Normal by Warren Ellis
To borrow a quote from one of the side characters in his new book Normal, Warren Ellis “kind of invented the modern end of the world.” His stories often journey into the dark corners of depravity and fetish, but manage to do so in a contemplative, scientific way that investigates the presumed limitations of our human existence. While his characters look for highs greater than those that current drugs can offer, or turn-ons yet to be widely accepted, one could step back and see that Ellis is simply showing what’s beyond our tightly cropped view of the world. As wide as imagination can reach, science allows us to stretch even further. In Normal, Ellis reaches towards the unknown frontier of technology in the world and how its advancements might have horrifying effects on our global future.
Ellis has a long bibliography in the world of comics (including the celebrated Transmetropolitan and Planetary), and that history is noticeable in the cautionary tale Normal (which was previously serialized in four installments). The monthly, quickly-arcing nature of comics puts more weight on the importance of episodic flow, dialogue, cliffhangers and revelatory denouement; everything else can be left to the illustrators. In Normal, the ideas are terrifyingly resonant, but much of the novella’s other realms remain underwhelmingly under-rendered. Characters are little more than vehicles for their voices, which would be highly problematic if their words weren’t so compelling.
Normal takes place over a day and a half at Normal Head, a psychiatric compound for the rehabilitation of foresight strategists and strategic forecasters. Both parties deal with the inevitable failure of our future, with “Our Coming Doom,” and while foresight strategists attempt to face that abyss and reconcile its reality for adaptation, strategic futurists are paid by political and corporate entities to figure out how they can stay on top while the rest of the world crumbles. Understandably, each patient at Normal Head experienced some sort of psychological breakdown on account of their repeated gazes into the abyss: working so closely with even the hypothetical ideas of drones, nanotechnology and their wartime integration can take its toll. Protagonist Adam Dearden is haunted by traumas incurred during a visit to Windhoek, Namibia. Now, he’s repeatedly crying on the floor, keeping these memories at bay with cup after cup of pills.
During his first night at Normal, a patient on Adam’s hall locks himself in his room. When the orderlies break down his door, Adam gets a glimpse of what’s inside: it appears as if the patient’s body was somehow replaced by a sack full of insects: his bed is a crawling swarm, foggily resembling a silhouette. This haunting vision becomes the crux of Normal as Adam and a few new acquaintances try to figure out what happened.
In typical Ellis manner, he rushes through moments other novelists would let linger, and sprints towards any opportunities for his characters to make speeches. In one scene, Adam rambles on about what the bugs could mean:
Or Normal Head has been targeted for a massively destabilizing psyop targeted specifically for the nature and condition of the audience. Depending on where your head is at, it’s either a ridiculous thing that speaks to the ease with which someone can bypass security here, or it’s a hallucinatory image designed to freak out fragile and paranoid people. The question is why. A stunt’s only intent is to amuse the instigators. And piss off a bunch of your fellow inmates, I suppose. A psyop needs a reason. Somebody would have to benefit from destabilizing a rest home full of sick futurists.
Ellis’ fine history in comics glimmers throughout Normal’s many infectiously unstable speeches; one can easily imagine these rants painstakingly lettered over three or four frames. Speeches in Normal often lead to the revelation of some repressed memories, and while these moments of clarity are the most captivating and politically relevant moments of Normal, their unveiling seems at times arbitrary and will make readers wonder if perusing a medical dossier on each character would have been more efficient.
Normal is a terrible and believable vision of the future, with ideas so rich that its shortcomings as a novel are easily overlooked. With a lot of work, Ellis could reach the feet of greats like Don DeLillo, but lapses in character development, cohesion, and craft hold him back towards the familiar world of comics. Until then, perhaps it’s best to consider Ellis more of a modern-day prophet than an author, and listen more for his message than linger on its execution.