Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde

Don’t you just hate it when a writer whose work you really love goes off in a completely different direction, moves on from their familiar light tone towards something altogether more serious and darker and which ends up being mind-bogglingly better than you had any right to expect? No, nor do I.

I’ve mentioned a few of Jasper Fforde’s books before. There’s the Thursday Next series, set in a moderately barking mad parallel reality where it’s possible to read yourself into the world of fiction, and indeed for fictional characters to escape into what might be loosely called “reality”. Then there are the Nursery Crimes series, in which, well, nursery rhyme characters can turn very nasty indeed. And which may or may not be a fictional offshoot of the Thursday Next books. All of these are wildly funny, light in touch, and distinctly re-readable.

But now Jasper has moved on to something quite different. Shades of Grey, the first in a planned trilogy[1] is set in a future Britain, in a time believe to be about 500 years after some unknown event always referred to as “The Something that Happened”, which would appear to be some time in our future. There are signs of technology beyond current levels, Britain is filled with bizarre fauna (all nicely labelled with barcodes, so somebody must have been doing some interesting genetic work before the Something did its Happening) and murderous flora (psycho carnivorous plants straight out of 1930s sf).

But all that is just background to the story. The much smaller population of this world lives in small communities run according to a rigid social hierarchy based on colour perception: most people can only see a limited range of colours, and their status and position in society is determined by the result of what we eventually learn is a hyped-up colour blindness test. People with no colour perception are designated Greys and are the lowest stratum of society – the people who do the actual work. People whose perception is predominantly one colour take their place in the hierarchy, and everyone accepts the status quo. Or not, as we gradually learn. The central controlling powers dictate period “Leapbacks”, in which previously used technology is banned. And everything is controlled by a very complicated set of rules, apparently the result of an Epiphany granted to someone known as Munsell.

Eddie Russett just wants to fill his role in society. He’ll marry Constance Oxblood, become part of the Collective, and live a suitably dull and worthy life. It all goes wrong when he’s sent to the Outer Fringe community of East Carmine and meets Jane, a young Grey with an attractive nose and an unattractive tendency to extreme violence. And he begins to learn that all is not what it seems in his world…

And that’s all I’m prepared to say about the plot – you really need to read this. It took me a while to get into it – I spent a lot of time in the first 100 pages or so wondering what the photon was going on[2], and I actually put it aside for a couple of weeks. But when I returned to it, and just let it flow, I really began to enjoy it.

I still don’t know why people can only see limited ranges of colours, or how the “synthetic colours” that apparently everyone can see could work, or why people can’t see in the dark, or what the Something that Happened was, or what led up to it, but I’m looking forward to finding out in the next two books.

It’s not all serious – there are lots of laughs and a good dose of absurdity between all the head-scratching and trying to work out what’s going on. Jasper has seriously moved up a step here, and I hope he can keep it up, and produce the next volume a wee bit more quickly than this one.

[1] The fiend!
[2] This continues pretty much up to the end, when things are a bit clearer, but there is still much to learn