with him. Instead of breaking, Eddie takes the mantle of responsibility and revolution on his shoulders, and with that mantle comes the need for heartbreaking sacrifices. In spite of the sorrow and bleak view we have of the future, we are able to see in Eddie Russet's determination a spark of hope as well. Eddie truly becomes a man at the end of the book, and not just because of his color perception test. If Eddie is able to change so much in the course of a few days, then imagine the changes that can occur within the Collective.

I made the mistake of finishing this book right before bed. All I could do was lay awake thinking "Wow! Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow." The ending to Shades of Grey was absolutely overwhelming - shocking, disappointing, and exciting all at the same time. The journey was unique and incredible and I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves dystopian novels, quirky humor, satire, and good writing. Jasper Fforde is a master of turning the absurd into the profound. If you ever wanted to pick up a Jasper Fforde book than this might be the best place to start - no previous knowledge of literature or nursery rhymes required to appreciate this book. A great read from beginning to end, and it makes you want to pick of the next one immediately. Too bad the next one doesn't come out until next year :(