Some indefinite time in the future -- the beginning of the novel is equivocal, but Fforde drops enough hints later to make it clear that this world is at least a thousand years in our future, and may be closer to two -- the world is a smaller, quieter place, and one obsessed with color. But it's also clear that this small, constrained, English-village world -- slipping further into its own constructed past though required Leapbacks every decade, in which more and more technology is destroyed and knowledge is outlawed -- is itself constrained and small, covering perhaps most of the island of Great Britain but utterly ignorant of what may or may not exist anywhere else. They know little of their own past, as well -- there was a "Something That Happened," which led to the Epiphany of Munsell and its blizzard of Rules that run their everyday lives, with Prefects in charge of everyday governance and compliance, and demerits to keep citizens on track.
Those Rules extend to every part of society, and the Leapbacks cut out more and more of daily life with every bite, as Eddie ponders on p.111:
Since visiting the library I has pondered upon the usually unassailable wisdom of the Leapbacks. What was in The Little Engine That Could that might cause a damaging rift in society? What was so wrong with the telephone that it had to be withdrawn? Why was Mr. Simply Red no longer listened to? Why no more crinkle-cut chips, bicycles, kites, zips, yo-yos, banjos and marzipan?So Fforde introduces us to Chromatacia, a society ruled by the Colortocracy, where every citizen has a carefully tested, and always limited, range of color vision, from the plebeian colorblind Greys through shades of Red, Blue, and Green up to the semi-aristocratic heights of Purple. But color vision rises and falls over the generations, in a somewhat predictable and inheritable fashion, creating a slow-motion scramble for place and position mostly concerned with marrying one's offspring to the most suitable -- chromatically and financially, of course -- candidates to strengthen one's own name. (And so Shades of Grey joins Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw on that slim shelf of books that concoct biological explanations to explain standard English-novel behavior, though Fforde's version is, if anything, even more baroque than Walton's relatively straightforward transposition of Trollopean England to a draconic alternative.)
Eddie Russett is a young up-and-comer -- he's scheduled to take his mandatory Ishihara vision test in a few months, which will determine his place in society for the rest of his life, but he knows that he sees much more red than his parents do, possibly enough even to make him a prefect. So he's on a half-promise to Constance Oxblood, the self-infatuated daughter of a rich family slowly sliding down the color scale and desperate to shore itself up. If his score comes through the way he's sure it will, he'll be comfortably married into their booming string business and his life will be smooth. (Though there is, of course, an odious fellow named Roger Maroon also sniffing around Constance -- but Eddie is sure that he will win out through superior color-vision.)
Luckily for the readers of Shades of Grey, Eddie's life is not smooth. He begins the novel on his way to the small outlying village of East Carmine, where Eddie is to conduct a Chair Census (as part of a Humility Realignment due to a practical joke), while his father Holden will be the relief swatchman, providing color-based medicine for the locals after the surprising (and either self-inflicted or homicidal) death of the previous holder of that position. Eddie expects to spend a quiet few months in East Carmine, keep his nose clean, and come back to his home in Jade-under-Lime for a triumphant result on his Ishihara and a quick marriage to Constance.
But East Carmine is as far from being a quiet village as can be expected, with a tough young woman, Jane Grey, whom Eddie develops a strong fascination for and with (though she would prefer to have less than nothing to do with him, and she has secrets it would be very dangerous for Eddie to learn); a deeply corrupt set of local prefects and their hangers-on, some of whom wish Eddie great harm; a mysterious naked Apocryphal man -- whom everyone must pretend not to see -- living in his house; the visit of a powerful Colorman from Central, roiling the local power structure ; and a tumultuous local marriage market that puts him squarely in the sights of the unstoppable Violet deMauve, who insists that Eddie will marry her and remain in East Carmine the rest of his life.
Eddie tries to do the right thing and keep his nose clean, but, in the best tradition of English novels about young men trying to do right in a world of prefects and demerits, he finds himself sinking further and further into the soup. As he does, Fforde carefully builds a quirky, fascinating world around him. The society that fell in the Something that Happened was solidly beyond our own, technologically -- their Perpetulite roads, alive in some sense, are still untouched, and their abandoned, decaying cities are still being mined for "raw color" centuries later. The new world of the Colortocracy is even odder -- with nasty carnivorous plants and vicious swans lurking near villages, semi-feral human "Riffraff" adding their own dangers to the wilderness, a complete lack of night-sight that sends everyone indoors at dusk, and a thousand other carefully-placed details of how this society functions and how it may have been designed to be. Shades of Grey is a deeply textured novel that demands to be read with a science-fictional mind -- a mind carefully keeping track of details, linking up disparate facts to make a picture of a new society, and ready to speculate on the causes of that society.
Once Eddie is sent on what's expected to be a suicide mission to the lost town of High Saffron, to scout it for potential color mining, the careful reader feels the pieces almost fitting into place, with glimpses of the outside world in the sign of the Fallen Man pub and in the harbor outside High Saffron. And that reader will discover many of the secrets underlying the Colortocracy like rotten foundations.
Shades of Grey is substantially stronger than Fforde's already entertaining and witty previous novels, with a depth of understanding, feeling, and world-building well above his previous work. If I manage to get organized enough to vote for the Hugos this year, Shades of Grey will be up at the top of my ballot. And I'll be looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Painting by Numbers, with more eagerness than I've had for any series in many years. This is a major achievement, from a writer who has always been on the fringes of the SFF field without ever being considered really part of it. Shades of Grey is one of those rare novels that's very successful both with SFnal world-building and with theme and character; it's one of the best books of 2009, sneaking in just under the wire at the end.
Listening to: Cruiserweight - Burst The Bubble