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kdilliplan's picture

Shades of Grey

Over the break, I read Shades of Grey, a new novel by Jasper Fforde.  I may expand on this post later and write a full commentary about this book, but for now I’ll stick to its relevance to our discussions.  The book begins with a quote from Alfred North Whitehead: “There is no light or colour as a fact in external nature.  There is merely motion of material…. When the light enters your eyes and falls on the retina, there is motion of material.  Then your nerves are affected and your brain is affected, and again this is merely motion of material.… The mind in apprehending experiences sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone.” I was struck by how this sounds a lot like what we’ve been talking about in class.  On a basic level, neuronal function is quite simple, but humans are capable of experiencing a vast array of senses, emotions, memories, etc.  But there is still much we can’t and don’t experience. In the world of this book, set in an indefinite post-apocalyptic future, class structure is determined by the amount of color an individual is able to perceive. Those who can see purple are the heads of society, those who can see yellow or green are lower down the ladder, those who can see red are lower still, but those who can see no color (only shades of grey) are at the bottom.  There also exists, in this world, artificial color that can be seen by anyone.  Color is also used medicinally and as weapons: by looking at a sample of the right hue, a person can be cured of illness, be made blissfully ecstatic, fall unconscious, or simply drop dead. The book also suggests that color perception is heritable (a Red and a Blue could have a child that is Purple) but not fixed generation to generation (over time, families that once had strong color perception can become Grey, and a Grey family could gain color vision without outside influence).

            While it may seem silly to us, this use of color isn’t as fictional as it might seem. Colors are known to affect people’s moods. Color perception can vary tremendously between individuals. It is not so far-fetched to think that this kind of world could be possible, since color is a construct of our minds and as such its perception could be used, abused and changed. All it would take to make a population of humans with limited and variable color vision would be heritable differences in color receptors and a government-controlled method of testing for said differences.  Similarly, it is possible that rewiring the nervous system (or in fact learning more about the nervous system as it is now) could make possible the kind of dramatic responses to color that are seen in the book.  If everything is a result of “motion of material” virtually anything is possible. 


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