Notes Reading Notes

Normal

By Warren Ellis, 2016

A sharp exposition of burnout and what it means to be acutely aware of our broken world. Normal is set in the titular Normal Head psychiatric facility in the Oregon wilderness where futurists, urbanists, forecasters, digital anthropologists and their ilk get sent when they break down after gazing too deeply into the abyss and losing the ability to handle their own bleak prognostications and projections.

Originally published as a four-part digital serialisation, Normal is a terse, clever and fast-moving story about what happens to Adam, a futurist who gets shipped to the facility after suffering a massive breakdown. Confused, cynical and shot through with mood stabilisers and antipsychotics, Adam struggles to adjust to his new situation and the ridiculousness of the people surrounding him. Any semblance of normalcy (ha) is soon shredded when one of the residents mysteriously disappears from inside a locked room, leaving behind a grotesque slithering ball of insects and spiders and the facility goes into lockdown.

This whole idea has huge potential but the way it’s delivered in Normal might not be wholly satisfying to students and connoisseurs of fictional dystopias. Despite its tight plot and compelling mystery structure, Normal ends up feeling like it’s more in the tradition of Dostoevsky’s grim and futile Notes from Underground rather than that of speculative futurist masterpieces like Pattern Recognition. When faced with the reality of materialist destruction and human doom, the thought leaders and futurists of Normal don’t theorise, they sermonise. They have the world’s fuckedupness all figured out and are only too happy to explain it. They have retreated from the world but not from their ideas about it and this never leads anywhere insightful, only to the edge of the precipice (which is presumably why they all ended up at Normal Head).

The writing here is at its best when it gets visual and visceral, portraying the physical experience of technological burnout and despair laced with self-awareness. The witty sermonising is more dubious. It could easily pass for a hilarious Catch-22-esque parody of the culture of TED talks and rabid technological solutionism, except that it’s not entirely clear that Ellis is joking. All the bad shit is real. It’s happening. The dystopia isn’t fictional.