Thursday, 8 December 2016

Book Review | Normal by Warren Ellis

There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geoengineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom; strategic forecasters are spook futurists, who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom. The former are paid by nonprofits and charities, the latter by global security groups and corporate think tanks.

For both types, if you're good at it, and you spend your days and nights doing it, then it's something you can't do for long. Depression sets in. Mental illness festers. And if the abyss gaze takes hold there's only one place to recover: Normal Head, in the wilds of Oregon, within the secure perimeter of an experimental forest.

When Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist, arrives at Normal Head, he is desperate to unplug and be immersed in sylvan silence. But then a patient goes missing from his locked bedroom, leaving nothing but a pile of insects in his wake. A staff investigation ensues; surveillance becomes total. As the mystery of the disappeared man unravels in Warren Ellis's Normal, Adam uncovers a conspiracy that calls into question the core principles of how and why we think about the future--and the past, and thenow.


For all our whistle-blowing and brainstorming, for all our back-slapping and activist hacking, for all the awareness we've raised and for all the progress we've made—for all that, it's not going well, the world.

That, at least, is what Adam Dearden believes, and, as a futurist who's resided on both sides of the aisle, he should know. Knowing what he knows, though, doesn't mean he can do a damn thing about it. That frustration recently reached fever-pitch for him when, whilst working in Windhoek, he saw something he shouldn't have seen; something that sent him over the proverbial edge.
He was a futurist. [He] gazed into the abyss for a living. Do it long enough, and the abyss would gaze back into you. If the abyss did that for long enough, the people who paid you for your eyes would send you to Normal Head. The place was paid for by foundations and multinationals alike, together. Most of their human probes needed it, one way or another, in the end. His first thought, in fact, that night in Windhoek, was that he was going to end up in Normal if he couldn't keep his shit together. (p.16)
He couldn't, of course.

Built "on the bones of a town founded by a madman whose last recorded words were about its terrible lights," (p.12) Normal Head Research Station is a sanctuary of sorts for screwed-up spooks and strategists and such. There, anything that could coax out their crazy is contained: mobile phones are a no-no, social media is strictly prohibited, and you can only access the internet if you've demonstrated yourself relatively sensible.

Which leaves... what? Well, there are a few DVD box-sets to watch, a bundle of board games to play, I dare say, and acres of ancient forest to get lost in. Your only real responsibility, when you've been sent to Normal Head, is to get better—if only so you can go back to gazing into that infinite abyss. And Adam Dearden does want to get better. Alas, within hours of his arrival, he witnesses something that beggars belief; something so unsettling that it puts him in mind of the riot that was his ruination rather than the road to recovery.

He wakes up—screaming, even—to the sound of orderlies breaking down the door to the next room over. He has the presence of mind to pull on a pair of a pants before creeping into the corridor, where he sees, instead of the expected inmate hanging from the rafters, a writhing mass of bugs on a bed:
Mr. Mansfield had apparently either executed a daring midnight escape or received a thrilling rescue, leaving nothing but a pile of insects, presumably gathered and stacked while out in the woods, in his Houdini wake, as some kind of arcane insult. And nobody had any idea yet how he'd done it, because there were no cameras in the bedrooms at Normal Head. Only in the corridors, the public, and the outside spaces. 
Adam sat down, on the northern edge of the room, as far away from the huddle as he could get. How had he done it? (p.36)
And so, instead of accepting his meds like a good futurist, and in spite of the fact that "the whole event had a little bit of a Windhoek vibe for him," (ibid.) Adam takes it upon himself to unpack the particulars of this locked room mystery. And it's just as well he does—for Normal Head as a whole, if not necessarily our narrator...

Normal is a neat little novella interested in a lot of things you'll be familiar with if you've read almost any of Warren Ellis' earlier efforts. From Transmetropolitan to Trees, he's always been an author immersed in the nearly-now—in emerging technologies and forward-facing philosophies—and the not quite right, and if that's your cup of tea, rest easy. Ellis' latest takes in the death of privacy, nature's place in our age, and the isolating effects of individuality; in the interim, there's a hostage situation over cute cat pictures, a woman who's very much in touch with her gut, and a litany of lurid listening devices.

And these are just a handful of the ideas Ellis gets his teeth into here, in exchanges not a little reminiscent of the deep, dark diatribes distributed in the author's excellent newsletter, Orbital Operations. Needless to say, Normal touches on any number of other notions. Too many, if anything, as the whole can come across as incoherent. To a greater or lesser extent, each of its short chapters progresses the text's central threads—namely the disappearance of Mr. Mansfield and the matter of Adam's unravelling—but the bulk of the book is given over to barbed banter that, however eye-opening or entertaining, adds little but length to Normal's narrative.

Similarly, its cast of characters, though conceptually clever and immediately either appealing or appalling, are mostly mouthpieces in practice—a problem perhaps exacerbated by the fact that there are so very many of them. Dickson, the Director, Lela, Clough, Colegrave and Bulat are all potentially powerful, but rather than letting them be people, Ellis puts every one to work, up to and including Adam, whose manic arc is only clarified come the climax.

That Normal is nevertheless violently insightful and at times dangerously entertaining is no mean feat given its various failings, many of which, I fear, follow from its form: from the stranding of a novel's worth of characters and the plot of a short in a novella that needs focus as opposed to filler. That's not to say the filler isn't fun, and frighteningly well done, but it is what it is, and I for one wish it wasn't.


by Warren Ellis

US Publication: November 2016, FSG

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