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.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

6 thoughts on “Shades of Grey, Colour, and Visual Perception

  1. Interesting.

    I don’t have a particularly severe visual impairment with regards to normal every day life, but I am substantially red/green color blind, and this definitely affects my job opportunities in my field (3d animation). There are a lot of things that I really enjoy doing, but cannot do professionally due to visual impairment. The jobs I can do are limited to those that don’t require good color perception. And that’s a pretty substantial limitation.

    So I don’t consider myself normal-life impaired (very few things in day-to-day life require good color perception), but I certainly consider myself so with regards to my field of choice.

    Maybe that’s a little off-topic (not sure). But figured I’d share. It’s definitely been a blow to me, and it is something I have struggled with for quite some time. But I also don’t see it as a limitation imposed on me by others, but rather as a natural limitation of my body.

  2. I will definitely get the book! I have had vision in only one eye since early teens, and the remaining eye is heavily corrected with glasses. I’ve been having the 2D vision only up in my face lately, with all the popular movies coming out in 3D, which I can’t see. I have to find a theater to take my kids to which shows the 2D version. Also, I’ve been noticing some new buildings I’ve been in do not have good contrast on stairs, steps, corners, and I’ve tripped more than a few times, on the “stylish” looking stairs which are all a medium gray with no shadows. I rarely think of my vision issues as disabling because I have other, more disabling issues, but lately it has come up quite a bit. This book review was timely. Thanks for the post!

  3. I will probably read the sequels, even though I love his Thursday Next and Nursery Crime* books more. I’d love to know HOW it happened – I read the companion book for the Uglies series, but that was kind of obvious, but how do you see “artificial” color if you can’t see “real” color? What is the difference? Does that actually have some basis in fact? I mean, a small basis extrapolated and exaggerated for narrative purposes.

    And what is up with the spoons?

    My vision started getting bad in 5th grade (when I was 10) and got worse faster because of the thyroid problems, but no coke bottle lenses. And no one ever picked on me for my glasses. I mean, I picked on my mom for her old ’80s glasses because they were so… ’80s, but not the fact that she needed them. It was just a given. (Beck’s weird for making it to 19 with 20/20 vision, because so many people on both sides of my family have 4 eyes. Though she did wear glasses with no frames or no prescription for a while to “look smart”.)

    Back to the book – what I find interesting is that their ranking in society can change based on the test. And the bit where he tells her about her hair kind of reminded me of people asking people who have been blind since birth if they “miss” color.

    *This summer, I’ll probably re-read my other Fforde books (for the zillionth time) looking for disability parallels. Well, there is Landen, who lost a leg in the Crimea, but he’s hardly a super crip or inspirational or perfect, he’s just … a person. But what about the Neanderthals? An obvious angle is racial, but what about the fact that they are physically and mentally different from humans and thus cannot or will not do what “normal” people do? They can’t reproduce, and I forget if it’s a product of the cloning (no, pickwick had a kid and she was cloned) or an error or a deliberate choice on the part of Goliath. Nursery Crimes – anthropomorphic animals, boring aliens… um…

  4. Oops I forgot. Ms M: seems like everywhere I go I find another person that can’t watch 3D. I can kinda watch it, but vastly prefer not to as it doesn’t work that great – having 3D glasses on top of my regular glasses. I really hope we aren’t going to have to start asking for non-3D accessible theatres anytime in the future.

  5. @Kaitlyn, the Neanderthal’s reproductive issues were a deliberate choice on Goliath’s part, if I remember the books correctly (can’t go check them because I’ve currently lent mine out… all of them 😛 ) They were, to varying degrees, upset about it (and rightly so, in my opinion).

  6. Ooh, thanks for writing about this book – I love the Thursday Next stories but haven’t read some of Fford’s other works, including this book.

    Somewhat relatedly, would anybody be interested in having a group in goodreads with books with disability themes? I could set that up if there is interest.

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