Fiction and Anthropology: Interviewing Warren Ellis About Normal

Our friends at FSG Originals are publishing Warren Ellis’s new novel Normal in four weekly digital installments. The first installment came out on Tuesday and is available wherever e-books are sold. Each week, Tor.com will host a discussion between Warren and a new writer about that week’s episode. This week, it’s Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Robin, take it away!

In a forest in the Pacific Northwest, there is a facility where professional futurists come to renew themselves when the task of staring into the years ahead has taken its toll.

They do not always come willingly.

So begins Normal, the new novel from Warren Ellis that is being published by FSG Originals as a four-part digital serial. The first part was released last week; the second is imminent.

Part One establishes the milieu and sets the scene: we enter the facility called Normal Head riding on the shoulder of Adam Dearden, who has been shipped to the woods after a breakdown and subsequent memory gap at a conference for futurists. We get a sense for the geometry of the place; we learn its rules; we meet its denizens. It’s clear to me that Normal is both fiction and anthropology: here we have one species of imagination considering another. As readers, we get to behold both at once: the future forecasters working out the fate of the world, and the fiction writer working out the forecasters’ own fate, with what seems to be a combination of curiosity, tenderness, and dread.

After finishing the installment, I sent Warren Ellis four questions by e-mail. Fear not: there are no spoilers below.

Robin Sloan: I get the sense you know people like this: the professional forecasters, the corporate futurists. And, you know they’ll read ‘Normal’— hungrily. So… is it homage? Satire? Is it… a warning?

Warren Ellis: I think, for some of them, it’s probably just a little uncomfortable? I’ve met a lot of people who work in the business of the future who have eventually had to come to terms with some form of depression. I hope they’ll see it as homage as much as anything else— there are certainly elements of satire in there, but it is in large part an expression of empathy and admiration. I mean, I’ve met people whose actual paid employment is in thinking about ways to avert the end of human civilization. That’s a rough beat.

RS: I realize this is a dangerous question to ask without knowing what comes next, but: Does Warren Ellis himself want or need a stay at Normal Head?

WE: Let’s say that, some days, I think about it more. Generally speaking, I don’t do well without a phone in my hand and signal in the air, and my continued ability to earn money to pay for food and shelter kind of depends upon it. I see younger generations talking about needing digital detox and extended unplugging in cabin-porn settings, and usually I make a joke about not really wanting them to extend their obviously enfeebled genetic lines. But, yeah, I think we all have that moment of, right, yes, it’s time to be locked in a compound in the woods…

RS: Let’s take that a step further, then. Like a lot of people, I follow your various digital outputs avidly— e-mail newsletter, Snapchat, Instagram. (“The public-facing services he farmed hourly… ”) If you were prescribed a medium-long stay in a micro-home at Normal Head but managed to smuggle in a cheap smartphone with just one digital channel loaded onto it, which would you, at this moment, choose? Which would be your lifeline?

WE: Ideally, a messaging app—I have a daughter at university, after all. At certain times of the year, the main function of Snapchat is to receive photos from her that were taken in underground nightclubs or on the seafront some time past midnight, as well as dubious successes in the field of student cuisine. Failing that, give me a news channel—BBC News, probably.

RS: I just searched my e-mail on a hunch—query: “ellis novella”—and sure enough, I have in my possession archived Bad Signal blasts from 2004 in which you are enumerating the virtues of the novella; almost as a tonic to the kind and length of work you’d been doing just before. Do you still feel that magnetism? Where are we in the era of the Ellis novella, in comics and prose?

WE: I do still feel it, and I’ve been pleased to see writers like China Miéville go to the novella recently. And I’ve been wanting to go back to it in comics for a while—perhaps late next year, once I’ve finished a few bigger projects. I’ve always tended toward the shorter form—things like Transmetropolitan and FreakAngels and Planetary are the outliers. I’ve got this itch in the back of my head that’s telling me I need to think about a big prose book, but so far I’ve been successful in locking that voice in a box, not least because a ninety-thousand-word book like Gun Machine was at least six uninterrupted months of my life, and I’ve got other things I want to do across the next eighteen months. So maybe another novella next year, and then we’ll see.

 

Normal Part Two arrives on Tuesday. Get it, read it during the week, and check back here next Friday!

Thank you, Robin! Part Two of Normal goes on-sale this Tuesday, July 19. Join us here next week when Tor.com’s own Laurie Penny will be peppering Warren with her four questions about the second installment. If you have questions of your own, we encourage to you leave them in the Comments below. And you can always join in the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #abyssgaze.

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