Jasper Fforde’s new novel, Early Riser, has all the elements fans of Shades of Grey and the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series have come to expect. Fforde’s novels are a quirky amalgam of alternate reality – fantasy worlds based upon our own with a unique premise that sets them apart – with a good smattering of detective work to drive the plot. Despite the evident dangers that Fforde’s characters face, his worlds have a cosy old-world feel, where books and toast and tea matter, and science has been pressed into the service of the old, from bringing back extinct species like the Dodo to making books an immersive virtual reality. There is something atavistic, charming and comforting in Fforde’s scenarios of dangerous intrigue. In his Nursery Crimes and Thursday Next Series the premise was that fictional worlds and characters found in the printed word had a reality which could affect and be affected by our own world. In Shades of Grey, a novel which was meant to be the beginning of another series which, so far, has not materialised, Fforde imagines a world in which society is stratified by people’s ability to see colours. In this latest book, his first since his
creative hiatus of 2014-2016, Fforde sets his narrative in Wales of a vastly different planet Earth.
In this alternate world the Earth is cooling down, not warming up:
The inconvenient truth was that at current estimates and without a coherent strategy, everything North of the 42nd parallel would be ice sheet in two hundred years… And it seems to have ever been so. Fforde imagines a cool earth with a history that stretches back to Medieval times, at least, which has created a culture in which most of the population hibernates each winter in order to conserve resources and keep safe. Many bunk down in Dormitoriums, towers warmed by a nuclear heating plant at the base of the building, and are tended to by porters during the long winter months. It is during these months that Winter Consuls have legal jurisdiction as they guard the sleeping masses and tend to the problems that the winter weather inevitably creates.
Fforde’s new hero is Charlie Worthing. He is the product of a birth to the St Granata’s Pooled Parentage Station, an organisation of women with names like Sister Placentia and Sister Fertizilia, charged with maintaining a healthy population count. First impressions may call to mind the Handmaids of Margaret Atwood’s novel, although Fforde’s never really considers the issues surrounding this group’s birthing mission and they do not largely feature in the plot. Charlie, whose face is peculiar due to a skull deformity, has never been adopted, so takes the opportunity to leave the sisters when Consul Logan turns up offering the chance for someone to join the Winter Consuls as a novice. With Charlie’s demonstratable prodigious memory, Logan accepts him. Charlie finds himself facing a world he has never before experienced first-hand. He becomes embroiled in the struggle between Hiber-Tech and RealSleep when he is marooned during winter in Sector 12, one of the more dangerous areas of this world. Hibertech is a company that produces Morphenox, a drug to assist sleepers to hibernate dreamlessly, thereby saving energy (dreams, it appears, have physiological impacts upon the sleeping body), and imposts upon food stores. In this winter world, a refusal to hibernate is considered anti-social, in fact parasitical, and to dream is to be socially irresponsible. RealSleep is an organisation plotting against HiberTech’s induced dreamless state. One downturn of Morphenox is that one in two thousand users
die or, more precisely, become Night Walkers, a state in which they are cognitively shut down, except for some
tricksy Night Walkers who maintain one or two basic skills. Mrs Tiffen, for instance, can still play the bouzouki, a typically Ffordian touch. But tricksy or not, Night Walkers turn cannibalistic if they are not fed, like a ravenous zombie horde, even if some can be trained to do simple tasks, otherwise.
Added to this is the problem of a
viral dream which has resulted in the deaths of several people; a dream which features a blue Buick. Those who have dreamed the dream typically turn violent and have to be killed. Now, Charlie is beginning to have the same dream.
Like other Fforde novels, Early Riser is well written, funny and highly imaginative. I think one of the attractions of Fforde’s books is that his subject matter appeals to people who like reading. His Thursday Next series made reading novels central to the world he creates, rather than the marginalised activity it has become in reality. The books preference the world of the mind over the world of action, even though there is a lot of action in the novels. In Early Riser it is the dreaming state that replaces the Book World of the Thursday Next novels. Like entering a book in the Book World, Charlie Worthing must enter the unconscious world of dreams in order to succeed.
