Book's view of future not black, white

"Shades of Grey" by Jasper Fforde (Viking, 388 pages, $25.95)

A Jasper Fforde novel is always a treat for the imagination — and good for a lot of laughs. His Thursday Next series mixes time travel and books that come to life, while his Nursery Crimes series stands traditional tales — and detective stories — on their heads. His stories soar with madcap ingenuity, flying by so fast that if you don’t pay attention, you’re bound to miss some of the jokes. And you don’t want to miss them: They’re absurd, they’re funny, and his references are so clever they’ll make you glad you haven’t forgotten everything you learned in history or English class.

Fforde’s latest novel, “Shades of Grey,” is just as smart, witty and off-the-wall funny, but strikes a more serious tone overall — and that’s a good thing.

In the future, centuries after a referenced but unspecified apocalypse, society is based on two things: the Rules, and color perception. The Rules were laid down long ago, and govern all facets of life, from the big stuff, like social hierarchy, to the small stuff, like the ban on slouching, to the absurd, like not riding a unicycle backward too quickly. Ignorance of vast swaths of knowledge is mandated, and the country is built for order and sustainability.

The social classes are set by color, Greens and Purples, Yellows, Blues, Reds and Oranges, with Greys — the color-blind peasants — at the bottom. This creates a whole system of jockeying in politics, and in marriage, as people marry to strengthen their color or shift their spectrum.

Eddie Russett, a Red, has been sent with his father to the Outer Fringes; his father is a medical worker filling in for another and Eddie has been sent for a “chair census” — a pointless bit of make-work to teach him some humility.

Before they even get to East Carmine, strange things start happening, and once they’re there, things don’t make any more sense. With his Grey maid, Jane, threatening to kill him, an Apocryphal Man living in the room above him, and his father selling him in marriage to a harpy of a girl in a powerful Purple family that needs to bolster their reds, naturally curious Eddie starts wondering, and asking questions, and generally sticking pins in the social fabric.

So much more happens that it’s hard to even begin to discuss it here — and even harder to believe it was all covered in fewer than 400 pages, but such is the jam-packed nature of Fforde’s writing.

The more serious tone of this book emerges through the questioning of the social order and the first glimmers of a revolution. The characters may initially come off as slight, but their depth is revealed through their actions. The absurd nature of the society is funny at first, but appears more insidious the more we learn about it.

When Eddie and Jane, having moved from enmity to truce to friendship, embark on what everyone considers a suicide mission, they’re trying to find out what they’re not supposed to know, and they’re risking their lives to do it. (We know Eddie lives because he’s telling the story.)

Fforde has said “Shades of Grey” is the start of a new series, and it’ll be great to see what colors the future holds for Eddie and Jane.