Shades of Grey

Posted by : atcampbell | On : December 5, 2011

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

The North Austin Reading Group met on December 5th at the North Village Branch of the Austin Public Library to discuss Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey.  Eight people attended; all had read Fforde before.  All started the book and 6 finished it.  The book was published by Viking Adult, December 2009.  It is available in hardback, paperback, audio book and on the Kindle.  One innovation, “The Shades of Grey Cheat Sheet,” can be found at  It’s a two-page list of some of the high points of a difficult-to-describe book.

This element—being hard to describe—made the book ideal for a discussion group.  The setting is of a dystopian post-apocalyptic society (the Something that Happened) with a pecking order determined by one’s sensitivity to and perception of color.  The “New Order” had undertaken “The Great Leap Backward” and enforced a plethora of rules for which no one really understood the rationale.  The Greys were the lowest social order; Reds were next up, and so on up the chromatic scale.

There is a great deal of social satire and humor of an especially British flavour.  Most of the group enjoyed it, but a few knew they were missing some things.  One member didn’t finish the book because the humor didn’t appeal to him.  Another had nominated it for the Hugo because he especially enjoyed the humor and imagination displayed.

An animated discussion illustrated why the members enjoy this group so much.  One discussed Fforde’s background in film as making his work “visual” and giving him a lot of knowledge about the technology of color and the ability to translate this into his writing—and then went on to contrast Fforde, Miéville and Stross (who is visually impaired) as to the relationship between being able to write visually and relative commercial success.  Another member knows everything about Crayolas (see, for example) and has a nearly-complete collection of them.  This was followed by a discussion of the development of color scale by Arthur Munsell (hue, value and chroma) and subsequent systems (RGB, CMYK, L*a*b, etc.) and how a “rebel” in Fforde’s society might prefer a different color scale than the administration.

One member especially liked the ambiguity: “What exactly is he making fun of?”  Another reread the book to “savor the language.”  She “looked forward to the end of each paragraph for something wonderful—or bizarre.”  Most agreed that “there are no coincidences in Fforde’s books.”  Everything is thought out, written and rewritten, edited and, according to one member, literally ripped out of his hands by the editors.

In summary, this is considered by most to be a funny, enjoyable and imaginative book, and they are looking forward to the next in the series even though it won’t be out until 2014.  But be ready for a humor that is sharp and with a British flavor.  Don’t expect belly laughs.  Well, maybe a few . . . .

After the meeting, the group enjoyed dinner at the Korea House on West Anderson Lane.

— Tom Sciance