I want to spend some time roundly abusing this episode, which may well be the worst hour of Star Trek ever. And that's including Star Trek: Nemesis... wait, what?
Oh, right! I'm actually writing about Shades of Grey, a futuristic fantastic novel by one Jasper Fforde (whose last name, being Welsh, is probably pronounced nothing like what it looks). Shades of Grey happens, by coincidence, to remind me of the short film Rainbow War from the nineteen-eighties.
One of the things that struck me about Shades of Grey was the easy, clever style in which it was written, a style which I have noticed that just about every British author, at least of the twentieth century, whom I have read possesses. As disparate a crew as C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Mr Fforde (among others) here all seem, at times, to write with elegance and wit unmatched by writers of English of other lands (most notably America, nearly all of whose popular writers - the Dan Browns, the Richard Paul Evanses, et al. - have a stylistic reach that exceeds their grasp). Fforde, as we shall see, may be said to resemble Pratchett or Adams, both of whose names are invoked on the back cover of Shades of Grey in a blurb from the L. A. Times Book Review.
I was initially thinking I would comment upon passages in which Fforde displays his effortless, breezy style, but the clever throwaway lines and oddball comments diminish as Shades of Grey continues; it turns out with good reason. Not to give too much away (not that this has stopped me in other marginal commentaries), but it transpires that Shades of Grey is the first of a series of books (of which at least three have been planned; the second, according to Mr Fforde's website, is to be published sometime in 2013). It bears a subtitle: The Road to High Saffron. While I will comment upon such witticisms as come up (the first few chapters, especially, are full of them), part of what I will comment upon is the use and abuse of power.
Here we go:
The world in Shades of Grey is an hierarchy based on what range of light people can see: no one can see the full spectrum of colour the way that we can, and those who see certain hues are more privileged than others. But it is more complicated than that, for above the colour-based social spectrum are the Rules, allegedly created by a man named Munsell, and enforced by a mysterious agency called Head Office, supported by the organisation which tests people for their perception of colour and which is responsible for making colour available to all, an organisation called National Color (interestingly, the edition of the book I have, a Viking publication, uses Americanised spelling). Describing this world on his website, Fforde writes: 'imagine Eton run by the Khmer Rouge', which should give you some idea of what to expect.
This book is the story of a young man by the name of Eddie Russett, and is written from his point of view, as if he were telling us about what was happening. Straightaway Eddie tells us that he is 'being eaten by a carnivorous plant. [p. 1]' He lists, briefly, some of the things that happened between the beginning of his story and what would appear to be the end, his certain digestion within the plant's innards. But the best part about the first chapter is the wit:
[I]t wasn't all bad, for... I was lucky to have landed upside down. I would drown in under a minute, which was far, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks. [p. 1] Does this remind anyone of a certain sedentary carnivore from another science fiction genre? This isn't the wittiest passage in the book; but I couldn't help refer to it and what it reminds me of.
But the truth inevitably found me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind. [ibid.] The analogy which Fforde employs to describe how important truths are discovered is brilliant, because it encapsulates an idea which would take much time to explain in other words, while Fforde has found a way of crystallising it in a brief clause.
The Badly Drawn Map might not have been very exciting, but it was very well named. ... [W]e stared blankly for some minutes at the faded parchment, hoping to either misunderstand it on a deeper level or at least get our money's worth. [p. 5]This probably describes the experience of most people when it comes to art. 'Voice of Fire', anyone?
My friends were horrified, expressed low-to-moderate outrage that I should be treated this way [Eddie has been more or less banished to the Outer Fringes] and proclaimed that they would have started a petition if they could have troubled themselves to look for a pencil. "The Fringes are the place of the slack-willed, slack-jawed, and slack-hued," remarked Floyd Pinken, who could comfortably boast all three of those attributes, if truth be known. [p. 6] Yes, the name is a play on what you think it is. Also, Eddie has pretty lame friends. There is also a certain amount of genius in the 'it takes one to know one' comment. Eddie, it seems, is not much of a friend himself.
The Oz Memorial trumped the Badly Drawn Map in that it was baffling in three dimensions rather than just two. [p. 7] Yet another satirical comment on the world of art, this time regarding sculpture, while demonstrating more of the odd, alien world in which Eddie Russett lives.
"But it wasn't all bad," added the curator, a Red with very bushy eyebrows. "At least I can lay claim to being the last person ever to hear Mr. Simply Red." [p. 9] Yes, that's who you think it is. The confusion that the band Simply Red is a man stems from the fact that all surnames in this futuristic post-apocalyptic world are, literally, colorful; Eddie's surname is Russett (as is his father's), and there is the aforementioned Floyd Pinken. Others shall appear, as we shall see.
My favourite is the 'deeper misunderstanding' of the Badly Drawn Map; as odd as the world Fforde has created for this series is, the folks still have a lot in common with us, including a willingness to try to get their money's worth from things they don't 'get', something a lot of visitors to art galleries do, I have no doubt.
