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Literature / Shades of Grey

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JOE? Who's Joe?

Apart We Are Together.

A Science Fiction literary series, created by Jasper Fforde.

Over seven hundred years into the future, following a vague Something That Happened, the country of Chromatacia lies where Britain does today. The human race has transformed into an androgynous-looking race of people with very small pupils that can see one and only one color, all others appearing as shades of grey. Your social standing depends entirely on the one color you can see; those who see purple belong in the aristocracy, whereas those who see red are the working class. Achromatics, or "Greys", cannot see any color at all, and thus they're little more than slaves. These humans share the world with many species of giant, mutant creatures, including killer trees. Most oddly, every living creature has a barcode pattern growing naturally somewhere on their bodies. The entire country is run in the manner of a British boarding school, to the point where a person's worth is measured on how many merits they have.


Our protagonist is Eddie Russett, a young man and member of the House of Red. As punishment for having humiliated a prefect's son, he is banished to the village of East Carmine for a month of menial labor, along with his father, who is sent to replace the village's recently-deceased medical practitioner. After making himself at home and meeting the quirky locals, he falls head-over-heels for a feisty Achromatic named Jane, whose violent temper is as rare in Chromatacia as is the shape of her nose. Smitten, Eddie begins to stalk her, and in doing so he accidentally stumbles on an incredible secret, one that will rock their world to its foundation. Together, for better or worse, Eddie and Jane become the seeds of a revolution...

Not to be confused with the Web Comic or Interactive Fiction of the same name. Also, avoid confusing it with the BDSM novel 50 Shades of Grey.


