Normal by Warren Ellis — Johannes Punkt

You probably know about Warren Ellis, if not from his work, then from the way the world seems to warp into something he wrote more and more each year. “Lots of people tweeting [Transmetropolitan] bits at me, all year, and asking if I secretly wrote 2016,” the man wrote in a newsletter a few months back, indicating he is fully aware of this and must be stopped.

In Siberia—in real life—during the last outbreak of anthrax, a reindeer broke out in hives and died shortly after, leaving a pockmarked carcass to freeze into a sculpture on the tundra. You probably already know about this reindeer cadaver, and you might question the accuracy of detail in my description of its death, but bear with me, I’m building up to something. A few months ago—again, in real life—a heatwave tore through Siberia, relatively skyrocketing the summer temperatures. As a consequence, our reindeer thawed and the anthrax spread to live reindeer, the great great great great grandcalves of the carcass, and they started dropping like flies. Humans were infected. Some died. Quarantines have been put in place to quell the outbreak. The earth is packed with frozen plagues biding their time, dormant pandemics waiting for the atmosphere to change just a little. Buried pestilence that you just know someone will at some point dig up for profit.

In Warren Ellis’s new book, Normal, every other character has feathered their cap with the traces of a black swan and exists in fierce competition with the other patients to see who is the most apocalyptically broken. Everybody is certain they know how the world will end and very happy to expound on this, given even the slightest indication that someone is listening to them. Listening while being in the same room, that is, not listening from half a country away from a government blacksite. Unfortunately, all of them know too much about technology to feel safer in placebo tinfoil headgear. Which brings me to the premise of the novella: the eponymous Normal Head asylum is the hospital version of shutting off your phone for a week to stop the deluge of data streaming in and out of your phone, not to dam it up but to dry you out and let you breathe.

normal

You might look at the world and conclude that now we see through a mirror, blackly, the world written by Charlie Brooker. We’ve got people falling off cliffs playing Pokémon Go. A Reality TV star might become President of the United States. The last UK Prime Minister put his penis in a dead pig’s head, for fuck’s sake. And yes, that episode of reality was indeed a reference to Brooker’s work, but Ellis wrote it. You can tell because a Black Mirror episode always boils down to panem et circenses or a panopticon, whereas Ellis’s stuff is more fundamentally fucked up. Both might write about the apathy of the common people, but you can tell that Ellis is on the common people’s side, whereas Brooker just despises the masses. Put it this way: by itself, the David-Cameron-fucking-a-pig bit might seem Brookerian, but you need context. The scandal that followed the porcophilia was the Panama Papers, which also did not hurt Cameron in the least. It’s hard to care about it. You couldn’t really give a shit about him if he personally handed you your execution order, which goes double for the people who actually shifted his money around. It’s the banal evil of finance—there is no conversation to be had, no dialogue, no discourse. Just a statement of fact: the Panama Papers. It took being expected to enact Article 50 for Cameron to move on from politics.

It’s a bit unsettling that, in real life, I must have met half of these characters treated at Normal Head. They all—the characters, not my acquaintances—speak with Warren Ellis’s foul mouth, which would be annoying if it weren’t such a vivid injection of quotable imagery right into the eyeball. “[I]t’s a speeding death kaleidoscope made out of tits,” says one character, about the economy.

“We just look at this stuff, we look wider and deeper, and then just deeper and fucking deeper, and all we can see is everything getting smaller and darker until it’s this infinite black dot of compressed shit and horror,”

another one says, about career choices. Apart from them all sounding like the same person, they’re all real enough to resemble those people I’ve met. The whole book is based on the question of How much do you really want to know? You flood your feed with useless data just so you don’t really have to know much.

You can probably decipher what’s actually going on in the world by paying attention, but why would you want to? What can you do?

