Normal by Warren Ellis is a smart, tight, and provocative techno-thriller straight out of the very near future (Available November 29, 2016).
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 geoengineering 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, Adam 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.
“Hand over the entire internet now and nobody gets hurt,” she said, aiming the toothbrush at the nurse like an evil magic wand. The end of the toothbrush had been inexpertly whittled into what someone who’d only ever heard of a shank would think a shank looked like. Her hair was wire-brush gray, secured at the back by old brown rubber bands, and her left eye was twitching enough that she occasionally pointed the supposed weapon at a ghost image over the nurse’s shoulder.
“Professor,” the nurse said, head bobbing, working hard to make direct visual contact with at least one of her eyes.
The Professor was in her fifties, with the build and posture of an imperious bird, and spoke with a reedy voice most often used to control children and dogs. “I mean it,” she said. “This is outrageous. Conditions here are medieval. I haven’t seen a picture of a cat in six weeks and it is simply too much.”
The nurse was a stubby stump of a man, with thick eyebrows, oaken muscles, and those middle-aged men’s pores that gave him a permanent five-o’clock shadow. He bounced and glowered, looking to Adam Dearden like nothing so much as a cartoon gangster from children’s television. Behind the countertop of the intake hall desk, another nurse, wearing what were evidently staff-uniform gray scrubs, weaved nervously. Adam felt panic squirm under the tarpaulin of medications in his system. He never expected the arrival at Normal to be the most stressful part of his day. “Professor,” the stocky nurse growled again, “if you don’t put that down right now, then we’re going to have to take it from you. And that didn’t work out so well for you last time, did it?”
“If you would just give me the internet I wouldn’t have to keep making weapons. You are sorely trying my patience, young man. I agreed to none of this.”
“Now, we both know that’s not true, Professor. You agreed to it, your employer agreed to it, you signed the intake forms.”
“What does it matter if I signed the intake forms? They wouldn’t stand up in court. I’m clearly insane. I’m threatening your life with a toothbrush, for God’s sake. A ten-dollar toothbrush.”
The Professor looked at her own hand holding her own toothbrush. Adam Dearden’s own nurse, a copper-headed strongman who’d said perhaps eight words to him on the trip, quietly took Adam’s arm and pulled him away from the scene by a meter.
“I’ve quite ruined the damned thing,” the Professor said, turning the toothbrush around in her fingers. “If you hadn’t stolen my death ray I would never have had to resort to such extremity.”
She sagged in her skin a little, and handed it over to the nurse. “I only wanted to see some pictures of cats. A GIF or two. That’s all.”
“We’ll have you over to the Staging post in just a little while,” said the nurse, who was a terrible liar and didn’t realize that everyone he’d ever met knew it. “Let’s go on down to the recovery station now, get you feeling better.”
He gently took her wrist and began to lead her down the wood-paneled eastern corridor, away from the latex-paint greens of the intake hall.
“Can I have all of the drugs?” Adam heard her ask.
“This way,” said Adam’s nurse, bringing the number of times he’d heard that since the beginning of his journey up to a nice round ten. At PDX, the nurse had met him on the runway, Adam having been transported by private jet, and said, “Adam Dearden? This way.” Adam didn’t know what the staff here at Normal Head had been told about him, for them to arrange his collection by a giant capable of circumcising redwoods with his teeth, but he had shuffled along meekly. It didn’t seem productive to argue, and also he’d been shot full of so many sedatives and antipsychotics before he’d been stuffed onto the plane that he could not in any case have raised a persuasive enough argument to his legs to get them to do anything but shuffle. He felt like he might have to manually restart his own lungs at any moment, because relying on his body’s autonomic functions was seeming more and more dangerous.
Perhaps unwisely, he had voiced this concern while being helped up into a ridiculous SUV with the footprint of a tank and a front fender apparently designed to atomize houses on impact, and was told to “shut up” in a tone that strongly suggested the nurse knew how to murder people really well. Adam shut up, and watched Portland scroll by, detached from the view to the point where he could have been sitting in a stationary vehicle on a set watching a back projection, or two people frantically cranking a roll of painted landscape to simulate motion. None of it seemed real. He laughed at Mount Hood, capped with silvered white in the middle of summer. Who paints a frosted mountaintop into a summer scene? What a ridiculous failure of reality.
He stopped laughing when he remembered it was a failure of reality that put him in this car in the first place, and was quiet for a long time.
The oaks and firs stood up as they reached the interstate and pushed on through the South West Pacific Highway to the Salmon River Highway, past places with names like Falling Creek, Tualatin, Joe Dancer Park, and Erratic Rock. Places you could walk out into and die and never be found. He could imagine them seared by sun in summer and shrouded in snow in winter. Hammered by hail the size of coins in spring and autumn, pounding flesh and smashing bone, processed to be carried off chunk by speck in the guts of birds.
