Shades of Grey and the Fforde Problem

I just finished Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

I really enjoyed this book and look forward to the next two installments, but it took a little while to get into.  Not long, just a little, and once it takes off it really takes off.  It is very much a Victorian Romance style novel, mixed with an Orwellian dystopia (but a very pretty and polite and civilized one) with Jasper Fforde’s typical bizarre ability to take the abstract and bizzare and work into its own coherent world.

This actually creates a bit of a problem when it comes to reviewing or recommending Fforde’s books.  Take the Thursday Next series, for example.  I have yet to find a way to succinctly sum up the series in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a raving lunatic.

Let’s give it a shot, shall we?

The Eyre Affair is a novel that takes place in two different realities – one is an alternate 1985 where the Crimean War just ended, books are more popular than television and people might listen to coin operated Shakespeare-bots recite a sonnet, people still fly on Zeppelins, dodos still exist thanks to home cloning kits, but pigeons are extinct, and Neanderthals turn out to be pacifists.

Then there is the other reality, the book reality, where the books we all know exist and are played out by those within it every time the book is read.  They have their own police, who do everything from pest control (such as controlling vermin that destroy punctuation) to making sure characters in books don’t lose their sanity and try and change the stories.

Thursday Next is a woman who is part of the Literary Crime unit (SO-13) in the alternate 1985 reality, trying to stop a man who has gotten his hands on a machine that allows people to cross over to the book reality.

It only gets weirder after that.

See?  I sound bonkers!  But if you actually read the Thursday Next series, all of that not only makes sense, it works in a perfectly coherent – and more importantly, consistent – manner.

Someone like Terry Pratchett bases the absurdity of his world on known fantasy tropes and things from the real world, to create a dark mirror reflecting our world through comic fantasy.  Two known quantities blended together to create something completely new.

Fforde, on the other hand, does only half of this.  The other half is often abstract, and often in ways that could never ever be produced as a TV show or movie (how, for example, could you have someone speak in Courier New?).

In Shades of Grey, his use of colour creates a new hierarchy and reality, one that is bizarre, absurd, but is easy to learn and makes its own kind of sense.  But then you start getting hints about what happened before.

This book takes place hundreds of years after the Something That Happened, an unknown catastrophe in the future which, from the ruins, the current Colourocrocy has emerged, one which continues to regress technologically in a series of Leapbacks, to the point where a Model T is the most advanced car allowed, and anything else is put “beyond use” with a heavy blunt instrument.

Once I start mentioning the absurdities of this world, such as giant man-eating swans, self repairing and self cleaning roads that use rain and leaves for energy, people hunting for ball lightning, and the fact that spoons are one of the rarest and most important items a person can own, and I’ll start sounding crazy again.  But like all of Fforde’s books, it makes perfect sense.

You just have a damn hard time describing it.

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