Reframing Future Shock: Interviewing Warren Ellis About Normal

Our friends at FSG Originals are publishing Warren Ellis’s new novel Normal in four weekly digital installments. The second installment was released this past 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 Laurie Penny, author of the upcoming Tor.com novella Everything Belongs to the Future.

When they asked me to talk to Warren Ellis about the second part of his new book, Normal, which is being serially released in four digital installments, I said yes straight away even though I was half-crazed from work burnout and bad politics, because Warren is a mad genius and a very bad man and the chance to give him a gentle grilling was way too good to refuse.

The book is funny and dark and bleak as hell. In Warren’s words, he uses it to “posit cases where people who have to think about the end of the world for a living, are eventually broken by that kind of futurological and emotional pressure.” I have a lot of friends who do exactly that sort of work, and, in my own way, I do it too. So I wanted to know, is there something particular about the work, or is it more about the personality type attracted to it?

Laurie Penny: In Normal, these damaged souls have all been isolated in a kind of isolated, high-security recovery center—somewhere between an asylum and a luxe nature retreat. And, of course, by the time Part Two begins, all hell has started to break loose. But I wanted to talk about the nature of the characters themselves. Warren is talking about people who are “broken” rather than explicitly “mad” on modern terms—is he saying that madness is subjective but damage is real?

Warren Ellis: That’s not unfair. People who are “mad” can continue to function in society without harm to themselves or others, certainly. But when your job means you have to be put to bed with a shitload of Prozac every eighteen months because you stop talking to people or are just crying all the time, then that’s an example of inability to function.

Think of it like another framing of the Tofflers’ old “future shock” saw, perhaps. Future shock was the notion that the future would come on so fast that some people would not be able to adapt, and would live in a continual state of psychological trauma.

I think the Tofflers were wrong, in that we’re a highly adaptive species who can handle any torrent of novelty, event and innovation, but the price to pay is that, shit, it gets tiring.

LP: You sound tired. Are you tired?

WE: I’m always fucking tired. I’m 48 years old.

LP: Cop out. I’m knackered by the whole thing and I’m still not thirty. Spent a week after Brexit basically unable to leave bed typing on my phone. So look, can we continue to get useful work done if we’re all hopeless and knackered?

WE: Well, I can. Dunno about you. Tiredness doesn’t stop me thinking. And post-Brexit we’re all afraid to go to sleep for fear of what might have happened before we wake up.

LP: I relate to your problems and wish to subscribe to your newsletter. So, would you describe yourself as a futurist?

WE: No. I’m just a small time comics writer who wanders in and out of many rooms, largely at random. Futurists get time to think about things in depth, and then get to talk in public about those findings. I’m just a working writer.

LP: Well, there’s always been a crossover between speculative fiction writers and the production of the future. I don’t think writers ever know how much they matter, or how deeply. But anyway, I want to try out a question on you that is slightly trolling. Feel free to shout and throw things. 

Some people talk about your work as cyberpunk, whatever that genre ever meant—certainly you’re the only person still doing it in an interesting way. This book feels in some way like an elegy for cyberpunk, the hollow laugh at the funeral of the paleofuture.

WE: I don’t think of my work as cyberpunk—possibly because, in my head, cyberpunk was dead and buried by 1990.

It’s entirely possible to see Normal as the funeral for the techno-thriller—the unseen fourth act where the heroes of futurity are helped back to a distant hospital where they’re dosed up and left to cry in the corner or whatever.

LP: You do tend, in your fiction, to give your protagonists a real hell of a time…

WE: The techno-thriller has always been compelling because it’s solutionist fiction—experts and specialists running around being hyper-competent in their hyper-focused silos of excellence, right? And, you know, futurism is as marketed as anything else in the neoliberal space. So here’s the elegy—here’s all the broken heroes of solutionism in a hospital, and nothing they did ever mattered. From one perspective, I can see Normal looking like that. In the last 24 hours, I’ve seen the book called a thriller, a satire, and a science fiction novel.

Fiction is bench-testing aspects of possible futures. Also an early warning station for bad weather ahead.

LP: Where does your hope for the future come from right now?

WE: Dunno. If you’d asked me three weeks ago, I might have had a different answer. Right now it’s all disaster planning and forward escape.

Right now, I’m just hoping the pound stays depressed long enough for me to be able to buy some kind of bunker or castle that I can pass on to my daughter and her friends.

 

And with that, Warren “not a futurist” Ellis disappears back into the Internet, reminding me that fiction is partly an exercise in “bench-testing aspects of possible futures. Also an early warning station for bad weather ahead.”

Part three of Normal goes on-sale next Tuesday, July 26—join us here next week when Geoff Manaugh, author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, interviews Ellis! 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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