Gazing Into the Abyss With 20/20 Envision - A Review of Normal, Written by Warren Ellis

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Book cover for Normal

One thing to know about me is that I’m an over-thinker, an over-analyzer. I encounter a problem (or potential problem) and my mind goes into maximum overdrive trying to resolve it as quickly as possible, accounting for every possibility. It’s like my mind slides between parallel worlds of possibilities. It’s like diving deep into the abyss.

After reading Warren EllisNormal, I’m firmly convinced I should put my over-thinking skills to good use and become either a foresight strategist or a strategic forecaster. In the book, main character Adam Dearden is a foresight strategist who’s a bit too good at his job. Contemplating the possibilities of smart cities and engineering has burnt out his sanity and peace of mind, leaving him with what’s known as “abyss gaze.” He’s sent to the forests of Oregon to a compound called Normal Head to recuperate. There, he’s treated for abyss gaze with other foresight strategists and strategic forecasters, who immerse themselves in potential geopolitical disasters, drone warfare and the ultimate end of the world.

After meeting a few other patients at Normal Head and diving a bit more into what it means to be a strategic forecaster or foresight strategist, Ellis trades the narrative sedative for hallucinogens. A patient goes missing inside his locked room, leaving behind nothing but a pile of insects. Cue the intrigue.

One of the first things I’ll say about Normal is that it should be read with expectations sent away on vacation. I dove into this bad boy thinking it was a techno-mystery, and while it most certainly is, it’s got a lot more going on. The best way I can describe it is to look at it like an episode from the world of Mr. Robot. Adam reminded me of shades of Elliot, and some of the supporting characters in the book would probably fit right in as members of fsociety. And like Mr. Robot, Normal has a lot to say about technology’s place in modern society and how there’s so much more stirring underneath the surface than the public knows about.

Speaking of supporting characters, there are several who offer us glimpses of the different facets involved with being an abyss-addled foresight strategist or strategic forecaster. There’s one section toward the middle of the book where a character named Lela breaks down what it means to spiral down into the abyss. In the scene, she’s describing how cities are machines for living in, which unspools into the ready availability of healthcare in cities, which ripples into life expectancy in the city, which pivots into sewer systems. Another character develops a symbiotic relationship with her gut bacteria, and another has a...fondness for Danger Mouse. While more than a little off the wall, the characters do a solid job of serving to root us in this specific world within the world, helping to set us up for the reveal at the end.

I have to admit, there were technological discussions and aspects of the story that were out of my wheelhouse of knowledge. That said, it wasn’t so extreme that it yanked me out of the story; I was able to get the gist of it (I think). Now, I could have made notes to research those aspects and discussion points, but knowing me, it would have devolved into me staring and sinking into the abyss and the pits of utter despair. With revelations from Edward Snowden and Cambridge Analytica, it’s no secret that a lot is going on in the background (and sometimes in plain sight without our realizing it) in regards to overall privacy, societal manipulation, tailoring the future to the whims of the rich and powerful, and much more. We may not know what all is going on or how, but at least more of these misdeeds are being brought to the light.

Normal combines elements of Black Mirror and The X-Files to deliver an occasionally trippy techno-thriller that makes you wonder if you’re reading fiction or biography from the future or a parallel dimension...or a future parallel dimension. Warren Ellis sets out to show the abyss isn’t a deep and dark chasm, but a book scrawled with the ink of bottomless possibilities. The reader is dragged down with the reading of every line and the turn of every page until darkness gives way to mind boggling enlightenment. Call it Anti-Nirvana.

Page length: 160 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Rent, or Skip: Buy New (or, as usual, check with your local library)

Cover of Rising Stars Compendium

Up Next: Rising Stars, written by J. Michael Straczynski, chronicles the lives of the 113 infants of Penderson, Illinois given superpowers by a passing comet. Amidst the mysterious murders of the powered Specials, the 24-issue series examines how society reacts to those with superpowers (not all the Specials grow up to become heroes), and how individuals with superpowers react not only to a non-powered society, but to other Specials.