Black and What?

Dystopias are not all of the same stripe, or, in this case, color. Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey is perhaps the most colorful look at a bleak future I have ever read. The premise, funny and strangely serious, is that in the distant future color perception ability determines social rank. A cast of odd characters who see predominantly only one color vie for superiority while keeping to the rules of the founder of this society. The hilarious results often carry profound consequences. Those who live within this highly stratified culture fear those who do not, including a mysterious group known as the monochrome fundamentalists. The founder of the social order, Munsell, has achieved god-like status and his writings have the force of scripture.

This dystopia reflects, whether intentional or not, the social impact of many religions. Reading about the prefects, the political leaders of this culture, is like reading about the clergy who mistake spiritual guidance for power. The transition from pastor to politician is simple enough among social creatures like ourselves: we need those with persuasive powers to make decisions in accord with our best interests. Prefects and priests, however, are both eminently corruptible (let us say nothing of politicians) and evolution favors those who look out for themselves. The trick is to make others buy it.

Fforde’s dismal future includes Leapbacks where useful technology from the past is discarded in order to make people more compliant. In a world where color is a rare commodity, a modern usage of the rainbow seems apropos. Everything we are learning from psychology and biology—sciences still in their youth—suggests that sexual orientation is deeply ingrained, more so that just preferences or likes. The mainstream religions, however, have actively discriminated against those who are aware of their deepest needs. I know many excellent, caring individuals who’ve been kept from the ministry because of their orientation. Others who are clearly deleterious to the church climb to positions of power based on their approved sexual appetites. And society falls into lockstep with them. I don’t know Jasper Fforde’s political views, but along with him I would suggest that the ability to see shades of gray might be the best thing for any society, whether in the distant future, or especially, in the present.

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