Grey is the middle ground between the extremes of black and white. And yet, while the reluctant hero of Grey seeks just such a middle ground for his chaotic life, the book itself seeks no such thing. Jon Armstrong's debut doesn't look like a comedy, but not only is it a satire, it's the kind of take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth satire SF hasn't seen since Bradley Denton's woefully under-read Wrack & Roll. It's as if the ghost of Robert Sheckley mated with Howard Waldrop, and then subjected their offspring to too much South Park and about 999 viewings of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Armstrong brutalizes the cultures of wanton capitalist consumerism and celebrity worship — admittedly, fairly easy targets — with a profane gusto not recommended for small children, pregnant women, or the elderly.
Of course, such an approach can grow monotonous after a while. And this, coupled with the fact that Grey's Sodom-'n-Gomorrah future — run by corporate feudalism and seemingly propelled solely by debauched partying and sexual deviancy — is so extreme in its rendering that it's never really believable as anything other than a narrative straw-man constructed simply to be torn down, does hold the book back from realizing its desired potential with perfect smoothness. But the entertainment value is there, and there were many passages in Grey where I laughed out loud. Of course, if your tastes don't run to the gleefully vulgar, the book's humor will simply repel you. Armstrong, I think, might be as pleased with that as with anything.
In its rush to ridicule a humanity so enslaved to the superficial and vulgar, Grey spares the reader nothing of vulgarity itself. Its hero is 17-year-old Michael Rivers, scion of the world's leading — but on the brink of floundering — corporate family. Raised by his father — a wild caricature of a maniac who gives the phrase "over the top" a whole new lease on life — to be an American Idol-ish super-celebrity, Michael now finds himself stuck in an arranged marriage designed to raise the company's fortunes by merging them with a vital competitor. Happily for Michael, he and Nora, his betrothed, discover they are true soul mates, and Michael looks forward to a life of connubial bliss. The two lovebirds even undergo a procedure to burn out the cones in one eye, allowing only greyscale vision in that eye (a metaphor for their shared desire to retreat from the decadent madness of modern life). But an unexpected disaster renders the marriage and the merger off, and Michael ends up in a new arrangement with a ridiculous skank from a lesser-known family while public approval and revenues of the family business go into freefall.
The story thus involves Michael's attempts to thwart his fate and his father's designs and reunite with Nora. Along the way, we are treated to characters and scenes the likes of which you've never seen and may hope never to again. The world of Grey is so excessive it's truly absurdist. But Armstrong is a blistering talent. And if his book overplays its hand — and boy, does it — it's simply the result of an unfettered imagination given every toy in the box to play with, and strict instructions to deny itself nothing in the effort to startle, amaze, offend you, and double you over with laughter. This is a writer to watch. Provided you have plenty of cover.