In Normal, Warren Ellis’ exceptional new thriller, foresight strategist Adam Dearborn has just been admitted to a compound called Normal, located on the U.S. west coast. It’s where those who were previously hired to monitor Earth’s degrading civilization are sent when they’re so burned out they can no longer function, well, normally.
The word itself loses much of its meaning in a near-future world where surveillance is constant, and the Normal Head Research Station itself hardly seems a place of safety. One inmate describes the outside world as “a permanent condition of pervasive low-level warfare,” and explains, “We’ve all been sent mad by grief.” The patients at Normal have, they frequently say, spent too much time “gazing into the abyss.”
The compound is abuzz when there’s a bizarre murder the morning after Adam’s arrival. He noticed the strange figure of Mr. Mansfield the previous afternoon, lurking about the edges of Normal’s forest. But Mansfield is missing the next morning, gone from his room and seemingly replaced by a mound of hundreds of crawling insects.
Adam—no model of stability himself—begins a low-key quest to discover what exactly has happened, and whether there’s anyone in Normal who can be trusted. The compound’s inhabitants beguile each other with lies, hysteria or reclusive behavior, as they search for ways to cope with the loss of the normal society they remember. The search leads Adam to an area called Staging, the only place in the compound with access, through the Internet, to the outside. Staging could give access to some answers—or to something much worse.
It’s clear that things have gone badly wrong out in the wider world, where people are now constantly watched by interfering “microdrones.” Ellis excels by inference, offering a chilling picture of the emotional turmoil in a human society that’s come unhinged. More unsettling, at the end of the book, there’s a shocking description of the event that led Adam to untether from his own sanity.
This slim sci-fi mystery will puzzle, engage your senses and stick with you, maybe popping up days later when one of its passages resonates uncomfortably in the real world outside the book’s pages. Normal chills not by overt action or gory effects, but by slyly transporting readers outside their comfort zone, offering a look into a future that seems increasingly plausible after all.