Despairing of the future since the election? You'll find little comfort in Warren Ellis's new prose novella, Normal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which he'll read from and sign at Flyleaf Books on Dec. 2.
Inspired by Ellis's experiences at futurist festivals, the near-future tale is set at Normal Head, a sort of rehab center for futurists whose constant speculation has led to a condition called "Abyss Gaze," marked by overwhelming degrees of depression and other mental illnesses. They are supposed to unplug from the world in isolation, but complications develop when a patient's disappearance sparks an investigation.
It's the latest in a long series of dark futures from the British author, who's earned a massive cult following for more than two decades of alternately acerbic, horrifying, and hilarious writing across comics, books, and other media.
Ellis cowrote the 2008 video game Dead Space. The Bruce Willis Red films were based on his graphic novel with artist Cully Hamner, and he is widely known for many comic series starring famous Marvel and DC characters or his own. His Iron Man story for Marvel, "Extremis," established multiple elements of character mythology that carried over into the Robert Downey Jr. films.
Ellis's own series include Transmetropolitan, a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired tale of journalism in the future; Planetary, an eerie exploration of twentieth-century pop culture; and, more recently, Trees, in which humanity deals with massive, unknowable alien structures that have appeared on Earth (it started coming out well before Arrival hit theaters).
But despite his prolific comics output, Ellis, who also used to run multiple columns, websites, and online forms about the creative direction of the comics industry, is currently more interested in other ways of experimenting with storytelling.
While it receives its first physical release, in paperback, this week, Normal was first serialized in digital form over the summer. Its multimedia bonus features were designed to put readers in the mind-set of its digital-detoxing protagonists, a funny thing to do on a computer. Ellis, long an innovative storyteller, appreciates the relatively free and uncharted terrain of the digital realm, even though its audience is still limited.
"If you tell a comics publisher in the U.S. that you want to do a weekly serial, they pretend to have a heart attack until you shut up and go away," Ellis says. "But everything gets a lot easier when you're just moving words around. ... There's a ceiling to the digital audience, it seems, and a lot of people will wait to pay for print. That's fine. But it's been good to be able to try this experiment."
Ellis's work frequently incorporates real-world advancements in technology and other trends. So how does he keep from succumbing to Abyss Gaze himself? He's surprisingly sanguine for someone whose vision of near-future digital exhaustion seems much nearer than many would like to admit.
"I'm not one of those people ... who can just disappear off to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and the locals communicate by tying messages to badgers or whatever," Ellis says. "The longest I'm offline is when I'm on a plane. I have a family, and communications technologies are how we stay closely in touch. All these things come with volume controls and off-switches, and I can use them to reduce my inbound to essential communications. And I don't have to shit in a bucket in the forest to do it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The New Normal."