The initial picture we have of the society in which Eddie lives is that it appears to be, to quote Douglas Adams, 'mostly harmless'. (Incidentally, the name of this society is Chromatacia, but that appears in the blurb on the dust jacket; I don't recall reading it in the book anywhere.) The Rules seem onerous, but gently so, and except for the kind of idiotic bureaucratic lapse we are ourselves accustomed to - the phonograph at the museum Eddie and his father visit has been smashed beyond repair, for example, because the paperwork to keep it intact wasn't filed properly (p. 8) - life here seems moderately pleasant. I wouldn't want to live there, but having the social hierarchy, however strict, based on the spectrum of colour one can see (with a foolproof way of telling how well one can see colour) seems a lot less worse than many that have actually existed. There is also, of course, a good deal of getting around the Rules, just as there is in any society.
Meanwhile, partway in the book we meet a friendly man from the aforementioned National Color. The name strikes one as a British public service, and in Chromatacia it is a prestigious one. Imagine a park warden, oil pipe repairman, painter, and public works minister all rolled up into one. His name is Matthew Gloss, and he is referred to as the 'Colorman', or even by the slightly archaic 'His Colorfulness' (p. 147; it is somewhat equivalent to calling an Anglican bishop of Canada, 'my Lord Bishop'). It is Eddie's dream to work for National Color; I can think of no office of public service in Canada, Great Britain, or the United States to which to compare Colormen that is held in similarly high honour, or which has a sufficient number of people able to hold it simultaneously, except, perhaps, the old Indian Civil Service of the British Empire.
The abusive nature of the power which welds society together becomes evident pretty quick; however, despite Fforde's clever work at establishing the system as mostly harmless in the beginning.
[U]ntil the week before [Eddie's story begins], I hadn't even heard of East Carmine, let alone thought I would be spending a month there on Humility Realignment. ...
"You're doing a what?" she [Constance Oxblood, Eddie's potential fiancée] asked when I mentioned the reason I was going to East Carmine.
"A chair census, my poppet," I explained. "Head Office is worried that the chair density might have dropped below the proscribed 1.8 per person."
"How absolutely thrilling. Does an ottoman count as a chair or a very stiff cushion?" She went on to say that I would be showing significant daring and commendable bravery if I went[.] [pp. 6-7] Eddie is going to do a census of chairs of all things as, in effect, a 'make-work' project, something to teach him a lesson. The astute reader notices what Eddie does not - that Constance is being heavily sarcastic. The 'chair census' certainly helps give the impression of a thoroughly trivial government. Italics in the quotation are original.
[Eddie is on the train to East Carmine and is talking about the postal system with a stowaway Yellow by the name of Travis Canary, who is supposed to be on the Night Train to Emerald City, which means he is supposed to be Rebooted, a form of re-education for residents who have collected many demerits.] "But here's the really stupid bit: [said Travis] The postal service's operating parameters are enshrined in the Rules and can't be changed, so Head Office reduced personal relocation in order to impose a lesser burden on the postal service."
"That's insane," I said...
"That's the Rules," said the Yellow, "and the Rules are infallible, remember?"
This was true, too. The Word of Munsell was the Rules, and the Rules were the Word of Munsell. They regulated everything we did, and had brought peace to the Collective [this is the name by which society is usually referred to in the book] for nearly four centuries. They were sometimes very odd indeed: The banning of the number that lay between 72 and 74 was a case in point, and no one had ever fully explained why it was forbidden to count sheep, make any new spoons or use acronyms. But they were the Rules - and presumably, for some very good reason, although what that might be was not entirely obvious. [p. 29] Italics original. Again, this paragraph on the Rules suggests that they are more silly than stuffy. The lack of new spoons creates a shortage (referred to earlier in the book), and the increased value of spoons and the fact that everyone tries to have one with his or her postcode (what we would call a postal code) engraved on it become vital elements of the plot. The presence of Travis Canary, who becomes Eddie's friend (friendship being bestowed in a Rule-directed way, of course), is not the first sign of things not being as they seem, but he cuts a desperate figure, running away from being Rebooted.
We never directly see Emerald City, the seat of national government, nor do we meet an agent of Head Office. But we do meet a number of prefects (every municipality is governed by prefecture) and other agents of local government; and in East Carmine, we soon learn what kind of people they are:
Waiting to greet the train were a stationmaster, a freight dispatcher, a postman, and a Yellow arrivals monitor, whose job it was to log in the arrivals. ...
We were the only ones to alight, so the Yellow had little to do.
"Codes and point of depature?" she said without preamble, or even a welcome. ...
"So," said Dad to fill the embarrassing silence, "is there anyone here to meet us?"
"Sort of," she replied, without giving any further information. Her attitude would have been considered outrageously rude in any other hue; with Yellows it was pretty much standard operating procedure. ...
"Mr. Russett and son?" he inquired. [The only person meeting Eddie and his father, who is there to temporarily replace the town doctor, called a swatchman, is a Grey porter.] ... "I'm Stafford G-8. The head prefect asked me to take you to your quarters."
"They are busy, then?"
"Oh, lumme," he muttered, suddenly realizing that a prefectless welcome might seem a mite insulting. "Please don't read anything into it. The prefects always play mixed doubles on Tuesday afternoons."
"Croquet or tennis?"