At Normal Head, the patients belong to one of two groups: foresight strategy or strategic forecast, which I think are probably not real things. I could be wrong, though. The names are deliberately fuzzy, as with their porous borders, but it’s propped up to look like a hard limit. One side is ideologically underpinned by the fear of authority, the other by the neurotic need for order. There is not quite enough material in the book to be certain, but I get the feeling the type of apocalypse the patient-Nostradamuses dread is heavily influenced by what side they’re on, what boogeyman scares them. We mostly see one side in the novel, the more palatable kind, worrying about governments spying on us through our phones, scared of but complicit in the tech utopia and all its manifold idyll hands, and scared shitless of bureaucracy clogging up the system, flooding whole cities with sewage. The book provides numbers on how and why that last bit would happen, by the by.

Last year, they had to open the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Doomsday Vault—that vast bank of seeds stored in the north of Norway that humanity keeps as a backup in case of apocalypse. The reason for this was the war in Syria, which, as you may know, shows no signs of stopping. The apocalypse is already here, it’s just … unevenly distributed.

It’s hard to assess how earnest the book—synecdoche for author in this case—is about its fears for the future. Outside the book’s trappings of panic re: the thought of living in a panopticon, Ellis is positive about “the generation that deletes their texts and doesn’t leave trails. They give me hope that we can adapt to this environment, too, and have our own workarounds and protocols.” So things may be bad right now, but suppose black swans roosting—do swans roost? Shut up, I’m trying to write a metaphor here—on the horizon could take us in any direction.

“The ant,” says one especially batshit character in the book. “Particularly susceptible to a species of mushroom called Cordyceps. It will grow in the brain of an ant. It will, in fact, induce an ant to scale a plant and keep it there like a tiny, triumphant mountaineer until it dies. After death, the mushroom will expand, push through and explode the ant’s head. At this increased altitude, the mushroom can cast its spores a far greater distance than on the ground. The mushroom speaks to the ant. It has been doing so for almost fifty million years. And then, and for the last five hundred years or more, the Cordyceps is harvested, processed, and introduced into human bodies for medicinal purposes and, more recently, athletic enhancement. A voice that makes us climb faster.”

I read the book initially because of my own private obsession with the Cordyceps mushroom, and Ellis quoted this passage in a newsletter. Here it becomes one of the myriad ways that humanity will eat itself up, and reminds me that I’ve not only met the characters, but I’m probably broken in similar ways. (If you know someone their whole life, if you trace their obsessions and their watersheds, you can probably decipher their psychosis when they break.)

Do you know exactly how many species of Cordyceps there are the in the rainforest? One for every species of insect. It’s not just ants, it’s the whole enormous clade. It ensures diversity: if a species of beetle becomes too successful at finding food and starts to crowd out the other beetles and bugs in the leafwork, the probability that they get decimated from stumbling onto a mushroom designed to eat them specifically approaches 1. Thus, they’re all kept in check, every one of them, with a tailor-made apocalypse.

It’ll be our fault when we’re culled.


Warren Ellis is the author of FSG’s first digital original, Dead Pig Collector; the New York Times bestselling novel Gun Machine; and the underground classic Crooked Little Vein. He is also the award-winning creator of a number of iconic, bestselling original graphic novels, including Red, Ministry of Space, Planetary, and Transmetropolitan, and has been behind some of the most successful reimaginings of mainstream comic superheroes, including Iron Man. He has written extensively for Vice, Wired, and Reuters on technological and cultural matters, and is working on a nonfiction book about the future of cities for FSG Originals. He lives on the southeast coast of England.

Johannes Punkt obviously a fake name— tries to write to make you feel like a cat that fell asleep at the wrong moment, like something just about to die. But in a nice way. Or, a kind way, at least. He has a blog [https://zombiesintelligently.com/], for some reason. @johannespunkt

Image: Moth which has been attacked by a Cordyceps Fungus, Jo Richmond, Creative Commons

Normal is published by FSG Originals. Author bio and cover image courtesy of the same.