While primarily a fantasy, Fforde does address social issues important to his audience. Primarily, he manages to place the issue of global warming in the reader’s mind through his depiction of this world of seemingly endless winter. His referencing of Al Gore’s phrase
inconvenient truth to describe dire predictions of winter in his own world is an obvious and direct allusion to the global warming issue. My feeling was that Fforde was implicitly addressing the issue throughout by focusing on the differences of his winter world to our own. The extreme winters of his world have changed the human population and has skewed its priorities for survival. It is difficult not to read this and wonder how those priorities might be skewed in a world that is heating up, instead.
Fforde manages to allude to other contemporary issues as well. It is difficult not to think of issues related to Big Pharma companies when a character speaks of
Greedy Pharma, nor is the negative effects of social media far from the reader’s mind when “feedback loops, echo chambers [and] circular reinforcement” are blamed for the rise of hysterical belief in the “utterly imaginary”.
I think this book suffered a little as did his first Thursday Next novel, The Eyre Affair from the burden of orientation and world building. The succeeding Thursday Next novels continued Fforde’s world building, but as a reader, you were already familiar with the premise once you started them. This novel is a little slow to start. When I went back to the beginning chapters after finishing it I noticed how much exposition Fforde was achieving without too much burden on the reader. He manages this throughout the novel, too, with his chapter epigraphs which usually introduce something new in an entertaining, pithy manner. However, the plot, which is essentially a detective story, starts slowly. It took a bit of time before the detail of the novel began to make more sense and the main complication occurs to set the plot underway. To some degree this is fair, since Charlie Worthing experiences a similar learning curve to the reader. But given that this is meant to be a stand-alone novel, Fforde won’t gain the advantage of this world building in a second novel.
However, Fforde is always, first and foremost, an entertainer as well as a great writer. There are enough twists and quirky details to keep any fan happy. One of my favourite aspects of the novel is the Gronk, a terrifying semi-mythical creature of winter that preys on the unworthy and kills them. (Charlie’s surname, Worthing, surely, is not accidental). Evidence that someone has fallen victim to the Gronk is that they are missing a little finger and their clothes. Their clothes have been neatly folded, underwear inside outerwear, while there is usually some hint of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical left behind. Apparently, the Gronk likes to do laundry, too. Other notable jokes include Gaer Brills, a
self-style ‘sleep extreme’ guru, and the use of endless repeats of Bonanza to help people enter their hibernation state for winter. And like the weather, Fforde chooses to reverse gender stereotypes, too, to make a point. There has only ever been one male actor play Jane Bond, for instance. We are told in a footnote that he was surprisingly good
if a little oversensitive.
All this only scratches the surface of the novel. I haven’t even mentioned major characters like Aurora, Toccata, Birgitta, Charles Webster, Hugo Foulnap, ‘Lucky’ Ned Farnesworth or Lionel ‘Captain’ Hooke (until now). Carmen Miranda, the early Hollywood icon, even makes an appearance. Rest assured, the whole mystery of Fforde’s new winter world still awaits any interested reader.
Finally, who could resist stuff like this:
‘André Preview drops in two weeks from now and a week after that there’ll be something from the Wolfitt Players. Last season we had the Reduced Shakespeare Company doingHighlights of the Mostly Complete History of Condensing Stuff (abridged).’
‘Quick – even for them…’
Fforde’s humour is both witty and ridiculous. Anything by Jasper Fforde is highly recommended.
Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki. Not well, and only one tune: 'Help Yourself' by Tom Jones. She plucked the strings expertly but without emotion while staring blankly out of the train window at the ice and snow. She and I had not exchanged an intelligent word since we first met five hours before, and the reason was readily explained: Mrs Tiffen was dead, and had been for several years.