Dad and I exchanged glances. It perhaps confirmed what we had already suspected - that a streak of discourtesy had corrupted the Outer Fringes. While we thought about this, the porter noticed the Yellow woman approaching with Travis. [Oddly, Travis paid Eddie to snitch on him to the arrivals monitor.] ...
"A sloppy half-Windsor is the first symptom of serial indolence," she replied in the patronizing voice that Yellows reserve for Rule-breakers, "and ignoring the infraction gives the impression that it is acceptable to be inappropriately attired. The next day it might be badly polished shoes, then uncouth language, showing off and impoliteness. Before one knows it, the rot of disharmony would start to disassemble everything that we know and cherish."
She then said something about how he [Travis] was a "disgrace to his hue," and they took a footpath toward the village.
"Who was the Yellow?" asked my father.
"Miss Bunty McMustard," explained Stafford, picking up our cases, "deputy snitch and unwavering supporter of Sally Gamboge, the Yellow prefect. Bunty's a nasty piece of work, and totally untrustworthy. If I tell you she's the nicest Yellow in authority, it will give you an idea of how bad the others are."
"The least bitey piranha?"
"Got it in one. Speaking of piranhas, watch out for Mrs. Gamboge's son. His name's Courtland, and he's the best."
"The best what?"
"The best avoided. He and Bunty are due to be married, as soon as Courtland gets around to asking her." [pp. 37-40] Our introduction to the authorities in East Carmine is unpleasant, but again, Fforde makes them out to be more venial than vicious. Bunty McMustard (the name is genius) is rude, bossy and overly serious, exactly the kind of person you would imagine being officially second-in-command in a relatively despotic prefecture; the sort, say, you would see at a badly-run British public school.
In short order we meet the Yellow prefect herself, Sally Gamboge:
"The head prefect will be attending you soon," said Gamboge, addressing my father, "but in the meantime I was wondering if you could look at some Greys who are claiming to be unwell? If you'd countersign a malingering report, I can dock some merits and knock some sense into the work-shy scalybacks. It'll only take ten minutes."
"I'll, um, do what I can," said my father, mildly perturbed by the Yellow prefect's obvious dislike of her workforce. Yellows were in charge of Grey employment allocation. Some did it well, others badly. Gamboge was clearly one of the latter. [p. 55] Not much needed to say here, for Eddie provides all the editorial comment about Sally Gamboge that we need.
Then Eddie has the 'pleasure' of entertaining all of the prefects:
I again expected it to be the head prefect at the front door, and again it wasn't. On the step was a wrinkly old woman with two rosy bumps for cheeks and a cheery grin. ... She wore a bright synthetic Purple spot and, below that, several merit badges and an upside-down head prefect badge - she had once run the village. ... She was also carrying a cake: a plain, jamless sponge cake, but with the unusual luxury of a single bright red glacéed cherry atop a sheet of perfect white icing. "The new swatchman?" she asked in an incredulous tone. "You seem barely out of short pants." [A 'swatchman' is the Collective's version of doctor and paramedic rolled into one; Eddie's father is a swatchman. Somehow these people are able to be cured of illness by looking at different colours. Swatchmen carry swatches of colour which they show to patients to cure them of illness; hence the name.]
"That would be my father," I replied. "He's with Mrs. Gamboge, sorting out the malingerers. Can I help?"
"I suppose one must get used to the swatchmen getting younger," she said, sighing, as if I'd not spoken. "Welcome to East Carmine."
I thanked her, and she told me that her name was Widow deMauve, that she could see lots of purple and that she was our next-door neighbor. ... [S]he finally asked me if I would like the cake.
"That's very kind," I replied, taking the cake from her, "and with a cherry of all things. Would you like to come in?"
... "Aren't you forgetting something?" [she asked.]
I made no reply, so she pointed at the cherry cake.
"That will be half a merit, please."
It was a ridiculous price, even from someone who could see a lot of purple.
"However, if you decide not to eat it, I would gladly buy it back at cost - minus the seventy-five percent handling fee."
"Can I buy the cake without the cherry?" I asked after a moment's thought.
"Really!" she said in an affronted tone. "What point is cherry cake without the cherry?"
"Having trouble, Mother?"
A man had trotted up the three steps to the front door. He was dressed in long prefectural robes that must have been pure magenta. He was undoubtedly the head prefect. He was also middle-aged, tall, and athletic, and he looked vaguely affable. Behind him were two other brightly colored and wholly authoritarian figures, who I assumed were the rest of the prefects. Widow deMauve piped up.
"Mr. Russett is refusing to pay for the cake I made him."
The head prefect looked me up and down. "You seem a bit young for a swatchman."
"Please, sir, I'm not Mr. Russett, I'm his son."
"Then why did you say you were?" asked Widow deMauve suspiciously.
"Oh," she said in a shocked tone, "so I'm a liar now, am I?"
"Are you refusing to pay?" asked the head prefect.
"No, sir." I paid off the old woman, who chuckled to herself and hurried away.
Head Prefect deMauve - I assumed this was he, even though he had not and would not introduce himself to a junior - stepped into the house and looked me up and down as though I were a haunch of beef. ...
