Shades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde
“The safest course was actually the simplest-do nothing at all and hope everything turned out for the best. It wasn't a great plan, but it had the benefits of simplicity and a long tradition. ”
Edward Russett lives in a future where everything is governed by color. "Something Happened" a long time ago that messed with everyone's vision. Now people can only see one color, and the color you see, and how much of it, determines your place in society, from the lowest Grey to the highest Purple. Nighttime is an empty time, as everyone has lost their night vision. It is socially important to marry within your color, or up-spectrum to either maintain or improve your social prospects.
Everything is governed by the rules of "Our Munsell," a leader from centuries before when the "Something Happened." He had an "Epiphany" and brought order to chaos, regulating every aspect of the community, from high values (like politeness) to what people should wear on what occasion (for excursions into the wild, people must wear "Outdoor Adventure #9s). Rules cannot be changed. There is a spoon shortage because he forgot to include spoons in the list of utensils to be manufactured. Or he could have left it off on purpose. Munsell works in mysterious ways.
The story follows Edward as he travels with his father to East Carmine to conduct a mandated chair census as punishment for a prank so he will develop some humility. He makes friends and enemies, and starts to uncover the dark secrets that serve as the basis for the society.
Long synopsis, I know, but it is Jasper Fforde, and I am not even touching the tip of the iceberg on this one. Animals have barcodes. Most people die of Mildew or giant swan attack or balls of lightning. There is a place called High Saffron from which no one returns, but legend says has lots of color to harvest. Tip of the iceberg.
Happily, Fforde seems to have learned how to time-release information. His witty, intricate world-building is not as overwhelming as it is in the Thursday Next books and crops up at an appropriate time, with an explanation reasonably close behind it.
The pacing was a little strange. The whole book takes place over the course of the week, but enough happens that you think he's had to have been there at least a month. At the same time, not much of "oh my god the society is horrible, and we need to do something about it" occurs until about the last 50 pages.
I loved this book at first. Fforde gleefully plays with the reader's expectations. It made me happy to see that he couldn't resist literary references (a layover from Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime books: he includes a strange empty library, over-staffed by librarians with nothing to do (Munsell-regulated staffing rules). He even put in a few literary jokes here and there (list of approved sports includes "reeling and writhing" though no one knows what it is - Alice in Wonderland reference), and there is a memorial statue to Oz, though its meaning is lost to the citizens). They have "Leapbacks," where technology deemed too unnecessary or progressive is taken away... like light bulbs, or any car above a Model T. Same with books. Catch-22 is gone, legend says it was a very popular fishing book in a series. No one knows why Little Engine that Could was so subversive, nor what it was the little engine could do. It is Fforde at his comic best, an equal of Douglas Adams or Christoper Moore.
However, the ending is very dark. In a book like this, you think it has two possible outcomes: 1) the main character reveals the evils of society and starts a revolution or 2) the main character discovers horrible things, but is too overpowered by society to effect change, and is absorbed back into it's rhythms or is killed. This one ends with a rather stomach-turning bastard child of the two.
All I'm saying is that there better be a sequel where something satisfying happens.