This series contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Violet deMauve, first for Doug, then for Eddie. Atypically for this trope, Violet is attractive and very rich. Her personality is really that unpleasant.
  • After the End: The books is set an unspecified amount of time after Something That Happened; it's never made clear exactly what happened — nobody in Chromatacia has the mental acuity to wonder about it — but it evidently destroyed or at least displaced our own future civilization and left behind a world scattered with ruins, self-sustaining semi-organic roads, carnivorous plants, and a variety of weird animals.
  • Amazing Technicolor Wildlife: Several Chromatacian animals are very brightly colored, making them easily spottable by people with the appropriate color perception. Ratfinks and bouncing goats are vivid green, and squarriels bold red. Three rare animal species — the techniparrot, the purple frog and the clapping tree lobster — are unusual in being "univisual", meaning they have all primary and secondary colors somewhere on their bodies and can thus be perceived in color by everyone.
  • Ambiguous Gender: The citizens of Chromatacia are implied to be this, including Eddie, at least when compared to the Previous (us).
  • Arranged Marriage: Eddie to Constance Oxblood, then to Violet deMauve.
  • Berserk Button: Don't talk about Jane's nose. Call it retrousse and you die.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sure, Eddie is going to be Red prefect and has a chance of getting into National Color, but he and Jane can't get married because she's certified as Green, so he has to marry Violet and poor Dorian and Imogen got sent to High Saffron, where they will probably die horrible deaths.
  • Brown Note: Certain colours can trigger physical reactions in the inhabitants of Chromatacia. The main job of a swatchman (read: doctor) is to show people certain swatches of colour to get an appropriate physical reaction.
    • Two of the most prominent examples given in the story are Redlax, which (as the name suggests) is a laxative, and Lincoln, which is essentially a hallucinogenic drug.
    • A particular shade of greeny-red (Jane calls it "greed") triggers The Rot/ Mildew, which eventually leads to a swift and unpleasant death.
  • Chekhov's Gun: As noted elsewhere, each chapter begins with a quote from what are presumably the rules of Munsell. Most of them don't appear to have any greater significance, but one of the earlier chapters foreshadows part of the ending, namely Jane and Eddie being incompatible because they are complementary colours.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Chromatacia's entire social structure is set up on a color basis.
  • Color-Coded Patrician: What color people can see defines their social standing; Purples command the most respect. Wealthy people may choose to artificially dye their clothes so all can see it — a practice which the main character calls "a proudfully expensive and tastelessly ostentatious display."
  • Darwinist Desire: The motive behind Violet's Arranged Marriage to Eddie. The DeMauve line has been drifting closer to Blue for a while now, and they need a strong Red such as Eddie to keep them Purples.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Violet on Eddie. The fact that Eddie's own dad set it up just adds insult to injury.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: Each chapter opens with a quote from the rules.
  • Fantastic Caste System: Society in Chromatacia is strictly divided by what colors you can see — people who can't see any are the bottom of the social ladder and basically slaves, Reds are the lowest rung of actual society, Oranges to Greens form the middle class, Blues are generally wealthy and well-off, Purples form the ruling class and the rare Ultraviolets are treated almost as nobility.
  • Fantastic Vermin: Chromatacians have to deal with some fairly unusual pest animals, such as bouncing goats (kangaroo-goat hybrids that frequently bounce over stockwalls to raid farms and gardens) and ripping turtles (turtle-shaped robots built by the Previous to harvest scrap metal, which can and will tear their way into buildings to harvest metallic objects).
  • Fictional Color: The greeny-red color Jane calls "greed" can trigger The Rot/ Mildew, which causes Chromatacians to die within a few minutes of exposure.
  • Fingore: A blue girl accidentally chops some of her fingers off early in the book. It's not a big deal, and Holden sews them back on easily — one of the first signs of just how odd the inhabits of Chromatacia are.
  • Future Imperfect: The future people have forgotten a great deal about the past, and for the most part lack the curiosity to wonder about the things they don't know or question their own often mistaken assumptions. Among other things, the origins of most of the relics found in the Outland are lost — several hardy machines are mistaken for unusual animal species — as are most details of Previous life and society. Certain notable Previous are remembered in a distorted manner, such as M'Donna and Chuck Naurice, while the difference between fiction and non-fiction accounts has gotten blurred — the Chromatacians are fairly confident that Oz wasn't a real place, but it took them some time to work that out. Most notably, Albert Munsell, an art teacher from the late 1800s and the inventor of the Munsell color system, is remembered as a messianic figure who supposedly laid down the rules that Chromatacian society slavishly follows (which themselves resemble a boarding school rulebook more than anything else).
  • G-Rated Drug: Certain specific colors produce drug-like effects when viewed, and are the subject of illicit trading rings. At one point, Eddie is asked to "accidentally" over-order and "misplace" an extra copy of certain colors that father uses for medical purposes, in a manner very similar of people selling medicines as drugs.
  • How We Got Here: The book starts with Eddie inside a Yateveo. The first 9/10ths of the book are explaining how he ended up in such a pickle.
  • Human Architecture Horror: This trope is the ultimate fate of creatures that die atop (or get stuck in) pavement made of "Perpetulite". Perpetulite absorbs organic material from its surroundings to repair and renew itself, usually in the form of fallen leaves or errant wild giraffes. When Eddie, Jane, and Courtland make it to High Saffron, they see the remains of hundreds of people being dissolved in the floor of a Perpetulite pavilion made of a deadly green-ish redd-ish shade that triggers the Rot.
    "Lying beneath the surface of the Perpetulite, like a drowned man under ice, was a blank face staring back up at me. His mouth was wide open and his hands palms up. His bones were all perfectly visible within the gentle overlay of soft tissue, and even the herringbone pattern of his jacket was discernible. Like the giraffe I had seen outside East Carmine, the indiscriminate organoplastoid had simply absorbed him as if he were nothing more than rainwater or leaf litter. But as I stared at the apparition in the smooth surface, I noticed that another, more fully digested body was just discernible to his left. And beyond that there was another. And another. As I looked around, I saw that the swirling pattern I had assumed was as random as that in linoleum was actually a jumble of semi-digested people, lying in haphazard profusion. The Perpetulite had consumed their tissue, bones, teeth, clothes—and left behind only the indigestible parts, which were simply moved tidily to the side."