Along with deMauve were the Blue and Red prefects, who I would soon learn were named Turquoise and Yewberry. Turquoise appeared a decent chap, but Yewberry looked a fool. I saw them to their seats before hurrying back to the kitchen. ...
When I returned to the drawing room... I couldn't help but notice that the Council had purloined all the sugar lumps in my absence. ...
"Master Russett," said deMauve, washing his scone down with a mouthful of tea, "I think I should keep your return ticket for safekeeping. There are elements within the village who are eager to attempt an unauthorized relocation. Have you been asked to sell it yet, by the way?"
"No, sir," I replied without a pause. Dorian's secret offer would remain just that - secret. [Dorian is a Grey, who, it transpires, is trying to get out of East Carmine with his girlfriend Imogen Fandango, a Purple, which makes their possible union much frowned-upon; it would be forbidden by her father.]
"We'll give you ten merits if you report to us who asks."
"I'll remember that, sir, thank you."
"Jolly good. Well, hand it over, then."
"I - um - would like to keep it, if that is all right."
"Well, it isn't all right with me one little bit, Russett," replied deMauve sharply. "Perhaps you think we are sloppy with our responsibilities here in the Fringes? If your Open Return were to be stolen, your ability to broaden yourself would be much curtailed."
He was right. Due to a loophole in the Rules, an Open Return could never be questioned or rescinded, and was invaluable to anyone attempting an illegal relocation - hence the two hundred merits Dorian had already offered me.
"No, sir, but-"
"But nothing," barked Yewberry. "Do as the head prefect requests, or we will have to consider charges of Gross Impertinence."
They all stared at me and I caved under their disapproving looks. I handed over my ticket.
DeMauve took it without a word and placed it in his pocket. ...
"Hmm," murmured deMauve after he had read Dad's total [number of merits]. "Impressive."
"They were my wife's," said Dad simply.
"Indeed?" replied deMauve, no longer so impressed. "She must have been a fine woman. We're sorry for your loss."
"Was it lightning?" asked Mrs. Gamboge in a hopeful sort of voice.
Dad paused, hoping that they wouldn't press him, but these prefects were different from our bunch. Old Man Magenta might have been a fool and a martinet, but he knew when to let personal matters drop. [pp. 57-67] I have quoted this lengthy passage because it reveals as much about the prefects of East Carmine as it hides. (I have omitted a great deal, of course.) The prefects seem to be a pretty venial, greedy bunch (with the exception of Turquoise, whom Eddie describes as a 'decent chap'), and, from the final couple of paragraphs, prying. Head Prefect deMauve encourages snitching (reminiscent of High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge). He expects Eddie to hand over so valuable a possession as his return ticket without a fuss, however, and we learn that it is as good as lost to Eddie (he'd pretty much have to buy it back at an exorbitant price from deMauve); this is a more vicious form of the kind of behaviour displayed by Widow deMauve, who forces her cherry cake upon Eddie. Neither of the deMauves pays much respect or heed to Eddie, and both interpret his comments in the worst possible light. (We are later introduced to Prefect deMauve's daughter, Violet, who is a chip off the old block.) Fforde is careful to make the prefects seem obsessed with trivia, but shows enough of their true colours, as it were, to demonstrate that Eddie is going to face a lot of challenges in his time at East Carmine.
We then meet Eddie's chief antagonist, Courtland Gamboge, son of the Yellow prefect (Sally). Incidentally, in the passage that follows there are a great number of italics original to the text, but it would be tiresome to note them; this is just to let you know that all italics in the passage itself (not counting bracketed comments or the commentary at the end of the passage) are original:
"Right," he [Tommo Cinnabar, about whom Eddie later says that he is ' "someone who would sell their own toes for a couple of extra merits. [p. 311]" ' He reminds me of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back.] said enigmatically. "We're off to the Sorting Pavilion. It's time you met the Big Banana."
The Big Banana, I discovered, was the name given to Courtland Gamboge, the Yellow prefect's son. I asked Tommo why Courtland wanted to meet me, and Tommo explained that Gamboge-the-younger liked to meet everyone. He... was certain to take over from his mother when she retired.
"Not that she will anytime soon," Tommo added, "but Courtland has to go some way to fill her shoes with the same level of ruthless unpleasantness."
"All Yellows are ruthless. It's what they do."
"Not like these. Prefect Sally Gamboge has refused the Greyforce a holiday for seventeen years and has had them on sixty-eight-hour weeks for as long as anyone can remember. She treats them like dirt and is always drumming up bogus infractions. Even I think it's out of order, and I'm grotesquely indifferent to the Greys."
"Is there a reason she's so particularly unpleasant?"
"The Gamboges think they should be players on a bigger stage. Lots of Yellow, all the overzealous ruthlessness - but a hopelessly provincial CV37 postcode. Transfer requests are simply ignored."
It was a familiar story. Despite being officially only used for addresses, the right code meant a lot, and snubbing was common, if illegal. ... [The system of postcodes is an interesting and unique feature of Fforde's novel. To give you a sense of what they are like, imagine if, tomorrow, the federal government of Canada announced that postal codes were to be applied, not to the addresses of buildings, but to their residents. Then suppose the government also decreed that the number of people with each postal code is not allowed to change, that you cannot move or change residences unless another postal code is reallocated to you, and that possession of certain postal codes grants greater privilege than others.]
