Do you want to know the real reason I dislike E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey? Well, beyond the fact that I just wasn’t interested in the book and, as internet articles inform me, the questionable content? No, my ire was earned almost solely by its popularity. Sure, its record-breaking status mortified people who like to pretend erotica doesn’t exist and is hugely popular, but more importantly, it made it IMPOSSIBLE to bring up or reference Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey without a frustrating amount of confusion and explanation.
I first read Fforde’s satirical fantasy soon after I received it as a Christmas gift in 2009. I fell in love and it was placed on my default recommendations list. For a while all was well. Then 2011 came and dropped 50 Shades of Grey on us all, ruining everything. I could no longer mention Fforde’s offering without snorts of shock or derision and suspicious looks as people recalculated everything they thought they knew about me. I would glare and bark out a bitter approximation of laughter. “Ha! No no, gentle humans, you misunderstand. I am not attempting to push on you a book which could offend your delicate sexual sensibilities. No wait. Come back. Please this book is really good.” It just wasn’t worth it.
Fast forward to the world of today. Having just finished a re-read of Fforde’s novel a couple weeks ago and rekindling my appreciation, I have attempted to bring it up a couple times. And still I must offer hasty explanations and defenses when all I want is to introduce people to a world where humans can only naturally see one color and the production of artificial color is the driving force of society. I just want them to read what is essentially an alternate universe version of Orwell’s 1984, but peppered with Fforde’s dry wit and featuring quite a few more man-eating trees and a spoon shortage. But alas, the specter of EL James persists.
Shades of Grey takes place in Chromatacia, where color and the perception of it literally determine your path through life. Greys, who can see no color, are essentially a servant class, while Purples are practically above reproach. Color perception decides everything from careers – Yellows fill jobs in law enforcement, for example – to marriage partners; complementary colors must never mix, after all. Above it all, the bureaucracy of the Head Office ensures everything is run according to the Rules (examples at the bottom of this post) and the Word of Munsell, including periodic Great Leaps Backward that strip the world of everything from technology to history. The action is led by Eddie Russett, a Red preparing to enter official adulthood in service to the Collective, sent to the village of East Carmine to conduct a chair census. There he meets Jane, a Grey he suspects is involved in a conspiracy which he can’t resist sticking his nose in. Mysteries, romance, and horrifying realizations about the nature of government develop.
For a world whose inhabitants see mostly grey, Fforde hints at a vibrant setting. Murderous plants and megafauna such as giant swans are oft-mentioned concerns while the menace of ball lightning, drifting through the air like buoyant tumbleweed, offers potential for a grisly, face-melting end. Mysterious items from before the “Something That Happened” baffle characters and an Apocryphal Man must be diligently ignored even as he steals food off plates because the Rules do not allow for his existence. Doublethink is the order of the day, privacy is a farce, and every action is a move in a political game spanning all levels of society. Fforde’s novel manages to both delight and chill. He draws sharp focus on the importance of education, knowledge, and inquiry, and expounds the danger of labeling anything “infallible.” And with a government serving as both law and quasi-religion, Shades of Grey is a reminder of the necessity to keep the two separate.
I truly love this book, and considering it has been years since its release with no sign of the sequel, Painting by Numbers, in sight, I am calling on all of you to also go forth and love this book. Or at least purchase it and think about maybe reading it one day. Help us reclaim the title from the 50 Shades scourge. Enjoy the dilemma of a book that exists in a dystopian world without feeling overwhelmingly dystopian. Have a wonderful day and read whatever you want because reading is a beautiful thing. But also read this maybe. Thanks.
The Rules include:
The cucumber and the tomato are both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirements of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month a chicken is officially a vegetable.
Imaginative though is to be discouraged. No good ever comes of it – don’t.
All children are to attend school until the age of sixteen or until they have learned everything, whichever be the sooner.
Unnecessary sharpening of pencils constitutes a waste of public resources, and will be punished as appropriate.
Generally speaking, nudity and unselfconscious regard of the body is to be encouraged. Clothes are required to be worn as and when decorum demands it. (See Annex XVI.)
Team sports are mandatory in order to build character. Character is there to give purpose to team sports.