Review: Normal, by Warren Ellis

Out of the twenty-four books I have read so far in 2016 Warren Ellis’ novel Normal is easily my favorite. This isn’t surprising given that I’m on record as a card-carrying member of the Cult of Ellis. He’s directly or tangentially referenced in more than a few posts here and I’m not exaggerating when I admit he’s been an intellectual model of mine for years, ever since Crooked Little Vein. What’s surprising is how fresh and new Normal is amidst both his previous body of work and fiction in general.

Normal follows foresight strategist Adam Dearden through his intake at Normal Head, a psychiatric facility that caters to a very specific clientele: those who have spent too long looking into the future. This includes both civil futurists and their shadow-siblings working for military or intelligence taskmasters. Referenced on the cover as well as throughout the book, one of the few pervasive ideas is abyss gaze: as a futurist you spend so long looking into the abyss that the abyss looks back into you. Every patient at Normal Head is brilliant, and every patient is broken.

Normal is a locked-room mystery. A patient goes missing on Dearden’s very first night. It’s also a psychological exploration not just about academia but ourselves – what the world does to those who gaze at it and how we cope. In the very first scene LOLcats are featured prominently and serve as an escapist technique. But the patient in that case has no internet access, and no cats – that absence forcing her to more directly confront what brought her to Normal. The novel’s rife with self-deception and false dichotomies, both of which are eventually called out. But there’s also a basic and unflinching recognition of the importance and necessity of the work that futurists do.

Ellis excels at weaponizing typical imagery – the specter-like figure lurking on the edge of the forest, the isolation of the setting – with advanced futurism the likes of JG Ballard (who himself wrote a missing-asylum-patient short story that casts Normal’s conclusion in an interesting light). Ellis also brings darkly intelligent humor such as the opening scene with the LOLcats, a wildly frenetic and joyful and chaotic asylum-wide reckoning, the overwhelming desire to be medicated and the ridiculous things done to cope with abyss gaze. He’s also got the balls to make an economist (Clough) a primary truth-teller in the story, though he acknowledges this irony later through the madly bright figure of Colegrave.

Normal pulls down a theme common in Ellis’s work that manifests in different ways: progress through transgression. It could be macro-scale societal progress through transgressing bodily norms. Or as in this case the micro-scale violation of crossing from the civil forecaster to mil/intel strategist side of the cafeteria pushing the story forward, letting the dog finally see the rabbit. It’s never a neat process and often results in whatever group is involved dissolving into a bunch of howling, shit-throwing monkeys but things do move forward.

Normal is at once a darkly amusing locked-room mystery and a deeper statement on the often destabilizing, quixotic nature of doing the right work and still getting blown over by it and having to catch your breath in whatever way you can. It draws on Ellis’ incredibly well-read and cross-disciplined nature. And both his instant, defensive pessimism and his beliefs and hopes about people.

I can’t recommend it any more highly. At 150 pages it’s a quick and well-paced story with a lot of technology and character fluidly unpacked and laid bare.

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