He had had a friend, a thin man with soft eyes and a tight jaw who ground his teeth whenever he was thinking, who’d walked out one day in a spare place like these. He’d left a note by the front left wheel of the pickup truck parked outside his cabin, pinned to the dirt by an old can of dog food. He was one of the generations who typed all day, and his handwriting had lost the fluency of daily practice. The note read, “You won’t find me. I am returning to the cycle of nature while I still can. I don’t want to see the end of the future. Tell my father I’m glad he has cancer. Goodbye.” He had scrawled a drawing of an empty hourglass at the bottom of the note. Adam remembered flipping the note, and finding that it was scrawled on the back of a pharmacy receipt for a great many painkillers and four bottles of expensive mineral water, the stuff with extra vitamins in it. They never found him. Adam presumed that the empty plastic bottles of pills and water were still bobbing around in a creek somewhere, as a final fuck-you to the littering world his friend despised, while he circled overhead, riding legion in the bellies of birds.
It was after Erratic Rock—grassy floodplain that didn’t look even a bit as interesting as the name—when Adam childishly asked if they were there yet. The nurse, who wasn’t driving and was instead sitting and watching Adam like a cop guarding some heinous criminal during a prison transfer, said, “Not long,” and that was the whole eight words done. He wasn’t telling the truth, either, because it took another hour before they reached the eastern gate of the Normal Head Experimental Forest, out amid the coastal wilds of Oregon in the United States, where no one was watching.
The Normal Headlands were a conservation site, denoted both as a United States Forest Service Experimental Forest and as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Inside the boundary of Normal Head Experimental Forest’s thirteen thousand acres lay, over the bones of a ghost town called Normal Station, the Normal Head Research Station. Adam, like many of the people in his field, had heard of Normal Head—knew roughly where it was, had listened to all the stories about what happened there from friends of friends and the occasional fragile, wistful outpatient—but this was the first time he’d seen it. Seeing Normal Head up close was not a good thing for persons sharing his profession. Knowing what he knew, and having some awareness left regarding his own condition, he wondered if he’d see this gate again. He knew that there was a fair chance that he might never leave the forest. He knew that some people don’t come back.
Adam was given to understand by the two guards at the eastern gate’s checkpoint that he was causing them to miss the start of Bonanza on the television, and that he was therefore not their friend. Adam was a little sad about this, but only because he found he really liked the notion of sitting and watching an episode of Bonanza. There was something oddly soothing about the idea. His nurse growled at the guards. Adam suspected they weren’t supposed to interact with him even that much. The two men grudgingly took Adam’s photo, claimed that their various other items of security equipment weren’t working, took a signature off Adam’s nurse, and waved them through. It was difficult even to conceive of them as “guards,” but Adam had taken direct and nervous notice of the large handguns in duty holsters on their hips.
The car drove on, down a long and winding track lined by unbroken curtains of vast trees that he supposed he would have time to learn the names of. He could pick out an oak, and had had Douglas firs pointed out to him during a previous trip to Portland, but otherwise trees in Adam Dearden’s life went by the name “tree.” There didn’t seem to be much other than trees here, and he briefly toyed with the notion that he might be forced to live in one as part of his therapy. He didn’t broach the subject with his nurse, partly because his nurse wouldn’t be amused and partly because all communication since Windhoek seemed fraught with danger. He’d felt for days that he somehow wasn’t making sense to anybody, and that everybody seemed to get angry or threatening whenever he spoke. So he looked out the window and invented names for the species of tree that he could discern.
That stopped being funny or distracting long before they eventually reached the Station compound. A Brutalist horseshoe of a building squatting on one side of a big square of bark-dressed dirt, opposite a stand of raised huts surrounded by odd little modular buildings that looked like they’d been parachuted in from five years in the future. The car stopped at the top of the horseshoe—its long arms turned away from the square and disappearing off into woodland—and Adam was caused to understand by one large nurse’s hand that he was required to leave the car. Adam was oddly proud that it took the nurse a further five minutes to pry him from the car, and forgave himself the high-pitched screaming that accompanied the performance.
Of course, on being produced through the doors and into the intake hall, Adam was no longer the star of his own show. An older woman was demanding internet access at the point of a poorly sharpened toothbrush. The air crackled with nervous energy. Adam felt the stress headache start in his neck, and his eyes prickled with tears. Someone was asking him a question, he knew, but he couldn’t quite make the words make sense. He recognized the tone of voice that defined the string of sounds as a question, which pleased him—not too far gone, eh?—but otherwise he felt like someone had stolen the internal dictionary that normal people used to match sounds to ideas. His chest went tight, and his chin bunched involuntarily. He shook his head, violently, and pain firecrackered up his neck and into the base of his skull. His brain reconnected long enough to hear the woman ask brokenly for drugs, and then, for no good reason he could find, he started crying. And couldn’t stop.
Copyright © 2016 Warren Ellis.
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Warren Ellis is an author, graphic novelist, columnist, and speaker. His novel, Gun Machine, was released in January 2013, and is being developed for television by Chernin Entertainment and FOX.