There is no light or colour as a fact in external nature. There is merely motion of material. . . . When the light enters your eyes and falls on the retina, there is motion of material. Then your nerves are affected and your brain is affected, and again this is merely motion of material. . . . The mind in apprehending experiences sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone.
Fforde's world this time is not to be found on library shelves or in nursery rhymes; it's a wholly new invention, taking as its foundation the light spectrum. Citizens are classed by what they see; that is, their station in life is determined not by the colour of their skin, but by the colours they are able to perceive. Heredity also plays a role in that colours can be mixed; offspring are generally expected to inherit the ability to perceive to a certain degree a mix of the colours of their parents (marriages between complementary colours are forbidden).
This is a parody of a dystopia, set in our future. The event that brought about this society is never specified, but there are a few references to the world and personages we know.
Every page sheds light on some absurdity, the structure of this society dependent on such rules. For the most part, the book plays as sheer entertainment, although there is the occasional glimmer of social commentary, where the danger of blind conformity to order is quite pointed.
But Shades of Grey is funny.
Suddenly my eye was caught by the figure of a man in his early thirties, standing in the shadows of the alleyway opposite. He was grimy and unshaven and had NC-B4 carved rather clumsily below his left clavicle — most scars were neat affairs, but his looked like a bad weld. He was also inappropriately naked and, while staring vacantly up at the sky, was actually peeing on his left foot.
"Stafford?" I whispered, a tremor of fear sounding in my voice.
"Yes, Master Edward?"
"There's a naked man in the alleyway behind us. I think it might be . . . Riffraff."
Stafford turned around, looked at the man and said, "I don't see anyone."
"How can you not see him? He's peeing on his own foot."
"Master Edward, you can't see him."
"You can't. He doesn't exist, Master Edward — take Our Munsell's word for it."
I suddenly understood. The Rules, despite their vast complexity and extensive range, had no way of dealing with anything that had no explainable position within a world of absolutes. So instead of attempting to understand or explain them, they were simply awarded the status of Apocrypha and stridently ignored lest they raise questions of fallibility.
"He's Apocryphal?" I asked.
"He would be if he were there — which he isn't."
I understood Stafford's reticence. Admitting that Apocrypha actually existed was a grave impiety punishable by a five-hundred-merit fine. A whole range of euphemistic language had developed to refer to them, but no one generally did — a slip of tense could leave your hard-won merit score in tatters.
"I've never actually seen an Apocryphal man," I noted, unable to stop staring, "and, um, still haven't. Do you think they might all look the same — if they existed?"
"I've only not seen one," said Stafford, following my gaze to where the unseeable man was now pouring cooling water over himself from a water butt, "so I've no idea what one shouldn't look like."
The plot of Shades of Grey is at times a little unfocused, but the world-building is an extraordinary feat! It seems the spoons in my house go missing for entirely different reasons, thankfully, than those which brought about the spoon shortage in Fforde's world. (The version I read was colorized for spelling.)
I've read, and loved, all but one of the Thursday Next books; I read the first Nursery Crimes book and intend to read on. I'm pleased that Fforde is capable of stretching his creativity in this entirely new direction, and I look forward to reading further adventures set amid this colour-based society.