"If the Gamboges are so frightful," I said, "I'm surprised you have anything to do with them."
"That's precisely the reason I do. If there's a tiger in the room, I want to be the one that combs its whiskers. Besides, Courtland has an Open Return, and he might just sell it to me." Tommo is a bit of a servile flatterer, although he displays some guts dealing with his would-be superiors at other times. ...
Tommo directed my gaze toward a man a few years older than myself who was dressed head to toe in a yellow outfit[.] ...
"That's Courtland," murmured Tommo in a respectful whisper. "I know you claim to be leaving in a month, but for all our sakes, don't annoy him or anything, okay?"
"Tommo, I have no reason to make enemies of the buttercup persuasion. And certainly [italics original] not one with a mother on the Council."
"Just checking. If Courtland says 'Jump,' you just ask 'How high and in what direction?' "
Tommo waved at Courtland, and he gestured with a lazy jerk of his head for us to enter the work area[.] ...
"Hello, Court," said Tommo in a servile tone. "This is Eddie Russett. Eddie, this is Courtland Gamboge, son of the Yellow prefect and next one up."
Courtland was tall, handsome and well dressed. He had a large jaw, strong eyebrows and odd, unblinking eyes that seemed to stare. Upon his lapel was a parade of badges awarded for meritorious work, and on his cheek a recent scar. ...
"... Now, Master Russett, do you need anything?" [asked Courtland.]
"Not that I can think of right now."
"Bear it in mind. Tommo and I like to think we can fix most things around here. If you want a good job or need to borrow a few extra merits until payday or are in the poo with the prefects, we can ... make things happen."
There was a pause.
"This is where you say 'Wow' or 'Gosh' or 'Terrific,' " Tommo prompted.
"Gosh," I said.
"Gosh indeed, Russett," said Courtland. "But it's very much quid pro quo. We do things for you, and you do things for us - to the mutual benefit of all. No point in living the Grey life just because the Rules have so little room for maneuver, hey?
"But before we get too embroiled in complexities, you will need to do something for us. Something to prove your mettle." He leaned closer and whispered in my ear, "We want some Lincoln. You have access to your father's swatch safe. Do that for us and we'll be the best of friends."
I frowned. This was a new one. Most bullies were uncomplicated characters who simply wanted unearned respect or cash. Stealing swatches was on another level entirely. Lincoln... was a chromatropic painkiller ten times more powerful than lime. Even a glimpse was enough to lower the heart rate... [t]oo much Lincoln and you could lose all sense of color - natural and univisual. Peddling Lincoln was peddling misery. I stared at them both in turn.
"I'm afraid I might have to pass on your request."
Courtland looked at me, unblinking, then put his hand on my shoulder in a friendly but firm gesture and said in a low voice, "What's your first name again?"
"What you must realize, Eddie, is that I'm the highest Yellow you're ever likely to be able to count on as a friend. Friendship, I'm sure you will agree, is a very useful commodity if you're going to spend the resty of your life in this backwater."
"I'm only here for a month."
"Were you fool enough to give deMauve your ticket?"
"Then you could be here for longer. But here's the bottom line: Defrauding the village out of some Lincoln might seem something of a Rule dilemma right here and now, but actually it's a very wise long-term investment, wouldn't you agree?"
He said it in a serious, businesslike manner, but with a strong undercurrent of menace. I'd seen Alpha Primes throwing their weight around, but never so blatantly. ...
"... [R]emember, if you need anything, anything at all, you only have to ask. We can fix pretty much anything, can't we, Tommo?" ...
"So," said Courtland, "we're all agreed about the Lincoln."
He gave me another smile, patted me on the shoulder and returned to his work. Tommo took my arm and steered me firmly toward the door.
"I think that went pretty well," said Tommo as we walked back toward the village, "although you might have been a tad more obsequious."
"I'll try to remember that for next time." ...
[Eddie and Tommo meet some young Grey women, whom Tommo reveals he is pimping.]
"... And don't even think of tall Melanie - she's on a promise from Courtland."
"Courtland doesn't strike me as the sort of Yellow to do such a decent thing - bring a Grey up - what with Bunty McMustard waiting in the wings."
"He's not going to actually go through with it, dummy. Courtland... knows Bunty will hang on for him indefinitely, so he'll just dump Mel when the Council decides they need some more Yellows."
"No!" I muttered.
"Daring, isn't it?" Tommo agreed. "Thinking of trying it yourself?"
"Never! I mean, that's the most dishonest and cruel thing anyone can do to someone, not to mention contravening at least eight Rules - including Fundamental Rule Number One. What's he going to say when this gets out?"
Tommo shrugged. "Deny it, I guess. Who are they going to believe? Melanie-Nobody-at-All or Alpha-Yellow-Prefect-in-Waiting Courtland 'Big Banana' Gamboge?"
"I'll tell them."
"You heard him promise her?"
