Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde

Viking, 2009, 390 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-01963-2

It took a year of silence for Jasper Fforde fans to realize how privileged they had been.  From his spectacular debut The Eyre Affair in 2001 to First among Sequels in 2007, Fforde was able to deliver one highly imaginative novel per year, every year for most of a decade.  But after setting up a heck of a cliff-hanger in his seventh novel First among Sequels, Fforde’s schedule slipped in 2008 and more than a year went by without a new book from him.

The reason for the delay became more obvious when Shades of Grey was finally published in late 2009.  A novel set in an entirely different universe than the ones that hosted his Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series, Shades of Grey is an ambitious debut for another trilogy… one that sends Fforde in pure Science Fiction territory.

At first glance, it looks like a typically British, somewhat comfortable universe.  Our protagonist, young Eddie Russett, is traveling with his father to their new temporary home: a small village in which nothing is supposed to happen.  It initially looks like a cozy British countryside novel, with trains and post delivery and tea spoons and village elders and teenage romance and nothing out of the ordinary.

But look closer, because this is a very different world.  For one thing, people are distinguished and segregated by their ability to see color.  Red; Greens; Blues; Yellows; Greys and so on: Apparently, everyone in this world is partially color-blind, and what you see (including how well you see it) definitely determines your rank in society.  Our boy hero Eddie is about to be formally tested for his color perception in a late-teen rite of passage, but there’s a lot to do in-between.  After all, his father is replacing an essential Chromaticologist who died in mysterious circumstances, and their new rural town reveals itself to be rotten to the core.

Shades of Gray is both a departure and showcase for Fforde’s core strengths.  Fans will be immediately familiar with the way Fforde introduces all sorts of satirical details to set up his world, with the clarity of his prose, or the delights of his imagination.  After a few swim-or-sink pages in which this new world is carefully constructed, readers are once again reminded why Fforde is such a dependable author: it’s a fantastic experience, and pretty soon everyone plays along with the color-blind premise.

And that’s when more interesting Ffordian tics appear.  The “Shades of Gray” of the title serves double ironic meaning is describing a world that has more black-and-white rules than could be considered possible.  This distantly post-apocalyptic society has been engineered for stability at all costs, and periodic technological regressions ensure that everyone remains free from choice.  Our narrator Eddie is not entirely conscious of his own indoctrination, and one of the particular pleasures of the novel is to see him race to a cognitive breakthrough of the kind so beloved by SF readers.  Not that the readers know terribly more than him; we do realize from various clues that Eddie and his fellow citizen aren’t human in the sense we are today, but many of the mysteries of this world have been left to solve in the other two novels of the trilogy launched by Shades of Gray.

Where it is a departure from the usual Fforde novel is that it is quite a bit slower and grimmer than its predecessors.  The pacing is quite a bit more restrained than previous novels, reducing the number of subplots and allowing his characters to breathe a bit more easily.  Elsewhere, the nature of the world in which Eddie lives is totalitarian in ways that jokes about Goliath Corporation and the Toast Marketing Board in the Thursday Next series only scratched.  The ending, surprisingly bittersweet, sets up latter instalments by denying complete victory to our protagonists.  While Shades of Gray is just as strange, funny, thrilling and fresh as Fforde’s previous novels, its intent is considerably more serious.

We can only guess at what this means for the next instalment in the series.  The small surprise of Shades of Gray, however, is that I am now looking forward to its sequel with as much anticipation, if not more, than resolving the cliff-hanger at the end of the latest Thursday Next novel.  Now that’s a successful first volume!

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