First, an announcement: for June only, the Scifi book club meeting will be at 6pm on the SECOND Tuesday, June 14, instead of the normal first Tuesday. We will be reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is the book that Jane Austen parodied in Northanger Abbey, and was also one of Edgar Allen Poe’s major inspirations.
So, Shades of Grey. This was our favorite book so far, with an average score over 8.5/10. Unfortunately, this was also our only book so far that no one finished by the meeting – one person got within 30 pages and just didn’t quite squeak by the deadline. Despite that, we were all pleased with the intricacy of Fforde’s world and the humor woven into the story. I finished it on Wednesday, and the plot really picks up in the second half of the book. Eddie starts seriously investigating the weird happenings in the village, and, by extension, the mysteries underlying his world.
In the far future of Shades of Grey, hundreds of years after the Something That Happened, society is rigidly segregated based on acuteness of color perception. Order is rigorously maintained by adhering to the Rules of Munsell, an extraordinarily thorough collection of edicts governing almost every aspect of life. For example, the Rules specifying which articles may be manufactured left spoons off the list, so spoons are valued heirlooms, passed down through generations and jealously hoarded. Loopholery is a respected art and the only method of getting anything done. Also, most damagingly, there are periodic Leapbacks and DeFactings, reducing the level of technology and the amount of knowledge available each time. The most recent Leapback removed mechanical tractors, zippers, and yoyos, among other things, leaving people dependent on trains and Model Ts for transportation. It is, in many ways, a dismal place to live.
Although the book is indeed very funny – I even literally laughed out loud a few times – the best part is that almost none of it is funny to the characters. Fforde walks a delicate balance of pathos and lightheartedness. The situation of the characters and the world itself is deeply sad, but due to the fact that they are inside the world, the characters have no perspective to compare the world to anything else. Except one: the female protagonist, Jane.
Jane’s setup reminded me very much of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She busts into the normal, boring world of our loser protagonist, Eddie Russett, and, by being surly and uninterested in him, causes him to fall in love with her (and her extremely retroussé nose.) In a novel all about the metaphor of vision, she is the one person with perspective. It makes her violently angry, all the time, often in situations where it would benefit her to just keep her head down. As her character develops, her anger and lack of self-control reminded us of the protagonist from The Darkship Thieves, which we read earlier in the year. Jane ends up more interesting and sympathetic than either Ramona of Scott Pilgrim or the protagonist of The Darkship Thieves, because “a quirky working-class girl fighting the Establishment” is much more fun than either “a quirky emo girl whining about her life” or “a rich heiress fighting the establishment”.
If you’ve read any of my reviews before, you’ve likely noticed that I’m always keeping a running tab in my head of the Bechdel test – 1) are there two named female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a guy? This book has lots of female characters, and a pleasing number of them are in positions of authority. It meets the conversational criteria in a couple of places – but every female character is a total bitch. There are Society matrons scheming for arranged marriages and committee politics, female cops with no compassion or concept of bending the rules, young women using sex as leverage and double-crossing their lovers at every turn. Granted, most of the guys are jerks, too.
The only exceptions to the “every major character is a jerk” trope are Eddie and his dad, the Librarians, and the Apocryphal Man, who is (or was) a historian. A few technicians also seem pretty okay – maintenance workers and so on. The symbolic representatives of knowledge are sympathetic characters, many working underground to share their knowledge, whether it’s Morse code bedtime stories or questions answered in exchange for Loganberry Jam. Except for Jane, who is the omega bitch, and the ambiguously moral but always polite Color Man.
Shades of Grey touches on such a wide range of subjects that we found ourselves circling back to it naturally no matter how far off-topic we wandered. For example, there is a throwaway joke about retail sales – “buy one get one free” vs. “half off”. What would you rather have, something for half price or something for free? One character, Tommo, speculates that there used to be a whole science of selling, which they, of course, have lost. Eddie’s hobby is advanced queuing systems; in this world, “take a number” counts as a radical new idea. But when they discuss their ideas, each greets the other’s with disinterest and/or skepticism.
There were many parallels with Lois Lowry’s The Giver. A society removes color perception from the general population as part of a system to suppress individuality and conflict. Those with color perception are singled out for special privileges but also isolated from the rest of the community. Planned life stages result in strictly controlled birth rates and euthanasia in old age. There were even specific moments of congruence, such as the protagonists both seeing red hair on their girlfriends. It’s like Fforde read The Giver and decided it would be a much better book if it were funny. (He may be right.)
One caveat – on literally the last page of the book, Eddie is forced to make an ambiguous moral choice. While I don’t object to the principle, it’s a seriously contrived, last-minute, deus ex machina sort of problem manufactured to lend a sense of urgency to the forthcoming sequels. Personally, I have decided the incident simply didn’t happen, and the book ended two pages earlier.
Shades of Grey comes highly recommended, and we still have a couple of copies in the store at 20% off – grab one while we’ve got them.