"Then wake up, pinhead. Forget fundamentals. Rule one as far as Courtland is concerned is Don't get involved. Courtland will one day be the Yellow prefect. Just keep that in mind and fix on it. It will make your life a lot easier, I can tell you. ..." [pp. 82-92] Eddie's first encounter with Courtland is the first where an authority is openly abusive of his power. Tommo may be a pimp and a bit of a sycophant, but he is not as vicious (in any sense) as Courtland; he is also a Red, as is Eddie, and the two eventually become friends. Courtland explicitly requests that Eddie abuse the system in order to acquire the 'chromatropic' equivalent to narcotics (imagine a hospital technician selling morphine on the side), implicitly threatens Eddie when he first refuses to do it (the hand on the shoulder; calling him by his first name; and so on), and then assumes he has Eddie's co-operation. Already the systemic abuse of power has been perpetrated by the prefects (as when deMauve demands Eddie's Open Return, or when Sally Gamboge tries to work the Greys to their graves), but it remains relatively venial, so far. The chromatic hierarchy is also a source of abuse, for, as Tommo explains, no-one will believe a 'nobody' Grey woman; the Council will accept whatever Courtland says, no matter what. We later learn that Melanie is not an idiot; that she is, in fact, 'sleeping with the enemy', as it were, in order to gain valuable information, but the whole affair is sordid.
At last, however, events conspire to create the perfect opportunity both for a systemic abuse of power and for a crime to be committed. Travis Canary (whom I mentioned above), the hard-luck Yellow whom Eddie befriended on the train, walks out of East Carmine after dark (in the world of Shades of Grey people are prone to night terrors to an extreme, even fatal degree, so Travis is considered to be committing self-murder; their eyesight is poorer than ours and they cannot see in the dark at all), whereupon Eddie tries to find and rescue him. Eddie's brave attempt forces Sally Gamboge, the Yellow prefect, and her son Courtland to go after Travis in order to save face (pp. 188ff.), but Travis is lost to the darkness.
It turns out, however, that there is something rotten in the state of East Carmine. First, let's go back to the meeting with the prefects, during which Eddie and his Dad signed the village register (p. 67). Eddie notices that Travis Canary has signed the register too, and that he comes from an area with an influential postcode (I have discussed the importance of having the right postcode, above):
We signed the village register after that. Names, parents, postcode, feedback, merit tally and how much of what color we could see. ... I noticed that Travis had signed in just above us. He carried a highly influential TO3 4RF postocade, so originally hailed from the traditional Yellow homeland of the Honeybun Peninsula.
Subsequently, Eddie comes across an 'allocation ceremony' in East Carmine (p. 201). An allocation ceremony is an event whereby a child is given his or her own postcode, usually that of a relative, but occasionally reallocated. The oldest a resident of the Collective can be to be allocated a postcode, Eddie notes, is twelve:
We turned the corner into the main square and came across a small crowd outside the town hall. It looked like an allocation ceremony, so we wandered over to dutifully offer our best wishes.
I had been nine at the time of my own allocating ... . With the increased importance of family and inheritance, a loophole had been drafted to allow residents to transfer a relative's postcode to a junior member of the family. ...
We were standing at the back of the crowd of perhaps fifty or so people. DeMauve was conducting the ceremony, and it seemed that young Penelope Gamboge [the granddaughter of Yellow prefect Sally Gamboge and Courtland's neice] was having her allocation on the last day possible - her twelfth birthday, which lent a double sense of occasion to the proceedings. Old Man Magenta back in Jade-under-Lime treated allocation as the formfillery it was, but at least deMauve was making an effort. The whole Gamboge clan, which numbered eight as far as I could see, were beaming happily and even shedding a tear or two, which I never thought Yellows could do. ...
... [T]he ceremony came to an end.
"Aren't you going to give a donation?"
I wasn't planning to, but said I would so as not to appear cheap. I placed the smallest coin I had in the jar marked penelope daffodil gamboge, to3 4rf, which I noted was already half full of low-denomination coins, and quite a few buttons. [p. 201] The 'small caps' are original. Despite the whimsical and witty tone to the proceedings, which takes us back to the style of the first few chapters, notice that the postcode Penelope has been allocated is precisely the postcode Travis had. The allocation ceremony, moreover, takes place the day after Travis had been declared lost at night.
Later, Eddie is sent to patrol the boundaries of East Carmine as part of his duties to the Collective. While on patrol, he and his partner (another Red by the name of Doug Crimson) make, by chance, a crucial discovery (it is also somewhat gruesome, so be warned):
"... What's that?"
I was pointing at a pair of leather boots sticking out of the grass under a gum tree, about midway between the boundary and the markers. It was unusual, because something so valuable would never be discarded, and it's difficult to lose boots without realizing it. We walked over to investigate, only to discover that the boots were still being worn, and Travis Canary was the person still wearing them. It was not as though he would use them again, for he was quite dead - by lightning. Not by fork lightning, which usually leaves flash burns, but by ball lightning, which disfigures horribly. Most of his head had been burned away. But though partially eaten, he was still recognizable. The flies buzzed merrily about, and already his hands were puffy and shiny. He hadn't even made it past the Outer Markers.
"This will really [italics original] upset Mr. Turquoise," said Doug, wrinkling his nose as the small of decayed flesh wafted in the air toward us. "He hates [ditto] paperwork."
