Friday, June 30, 2017

Normal by Warren Ellis: a review


This is a Warren (Transmetropolitan, The Authority, Planetary, Iron Man) Ellis novel about two groups of people who are professional futurists: that is, they are paid to extrapolate where events and technology are headed. They share one difficulty: it’s a business that can make gazing into the abyss feel like it is indeed gazing back at you! And what IS gazing at us? This is the heart of the locked-door mystery that cradles the compact plot, set at a retreat where organizations that appraise the future send their smart people when they become unsettled enough to need a special medical vacation, not unlike rehab. Through the eyes of Adam Dearden, we quickly get familiar with a deep variety of information that makes up the Futurist profession. By the end, we’re unsettled to see what could make a person in that job pretty nervous. There’s something to be said for the detail put into this entertainingly-told, if disquieting, look over the shoulders of those who won’t ignore Tomorrow.

There’s two camps of people at Normal Head, the Oregon facility where we follow new occupant Adam. AS per the back cover:

Foresight strategists: civil futurists who engage in geoengineering, smart cities, avert impending doom
Strategic forecasters: spook futurists who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Impending Doom.

Then, you have a man who’s worked both sides of the aisle, but recently broke down after a mysteriously-referenced incident during a peaceful protest in Windhoek, Namibia.
Adam Dearden first has all his technological definitions of himself taken away:
quant band to monitor his EF field activity, respiration- a dozen stats
No Twitter NO Instagram
no phone with 8 different messaging apps
no laptop
And while he learns about Staging, where Normal residents have their choice of books, use of Internet, and more freedom, he’s presently a new resident of the facility, where he finally experiences...quiet.

He soon learns (nothing) about the mystery of Mr. Mansfield, and then stumbles into one centered around a heaving mass of insect life left in Mansfield’s locked room.

Dr. Murgu sympathetically treats Adam and makes prescriptions.
He’s guided physically by Dickson “a great galleon of a man sailing between the archipelago of plastic things in between them.”
He’s befriended by an economist named Clough, then a civil engineer, Lela Charron.
The Director has almost had enough of his job pacifying these intellectuals. His reaction to the disappeared inmate and the freak outs that follow betray his own need for some pills and quiet!

In the Futurist occupation, people theorize about Firechat and blockchain after talking at conferences.
Adam turns out to be reputable for a very dark idea, called Stoop Model. Can you guess why?
it’s almost certainly tied to whatever made him crack up after Windhoek, Namibia. Is he crazy...or just depressed? How delusional is Adam? Or has he simply seen something that went a bridge too far?

One aspect Adam observes: how little quiet, how little hermitage, can be found in the world anymore.
You “can probably get 3G service in chunks of Antarctica.”
But while he’s here at Normal, trying to appreciate nature and some good meds, he has the scary prospect of who is trying to become his new friends. They deal with heavy shit, after all.

Lela’s had to think about 13 million gallons pumped out of New York everyday so the subway can run- overwhelmed by a mere Category One Hurricane Sandy. Considering the way New York’s State of Emergency in its outmoded subways made the news this week, you can see one real problem in Futurism is seeing problems coming that you can’t get anyone to realistically deal with!

How do we manage?
After a post-bug-pile-reveal check-up, Adam somehow gets hijacked gently by a seemingly creepy guy Asher, who takes him to long-time resident Colegrave’s micro-home in Staging. For Colegrave, the future is medieval feudalism. That’s the only panacea to the reckless consequences of democracy, increasingly adrift in the algorithimically-aided lurid gazes of its divided, thoughtless people. He’s a foresight strategist, and this is his conclusion. He wills Adam to get busy solving the locked-room mystery of vanished Mansfield, and report back to him.

“After so long trapped in the micro-home with Colegrave, leaving the capsule felt like being ejected into space.” This is the nicely-worded set up as Dearden walks himself back to the facility.

“There was a forest. There was so much silence. The quiet felt like a huge new country he could wander around within for years without ever meeting its coastlines. A silence the size of the sky.”

Now, he encounters an even higher-ranking resident of staging, Jasmin Bulat- barefoot, wandering, considers herself a dual consciousness with her gut bacteria. She considers herself more respected than Colgrave by organizations out in the world, different ones of which still rely on data they ponder.

A wonderful use of science as metaphor can be found in Jasmin’s passage describing the Cordyceps mushroom that grows in the brains of ants. We learn her views on how our bacterial biome urges us on to exploration and greatness in the stars, where unfortunately we have no way to sustain them.

When Adam crosses the lunch table line, he begins uniting disparate people in conversation. He also inadvertently uncovers the vital missing piece of information everyone needs to really understand Normal.

If the evidence to this short book’s fascinating appeal hasn’t reached you yet, I can only say it’s got black humor, a skimming of deep practical reading framed as intelligent conversations, and a gentle humanity that belies its creator’s blistering use of cursing between its clearly-described, carefully-worded scenes.

Here are some favorite passages in the book’s last third, without giving away a plot you could better enjoy unspoilered:

“Money is the dark unknown god driving us all towards certain bloody doom. A giant formless thing from beyond space with a million genitals. It’s the thing in horror films that you should not directly look at lest you go mad….It’s crushed the world into new shapes and all we want to do is drink its dark, horrible milk because that is the nature of its fucking magic.” (Ellis, 106)

“He knew, from long website essays, that sleeve notes (like from a rare vinyl album) had pretty much gone away by the end of the eighties. Adam searched for a word to describe nostalgia for things you never knew. He was sure there was one...Nostalgia for a word you once knew.

...Sleeve notes were an incredibly important thing, he decided. They came from a time when music had something to say, and was supposed to mean something...It was an intensely civilized thing, the provision of sleeve notes. What was wrong with him, that he’d thought it was okay to live in a world without sleeve notes?”

Sehnsucht. That was the word, wasn’t it? Nostalgia for a distant country to which we have never been, but which nonetheless may be home. An intense yearing for a comforting alien perfection. Lipstick traces with no owner. Adam turned the word over in his head...Another sad futurist, he thought, trying to summon an ideal world from its island moorings in tomorrow. Ridiculous way to live.” (ibid, 126-128)

“Government is barely the tip of the iceberg now. Non-state actors, asymmetrical warfighters, skunkworks, security multi-nationals, who the hell knows. We lost the battle for our streets a long time ago. WE gave them up. Worse: we gave up the ideas and data freely to the people who used them to take our streets from us….It tells us that we quite literally have no idea what is loose in the world and looking at and talking to us, and who it is looking and listening for.” (ibid, 145)

I could certainly go on. If anything, Normal uncovers a few intelligent topics worth further exploration, in characters reflecting the author’s real-life friends and their acquaintances. But I won’t.
Semiautonomous listening devices may be waiting to take my reflections and give the f#%&in' novel away!

-C Lue Disharoon, 6/ 30/ 17

P.s. if that doesn't sound crazy enough, the audio book's read by comedian John Hodgman!

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