Book Review: Normal by Warren Ellis

I admitted in another review that the only reason that I read this book when I did was because I wanted to be able to finish 2018 on an even number of books. I was sitting at 69 when December 31 of last year dawned, and Normal was sitting right there, slim and nonthreatening. After flipping through the book and discovering that it was a mere 160 pages, and having nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve (my life is deeply boring in the socializing department these days), I figured that I could whip through the book before midnight struck, thus making my final book tally for 2018 sit at 70.

I received the book via a horror novel subscription box that went up in terrible flames last year. I won’t name it, because I don’t wish to draw out the thieving troll who ripped off his entire subscription base and did a great deal of damage to several small presses. If the book hadn’t come from that service, however, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. It’s not the most compelling cover that I’ve ever seen. I’ve also never read anything else by Ellis, so there wasn’t a burning need to leap into the pages. And the premise is not the most joyful thing, either:

Some people call it “abyss gaze.” Gaze into the abyss all day and the abyss will gaze into you.
There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geo-engineering 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, Dearden uncovers a conspiracy that calls into question the core principles of how and why we think about the future—and the past, and the now.

I’m not always looking for happiness when I read something. The holidays, however, are not my favorite time of year, and this? Did not seem like the best thing to read when one was already in a low mood.

No spoilers. Cutting it anyway.

I can’t say that I liked this book. It’s not the sort of book that one exclaims great love for. It is, however, something that I can appreciate and admire for what it does. The premise quite neatly tells you what you’re getting yourself into. It’s a timely book that discusses the urgent need that we, as a society, have to try to fix where we’re going, because otherwise the planet’s going to die and it’s going to be quite messy.

Dearden is completely unreliable. I’m not sure if I was reading too much into what happened at the end, and I may go back and re-read this to see if I can pick up any clues. What I think happened might be completely wrong. That is the beauty of the unreliable narrator: the reader is left to try to figure out what to believe and what truly happened. I believe that the events unfolded the way that they were “told,” I’m just not sure if I buy the Dearden’s role in all of this. This is the point, I’m sure. We don’t know whether we can trust him, and we don’t know whether he’s wholly innocent of any wrongdoing, given what we learn about his life before he arrived at Normal Head.

No matter, it was an effective little book. Unsettling, yes. However, I’m still thinking about it almost a month later. That, to me, is the mark of a successful book.

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