As soon as Doug had gone to make the call, I squatted down for a closer look. Despite the large quantity of time, energy and resources spent on lightning avoidance, this was the first victim I'd seen - if you don't count the cautionary pictures published weekly in Spectrum.
Breathing through my mouth to avoid the smell, I peered into what remained of his head. It was badly burned inside, and looked far more dramatic than any of the lightning strikes I'd read about. Intrigued, I picked up a stick and gently probed the cranial cavity. I leaned closer, then delicately reached in [yuck!] and pulled out a fused lump of metal about the size of a chess piece. I stared at it for a moment, realized what it was and then quickly wrapped it in my pocket handkerchief. I then looked around, for I had seen Travis leaving the village carrying his overnight case. I couldn't see it at first, but the puzzle was soon solved, for the Perpetulite roadway was close by and I found what I was looking for scattered along the bronze curb.
"What have you got?" asked Doug who had just returned.
"Look," I said[.] ...
Doug bent down and sorted through the small collection. Aside from the case's brass locks, hinges, rivets and name plate, there were several small coins, his [Travis's] lime compact, a belt buckle, a can of sardines, part of a remote viewer with images of moving fish on it, several toy cars, a few nuts and bolts and two spoons - one engraved, the other not. ...
We divided up Travis' possessions before we parted. [After Eddie and Doug discover Travis's body, Turquoise shows up and takes most of the really valuable things.] Doug took the belt buckle, and I kept the pocketknife. [I can find no previous reference to any pocketknife of Travis's before, so I am not sure why Fforde mentions one.] Everything else we agreed to send to his relatives. They would doubtless want to have a few mementos, and to know what had become of him. I was planning to tell them it was a ball-lightning strike, even though it wasn't. Travis had not been denied his full Civil Obligation by chance - it had been taken from him. [pp. 238-40] Poor Travis Canary has obviously been murdered. Rather than quote another lengthy passage, I may as well tell you that Courtland and his mother murdered Travis with a magnesium flare (called a Daylighter) which they fired at him when they went out after him at night. Eddie confronts Courtland (on pp. 243-6) during the course of hunting for ball-lightning. (The people of East Carmine have rigged a contraption to defuse ball-lightning, part of which consists of a crossbow which fires a copper spike.) During the hunt, Courtland attempts to murder Eddie, but fails (he then subsequently exclaims ' "Oh my goodness!" ... with a sense of shock in his voice that would have won a drama prize in any town of the Collective.'; a piece of brilliant prose by Fforde). At any rate, the Gamboges are clearly guilty of murder, and of covering it up; they have abused their power both systemically and beyond the system. The systemic abuse consists of reallocating the late Travis Canary's postcode to Prefect Gamboge's granddaughter Penelope, in order to get her a postcode from an influential part of the Collective and improve the family's fortunes (confirmed on pp. 299-300, in a passage worth quoting).
The Gamboges's complicity in Travis's death is proven when the postman delivers a parcel to Penelope Gamboge in the midst of a squabble between Eddie and the Gamboges (ironically, Eddie is disobeying a direct order from Prefect Gamboge in order to save the lives of the Gamboges; but you will have to read the book to find out why). All italics in the following passage are original:
But then, just as I was about to confirm my rejection of Gamboge's Direct Order, take the five hundred hit, reduce my merits to zero and kiss farewell to an Oxblood marriage this decade, relief came from an unexpected quarter - the postman.
He walked into the small knot of people, nodding us all a greeting and gave out the mail. The situation had an odd, even surreal quality about it. If a piano should suddenly have fallen from the sky or a talking bear rode past on a bike, I would not have been unduly surprised. We all stood there, momentarily paused. We said nothing as the mail was handed out and just looked at one another suspiciously.
"Oh, look," said the postman, "there's even a package for you, Penelope."
He handed the youngest Gamboge a parcel, tipped his cap and moved off. And as soon as he had, the balance suddenly tipped in my favor. I recognized the parcel.
"Okay," said Courtland, "last chance. Are you refusing a Direct Order?"
I stared back at him. I had been sent to the Fringes to learn a lesson in humility and I was - but not from the prefects or anyone in authority. ...
"You speak of integrity?" I said, my voice no longer tremulous. "Would that be the same integrity that had you allocate Travis Canary's postcode the day before we even knew he was dead?"
There was a deathly hush. Travis had carried a prestigious TO3 postcode from the traditional Yellow Honeybun Peninsula. It was the sort of postcode that could open yellow doors. The sort of postcode that could get a Yellow away from a Fringes village forever. It was the sort of postcode, in fact, that a pushy grandmother and a murderous uncle might do anything to procure, so that their granddaughter and neice would have a better chance in life. Penelope Gamboge. She had been allocated Travis' code on the last day possible - her twelfth birthday.
"I sent Travis' personal effects back to his postcode," I said, "thinking the redirects wouldn't be up yet. I was wrong. The parcel has just been delivered."
Bunty and Penelope looked confused, but Sally Gamboge and Courtland looked at each other, then at the parcel. ...
