Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey

Three things to start with …

  2. No it’s not 50 Shades of Grey, but an indeterminate number of shades!

I actually read Shades of Grey last year, and have been meaning to post about it for ages. It’s one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read in many a year! Why don’t you read this book!? Indeed son#1 did on my recommendation, and he enjoyed it too!

I discovered Jasper Fforde a few years back. I was a looking for an author with clever and considered wit similar to Douglas Adams, and Fforde was highly recommended. I monstered my way through the excellent and fun Thursday Next series, followed by the equally excellent and fun Nursery Crime series. Not sci-fi per se, but cleverly imagined inventive alternative realities with great comedy too. I probably expected more of the same when I started Shades of Grey, but I couldn’t have been more wrong – a totally different string to Fforde’s already beautifully crafted bow!

Shades of Grey starts with that trick that I recently mentioned in my post on William Gibson’s The Peripheral. Thrown straight in at the deep end in a future with no introduction, I spent the first few chapters trying to work out what the hell was going on! Plenty was immediately recognizable and whilst nothing was fundamentally alien, nothing was quite right too! What events had led to this future and most importantly its new social structures? You never do find out exactly what cataclysmic “something that happened” in the past changed the world thus, but you do get various snippets anchored around the incremental outlawing of technology invented/created prior to a series of ever earlier periods with an implied dictatorial (albeit in the form of a “collective”) leadership and clear rules not to be broken. Most importantly you never find out what happened to alter humans in such a simple but profound way, though the result of that alteration is absolutely the heart of this future society! Forget -isms based on race, religion or sexual orientation, in this world it’s all about the now vastly limited set of colours that each individual can perceive and the social hierarchy that results. In a world in which nobody can seemingly see all, some colours are “higher” than others, “mixing” between particular colours a thing of scandal, and those who can see none the lowest of the low greys!

I’ve probably already said too much, so enough of the plot! The core characters are totally believable and very quickly you’re seeing this world through the eyes and experiences of the protagonist Eddie Russett. The ins-and-outs of daily life; love and hatred; discovery of at least some of the terrible truth. A year after reading it, my memory of that future world is still totally vivid as if I was really there, unlike the vast majority of the many books I’ve read since!

So my advice is for everybody to read Shades of Grey, but just to get you ready for the only disappointment – upon completion I of course rushed to see if Jasper Fforde had written any more books to follow it, only to discover hoards of disappointed readers! He fully intends to write a sequel, but given his other busy series, it simply hasn’t happened yet!

David VanDyke – The Eden Plague

Hmmm … so I’m in two minds about this book. Reckon I picked it up for free last summer when I was looking for books to take on holiday, probably owing to it showing up linked to some sort of dystopian theme. That said, as “book zero” in a longer Plague Wars series, it’s effectively a prequel and so in itself not really dystopian. That’s the not the reason behind my uncertainty though.

I’m not going to go into huge depth around the plot. Fundamentally it revolves around secret viral research, the curious outwardly positive impact of a particular virus, naturally the impact of that virus on the key characters, and latterly an attempted wider spread impact. The writing was well described, and rendered things effectively; the characters were believable; it moved at a good pace; but overall it fell into that trap of various things being just too convenient and easy, and people being too accepting. Then an epilog threw in a curve ball that actually turned me off further.

And hence the real measure of things – not badly written and well liked on Amazon, interesting enough for me to read it in quick order, but at the end I didn’t feel compelled to read the next book in the series and indeed haven’t moved onto that as my next book!

William Gibson – The Peripheral

Whilst I’ve read significantly more over the last year than I’d typically managed in years previous, I’m still mostly a quick-chapter-or-two-before-bed sort of reader. Hence, whilst most of the books I’ve read recently have been clever comedic sci-fi, they’ve been light enough for me to keep up whilst my brain shuts down for the day. When my pre-ordered copy of William Gibson’s new book, The Peripheral, was delivered to my Kindle upon release a while back I knew, from the experience of reading Neuromancer previously, it might be heavier going and wasn’t wrong!

There’s something about the sci-fi trick of dropping you into a new world without any introduction, and The Peripheral does it doubly so! I seriously struggled working out what was really going on in the first ten percent or so! A near future America with some level of identifiability with 3D printing and gaming and smartphones, but also new language to decode along with wounded vets bearing the side effects of some sort of human/machine haptic augmentation. Then an indeterminately future Britain with an even stranger mix of past, current (reality TV stardom) and future concepts. With the book jumping back and forth between the two, the linkage was not apparent!

