Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"1.1.19.02.006: Team sports are mandatory in order to build character. Character is there to give purpose to team sports." - p. 255
Sent to Chromatacia's backwaters to count chairs, ambitious Eddie Russett slowly uncovers the truth about his hue-obsessed society.
Where to begin? The world of this book is as endlessly complex and clever as Fforde's surreal Thursday Next series. Chromatacia's inhabitants are obsessed with color: the color you are able to see (red, blue, green, etc.) determines your rank in the Colortocracy. Night is a terrifying emptiness, since no one can see in the dark. Artificial color production drives village life. Everyone is expected to appreciate the "simple pleasures of relentless toil" and devote their lives to supporting the community, accepting their genetically determined places in the hierarchy.
Then there are the interminable Rules of Munsell, which must be obeyed to the letter - no matter how absurd or nit-picky they seem to be. (One notable lapse in the Rules has led to a severe spoon shortage, which makes the utensils more precious than gold.) Every year there are Leapbacks - erasures of technology and knowledge, designed to simplify society. (Much like the Ministry of Truth's Newspeak in Orwell's 1984, and obviously named to recall Mao's Great Leap Forward) In short, it's an entire society run like an English boarding school: rigorous dress codes, mealtimes, required activities, strict standards of behavior, and punishments for infractions.
Eddie Russett knows how to navigate the Rules to his advantage. He's slightly engaged to a wealthy Oxblood from the highest echelons of the Colortocracy, and things look good for his future. But his habit of questioning tradition gets him shipped out to the boonies where he runs across a colorblind Grey named Jane, who has a charmingly retroussé nose...and Russett unwittingly begins to unravel the mysteries at the dark heart of his seemingly placid society.
Fforde excels at high-concept stories with fun characters and plenty of wit. His humor and writing style remind me of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. There are also echoes of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Chromatacia echoes the bizarre real-life dystopia of North Korea in Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. The humor may get dark, but it never feels cynical thanks to the likable narrator. I can't believe I have to wait until 2015 for the sequel, Painting by Numbers. That's totally beige.
"It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn't really what I'd planned for myself - I'd hoped to marry in the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire." - p. 1