She [Sally Gamboge] stared at me, and I stared back. They might argue their way out of the Daylighter in Travis' head or the reallocation, but not both together. But I think the Gamboges knew that. [pp. 299-300] Justice, of course, has yet to be done, but Eddie has been able to stand up for himself against the abuse of power, both formal and criminal.
So ends the sordid tale of the abuse of power by the Gamboges (at least in the first volume of the Shades of Grey trilogy), with respect to Travis Canary; I have omitted a great deal of their wrongs besides, as well as those of the deMauves (not to mention the casual cruelty or ineptness of the other prefects, of the Red Yewberry and even of the 'decent' Blue prefect Turquoise).
The most chilling abuse of systemic power I leave unspoiled, for it is a revelation worth reading the book for; however, for my final look at the abuse of power, let me return to the Colorman, Matthew Gloss, whom I mentioned in passing. Throughout the book, it has been Eddie Russett's dream to work for National Color. Matthew Gloss, as a Colorman, represents the pinnacle of achievement in the world of Shades of Grey, and, despite some strident views on certain matters, he appears to be reasonable and friendly. However, he reveals to Eddie at one point that he is an investigator as well as what one might call a 'chromatic engineer', and attempts to recruit Eddie as a spy (pp. 212-3). From what we learn of Matthew Gloss, a Colorman, it would appear, is the equivalent not only of an agent of the ICS, but of the KGB as well. I will quote his final interaction with Eddie to demonstrate the most sinister and subtle abuse of power; most sinister, because rightful, as we shall see:
... I walked down to the railway station to see Imogen and Dorian off. [Imogen and Dorian, you will recall, are young lovers from different ends of the spectrum - she a Purple, he a Grey - whom Eddie helps to get together and get transportation out of East Carmine.] Despite a last-minute attempt by Yewberry and deMauve to find something in the Rules to stop them, there was nothing they could do. ...
Fandango [Imogen's father], too, was outraged, and while a small crowd, variously mixed with well-wishers and outraged parties, stood arguing opposite Imogen and Dorian's compartment, I went to wish the Colorman a safe journey. [Matthew Gloss is also departing.]
"I heard you got deMauve to agree that you could sit the National Color entrance exam. Congratulations."
"As you said," I replied, "a capacity for ingenuity is looked on favorably by National Color."
"It is indeed. I am not involved in training, but I suspect we shall meet again. I like to think of National Color as a close-knit family."
He paused for thought. ...
"... Do you want some advice, Edward?"
"I would welcome it."
"Sometimes people dabble in ideological matters that they shouldn't before they follow the one true light."
He said it in a pointed manner and I felt my skin prickle. ...
"I'm not sure I understand your meaning." ...
... He was trying to prove the system to me. ...
"... [I]t shows that Munsell was right, in all things - except perhaps the spoons." [replied Eddie.]
I laughed, and the Colorman laughed with me.
"Yes," he said, "the spoons."
He nodded in the direction of Imogen and Dorian's compartment.
"A fine couple."
"A happy couple."
"I've instructed them to take the Night Train to Emerald City," he said, fixing me with a steely gaze. "It's more comfortable."
I felt my heart miss a beat.
"But... that's the Reboot train," I remarked, trying to sound as normal as I could. "Wouldn't it be simpler to send them on the Emerald City Express?"
The Colorman stared at me with seemingly no emotion.
"I've wired instructions for them to be met and sent into the City. There is no risk. Do you have any objections to this plan, Edward?" ...
"They could go on either train," I said. "I'm just happy for them to get away." [pp. 386-8] Not to give too much away, but in fact, as Eddie knows (by the end of the book), Matthew Gloss has sent an innocent couple to their deaths, for no other reason than in an attempt to discover how much Eddie knows! It is significant, I think, that Gloss is referred to in this chapter (the last of the book), not by name, but by his title, as 'the Colorman', throughout. The Colorman, moreover, has done nothing against the Rules; presumably he has every right to murderously misdirect innocents.
Until the climax of the book, Matthew Gloss, the Colorman, the representative of one of the highest authorities, National Color, appears to be a much more reasonable and benign authority than virtually any of the prefects, who variously use bullying, nepotism, lying, murder, neglect, and other means, within and without their rightful authority, to advance and promote themselves or their families. Following the climax, the Colorman is thereafter representative of the highest possible abuse of systemic authority, and he demonstrates it in cold blood. Matthew Gloss, it transpires, is much worse than the deMauves or even Sally or Courtland Gamboge, who conspired to murder Travis for his postcode, and who attempt bribery, threats, and murder in order to acquire Eddie's silence. Behind the Colorman stands all the power and might of National Color and Head Office in Emerald City; and the power and might of Emerald City is bent toward, not the betterment of the Collective or the enforcement of the Rules, but the retaining and acquisition of power: the officials of Emerald City are the bullying, grasping prefects of East Carmine writ large, but more insidious still, for they possess powers, devices and weapons which permit them greater wickedness than anything the prefects (who are, after all, their servants) are able to accomplish. And, as Gloss's comments about ideology demonstrate, the power Emerald City desires to have most of all is power over the thoughts of the residents of the Collective, the greatest, most intrusive, most vicious, and most destructive power of all.