Shades of Grey, Colour, and Visual Perception
Since commenters brought it up when I wrote about Uglies, I thought I would discuss Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, here. I actually read it several months ago and discussed Shades of Grey at this ain’t livin’ (spoilers at that link), although I didn’t delve as deeply into the disability-related aspects of the book. Shades of Grey has some very interesting implications in terms of disability, especially in the way we think about vision and the visible world. I’m keeping this review nonspoilery, for those who haven’t read the book and would like to approach it unspoilt, and I would appreciate it if people would avoid spoilers in comments.
In Shades of Grey, our characters live in a very hierarchical society which is reminiscent in many ways of the 1950s England which has furnished such rich material for satire and commentary for so many authors. It’s a highly regimented and very orderly world. People do not step out of line, and that includes trying to change social classes. There is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do things, and one does not want to rock the boat by being rebellious. There are, in fact, serious consequences for going against the rules of society.
This is a society which is organised in terms of colour perception. Your rank in society is literally dependent on which colours you see and colour perception also influences job opportunities, who people can marry, and where people can live. The social classes are nicknamed by the colours they see, such as Greens, Yellows, Reds, Purples, and, of course, an underclass, the Greys. And within classes, there are further subranks, based on how much of any given colour someone can see; this is determined by a test when people are young adults, and that test can determine the course of someone’s life.
Artificial colour to allow people to see the entire spectrum is provided by National Colour and one of the class signaling methods which people can use is purchasing costly things made with artificial colours to show off to their neighbors. When people are sick, they are treated by being exposed to coloured cards which are carefully calibrated to address various diseases. It’s a book which is literally saturated in colour.
Much like the world we live in is saturated with visual elements. People may not be ranked as rigidly as they are in Shades of Grey by how much they can perceive visually, but differences in visual perception are definitely used to organise people hierarchically and varying levels of visual impairment are treated radically differently. And people who see ‘perfectly’ can be awfully smug about it, much like the lead character in Shades of Grey, as though it’s a personal accomplishment to have 20/20 vision.
As a person with visual impairments, I found this book fascinating and intriguing and it generated all kinds of food for thought as I considered the way I interact with society and the way in which things are definitely tailored in particular ways for the benefits of particular people. For me, it was a jarring reminder that we become trapped in systems which feel perfectly normal until they are viewed from the outside, and then we see how very harmful they really are.
While the ranking of people in terms of how much they can see is treated as normal and perfectly acceptable within society of the book, it’s clear that we, are readers, are meant to find it rather bizarre, arbitrary, and perhaps even a bit abhorrent. I am curious to know how many other readers applied their thinking about the book to the world around them.
In case it’s not clear from this, I would highly recommend Shades of Grey and I am looking forward to future entries in this series, which will hopefully generate more fodder for discussion.