I’m not going to lie … after a week or two I simply restarted and read it all again to make sure I’d got my head around it, before finally it all started to make “sense”! Shortly thereafter, just to make sure, Gibson dropped in a quick summary to make sure you were keeping up!

A shadowy technology via some dark server somehow allowing a network connection of sorts between the furthest future world and the nearer future world, providing effective informational time travel in both directions; an unwitting virtual witness to a murder in the furthest future via that; the ultimate in telepresence – the peripherals of the title being almost-human organic bodies in the furthest future world that allow remote users to connect and physically experience things over a network; the use of those peripherals to allow the protagonists from the near future world to experience the furthest future world; the impact of the furthest future world tinkering in the near future world’s economy; and ultimately the pursuit of the murderer.

One key concept is that at the moment somebody in the furthest future world first establishes new contact back in time, the timeline in the past effectively is forked just like a codebase, and what happens in that “stub” timeline thereafter is no longer linked to the main timeline thus avoiding paradoxes.

The pace continued to grow as relationships were formed and more was revealed, and I became more and more hooked and immersed. Ultimately though I was slightly disappointed when it was mostly wrapped up neatly in about a chapter’s worth, but that’s a criticism I level at many books.

But here’s the thing … it took concentration but as a result the story has “stuck” much better in my head resulting in a more enduring “memory” of the worlds I experienced. I’d struggle to recall in detail many of the lighter books I’ve read, even though they slipped by more easily. Gibson is a master of this style of sci-fi, and my intention now is to read his other books that I’ve not read between his first (Neuromancer) and this his most recent. Overall The Peripheral is a highly recommended read!

Frank Tayell – Work. Rest. Repeat.

Finished this just the other night, and went to tweet its completion from my Kindle, only to discover that an ultra-rare Kindle crash a few days previously had irrevocably borked its settings and wifi wouldn’t work any more all. I don’t blame this book however! I read it in about a week which is pretty good going for me as a at-bedtime-and-occasional-snatched-five-mins-during-the-day-to-chill sort of reader and such pace is a strong indication of something I enjoyed! Oh and in case a similar Kindle problem ever happens to you, a factory reset sorted everything out.

I read all the books in Frank Tayell‘s Surviving The Evacation series a few months back (and will post about them too sometime), and so picked this one simply by association even though it’s not related to that series. Helps that it falls squarely into one of my preferred genres of possible post-apocalyptic dystopian futures. On the basis that I’m recommending that people read it, I’m not going to write some long spoiler review, but here’s a bit about why I liked it …

Work. Rest. Repeat. is set in a post-apocalyptic future following some undescribed “Great Disaster”. If you’ve read Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy there’s a certain inverted similarity … in Wool humanity lives in deep many-levelled silos, and in Work. Rest. Repeat. they live in less than a handful of tall many-floored towers. The overriding focus of the remaining population is the completion of colony ships so that they can leave Earth for Mars and establish a fresh civilisation there. Whilst a few are sent out of the tower to the launch sites, often as punishment, most work in one of the three production shifts a day producing the parts required for the colony ships. When they’re not working, or sleeping in their daily assigned pods, they’re in the recreation room exercising to create the electricity needed in lieu of the solar energy now denied by the stormy world outside. Thus they live in a continuous cycle of servitude to the shared goal under the mantra that production must always come first. They’re watched by CCTV and monitored by their instrumented wristboards to ensure their compliance and efficiency, though there’s increasingly less “overhead” in terms of people in infrastructure roles and governance. Hence the protagonist, Ely, is the now only remaining Constable in one of the towers. There’s an upcoming election for the key role of councillor, with the victor expected to lead the workers on to Mars soon. Then two bodies are found, and Ely gets his first experience of what can only be murder. The only imaginable motive is sabotage with its measurable impact on production …

The book progresses nicely, being tightly written and striking the balance well between description versus over description (thus why I gave up after only one Harry Potter book since I hate over literal over long writing that leaves too little room for imagination). Ely begins to progress the case and discover the truth about the “world” he lives in. Everything is shaping up nicely. And then my only moan – we’re suddenly at a conclusion, and it’s slightly predictable and rather rushed. In most ways there’s a finality, but it is also slightly hanging perhaps ready for a “what happened next” sequel. That there is a clear principal conclusion does bring atomic satisfaction to the book though, so overall you don’t feel too cheated!