Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde is pure Fforde zaniness but different. Different than Thursday where you just hold on and go for a ride. And different than Nursery Crimes, which, while not your run-of-the-mill mystery is still a mystery. Shades of Grey has, dare I even say it, a serious side to it. I was not expecting this seriousness and always got caught without page points or a pencil and failed to mark a single passage. It never once dawned on me to turn down even a tiny corner of a page. So I am flying from memory without review of notes and have not passages to quote.

Fforde has created a really interesting world where people are ranked according to the dominant color they can see. No one can see the full spectrum of color. You are either red or yellow, green, blue, purple or grey. We don’t know how the “colortocracy” came about nor do we know why variations of color blindness exist for everyone. We know that there was Something That Happened. We know there were the Previous whose society sounds very much, but not quite, like our own.

The Collective now runs the world and everyone must follow the Rules handed down in the book of Munsell. For some reason every dozen or so years, there is a Leap Back in which it is declared that a particular technology can no longer be used. So cars are allowed but only if they are Model-T’s. Building new Model-T’s is against the Rules so there are not many cars and the ones that do exist are owned by the village in common. Bicycles are allowed but only ones without gears. One of the oddest things is spoons. People are allowed to use spoons but no one is allowed to manufacture any spoons. Therefore spoons become great possessions that are registered to owners and passed down within families.

You are given merits and demerits and those who achieve a certain number of merits are allowed to get married. Those who reach a certain number of negative demerits are sent off to Reboot on the Night Train. Supposedly they are re-educated and sent to live in a new town and that’s why no one ever sees that person again.

Because no one can see the full natural color spectrum, synthetic color, which people can see, is very important. Towns pitch in merits to be connected to the color grid so they can have synthetic color piped into their village. “Color gardens” are a town’s pride and joy. Synthetic color is piped underground and connected into a garden – flowers, grass, trees – to color them synthetically so everyone can see them.

East Carmine, a village on the Outer Fringe of civilization, needs a temporary Swatchman because theirs met an unfortunate death. A Swatchman is a doctor but in a society where color is everything, showing people a series of color swatches will cure their cold or arthritis or whatever ails them (there are limits though). Looking at particular colors will also make you high. Eddie Russet, 20-years-old and soon to be color tested, is sent to East Carmine with his father to perform a chair census to help him learn humility. The reason he must do the census is because he had the nerve to suggest a new method for queuing using a number system.

Eddie pretty quickly learns that there is something not quite right going on in East Carmine. Eventually he has to decided whether he wants to live a quiet “normal” and comfortable life according the the Rules or whether he wants to “run with scissors” and face the truth hiding behind the Rules.

I think Fforde is stretching himself into a new and interesting direction here. The book is filled with Fforde humor, but there is also an underlying message. Granted, that message – facing the truth, don’t blindly follow the rules, etc. – is not a new one and is kind of cliched. But the world Fforde creates is so interesting that I didn’t mind the cliche too much.

This is the first book in a new series. Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers will be out in 2013.

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