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: The Riffraff (or the Digenous, as they call themselves) are implied to be the descendants of unaltered humanity.
  • Informed Ability: Jane turns out to be a Green. Given how much she knows about herself (and assuming it isn't some sort of head office conspiracy implemented by Gloss), there is no way in hell she wouldn't have known or suspected and let Edward know as soon as they began to really draw closer, though she's only just barely a Green (she's rated as having 14% Yellow vision and 12% Blue, with 10% being the cutoff) so it's not impossible that she simply didn't notice.
  • Inventor of the Mundane: More like Rediscoverer of the Mundane. Eddie sits on the sharp end of "a spoon or fork or something" which turns out to be a spork. After it's removed, he uses the concept of a spoon-fork hybrid as a valuable bargaining chip, because there is a law against manufacturing spoons and they've become so rare that people engrave their names on theirs and pass them on to their descendants.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: The book's setting is in a post-'Something That Happened' England where the culture is based around a book of English boarding school rules.
  • Loophole Abuse: How a surprising amount of things are accomplished in Chromatacia, really. Stuck between the inviolable rules and the need for certain things to get done (things usually required by other rules), loopholery has become a proud tradition.
  • Lovable Rogue: Tommo Cinnabar. A snitch, drug addict, and all-around ne'er-do-well with a money fetish, but a charming and likeable one nonetheless.
  • Made of Plasticine: The denizens of Chromatacia lose body parts and break bones with surprising frequency and generally not by what we'd consider sufficient force. Often played for laughs.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Chromatacian culture has an extremely strong taboo against complementary-color relationships.
  • Man-Eating Plant: The Yateveo, a tentacled tree-sized pitcher plant that can grab and consume creatures as large as a kudu.
  • Meaningful Name: Family names suggest the colors they can see: the Russetts, a Red family; the deMauves, a Purple family; Gamboge, the Yellow prefect; etc.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: The wildernesses of the main setting, which takes place where England is today, is home to creatures such as elephants, zebras and kudu antelopes. In this case, it's assumed that whatever the Previous and the Something That Happened did to fill the world with hybrid and altered animals was also responsible for these creatures' presence.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: Some of Chromatacia's creatures are hybrids of two or more real-life species, such as ratfinks (rodents with lizard scales and claws), bouncing goats (goat front/top half, kangaroo bottom/hind half) and rhinosauruses (sauropods with rhino heads).
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Legends of the Previous, such as M'Donna and Chuck Naurice.
  • Not Himself: Eddie and Jane pass off Courtland's death as misadventure while saving Eddie's life. Most of the townsfolk accept this, but Courtland's mother confronts Eddie in private, saying that she knows perfectly well her son hated Eddie and wouldn't have even done Eddie a minor favor, much less risk his own life on Eddie's behalf. Eddie realizes that he and Jane may have to come up with more convincing cover stories in the future.
  • Our Founder: Both East Carmine and High Saffron have a twice-life size statue of Our Munsell in the town square.
  • Phlebotinum: Perpetulite, a material used to build roads. Technically alive, it shifts to push obstacles out of the way and survives by absorbing nutrients from any organic debris that may fall on it, including dead leaves, weeds, roadkill, and people, essentially eliminating the need for any road maintenance. It was developed by the Previous long before the start of the novel, and the technology used to create it has been lost to time.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The Apocryphal man is four hundred and fifty one, but otherwise appears to be a perfectly normal adult man.
  • Scannable Man: Barcodes. Every person and every animal has one somewhere on their body.
  • Shout-Out:
    • One of Eddie Russett's friends is named Floyd Pinken.
    • Prefect Yewberry warns Eddie and his father about Pookas in Rusty Hill, saying they've appeared here and there, now and then, to this one and that one.
    • When Eddie is Zane's house in Rusty Hill, there's a television playing 'Raiders of the Lost Ark''.
    • The Oz Memorial and all the works of art. According to the author the Oz Memorial is not actually to the Wizard of Oz, but instead to Frank Oz, the voice actor.
    • Most characters have last names relating to their colors, however grays are only referred to as G-(insert number here). So we end up having Zane the Grey, Jane the Grey, and Dorian the Grey.
    • Subtler than the others, but throughout Eddie refers to the Ishihara, the test all citizens take in order to have their colour perception levels certified. In real life, the Ishihara test is used for a similar purpose - to test colour-blindness, rather than colour-perception.
    • In-universe, Munsell created a society that ranks people based on individual sensitivity to color. In real life, Albert H. Munsell created a classification of colors based on mathematical models of human perception in general.
    • Many parts of the book could be construed as references to The Giver, but perhaps the most obvious one is the discussion of the confusion between "snack" and "smack".
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Eddie and Jane. At first due to different social standing, and the fact she keeps threatening to kill him, later due to him being a very strong Red and her being a very weak Green, and complementary colors must never mate.
  • Stealth Pun:
    • One of the minor characters is a photographer who can only see grey and is called Dorian. Hmmm...
    • In fact, all of the Greys are stealth puns. Unlike other characters, they aren't given last names that are actual color shades, instead being G-17 or G-24 etc. So in addition to Dorian Gray we have Jane Grey, Zane Grey...
    • Not to mention the love story between Edward and Jane.
  • Take a Number: Eddie sets one up in his father's office.
  • Unperson: Apocryphals would be... if they existed, which they don't.
  • Unusual Euphemism: You know (sex) and thingying (masturbation)
  • When Trees Attack: The Yateveo, a species of carnivorous tree well-known for snatching inattentive hikers with its tentacle-like branches and dumping them in its digestive cavity.
  • Wild Wilderness: Chromatacia consists for the most part of wilderness, with townships and their assigned farming land scattered through it and connected by train lines. The land beyond town limits, called the Outland, is trackless wilderness home to megafauna, man-eating trees, and semi-nomadic Riffraff tribes, all of which periodically menace towns. Any given Chromatacian settlement is by definition closer to the Outland than to any other town.