The Fog in the Trees: Interviewing Warren Ellis About Normal

Our friends at FSG Originals are publishing Warren Ellis’s new novel Normal in four weekly digital installments. The third 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 Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDGBLOG and A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

Normal, of course, is not a normal novel. Warren Ellis, already widely known for cracking open genres, characters, and storylines to find other, more aggressive, and stranger things within, has set his eyes on something rather calmer. Or so it seems.

Strangers, forced to adapt to one another in a confined setting, a research complex built to function more like a convalescent home, rapidly realize that fate has taken them somewhere much harder to fathom than the world they’ve left behind. It is a small circle of voices—a string quartet of often bleak, and certainly very raw, personalities, leading each other both into and out of disharmony.

Normal drops us off at an elusive psychological research institute, tucked away in an experimental forest near the Oregon coast, where the insects—and the buildings themselves—are not what they seem. Limiting my focus to part three of the novel, I asked Warren about setting, human agency, and the book’s satirical take on cities of the near-future.

Geoff Manaugh: Given my own interests in architecture and design, I gravitated immediately to the novel’s setting: I love the idea of a reclusive psychological research facility sequestered inside an experimental forest in Oregon. I’m curious if you could talk about setting, in general: how an experimental forest in the Pacific Northwest is so different from, say, a desert complex in Namibia or a logistics warehouse in Los Angeles. How can setting, in and of itself, achieve the same sorts of things normally saved for plot and characters?

Warren Ellis: Well, initially, it was a personal thing to inform the writing. I’d recently spent a big chunk of time in the Pacific Northwest, and setting it in Oregon meant I could feel the air. That can help, especially in a story that is otherwise heavily internal and conceptual. I could see the fog in the trees.

Beyond that, the forest setting is one that speaks both of calm and of life. Slow-moving but always growing and moving upwards. The PNW is a soothing part of the world, and it’s big and quite empty-looking to an old man from the English shore. For what amounts to a mental hospital, a forest is a healthier setting than a desert or warehouse, I should think.

I was particularly delighted when I found an actual “experimental forest” in Oregon—I liked the implied meaning of a forest for experiments or a forest of experiments.

GM: In part three of the book, you write about a brain parasite that can alter the behavior of a specific ant species, setting up the violent, even grotesque circumstances for that parasite’s future reproduction. The ant becomes a behavioral slave. You also mention the human gut biome. “The gut records,” you write. “The gut knows.” The gut influences. This is a huge question, but I’m curious about agency: where do you put the rudder of experience, so to speak, when our decisions might not even be our own? From another perspective, it’s as if we’ve gone from a world haunted by demons trying to lead us astray to a secular world of behavior-altering brain parasites and microbiomes—but do we exaggerate the strength of these influences in order to excuse ourselves of our own decisions?

WE: I don’t know about “excuse.” Well, maybe. There’s an old theory that suggests that communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain was once believed to be the action of gods—eyeballing a river ford becomes Poseidon telling you it’s safe to cross at a certain point, for example. I mean, it’s probably nonsense, but it illustrates a point—agency doesn’t change, only the things we layer on top of it. We still live in a world haunted by demons—only the names have changed. We’re good at inventing them. They come with “secular” terms now, and sometimes even some great science, but there’s still a lot of metaphor going on, a lot of ways of explaining unseen things to ourselves in lyric forms.

I’m not remotely a scientist, or even a philosopher. I’m just a small-time writer. I’m interested in the metaphors and the ghost stories. I have no idea if that answers the question. I may be saying that the rudder of experience, as you put it, hasn’t necessarily altered—just the way we explain the action of wood in water to ourselves.

GM: The novel has a satirical edge, mocking urban futurism and its attendant world of high-tech solutions for everything—what you refer to as “dataism.” At one point in part three, a character remarks: “Africa is the environment we evolved for,” implying a lack of fit between our species and rampant urbanization. I suppose I’m curious if you think of cities as something we didn’t really evolve to live within or that humans must constantly struggle to inhabit. The novel’s setting—a remote experimental forest—is itself a place of deliberate urban withdrawal and psychological recalibration.

WE: This sort of brings us back to excuses, doesn’t it? Also, to the thing I was talking about in this space a week or two back, about the Tofflers’ “future shock” notions and how it seems to me that it doesn’t speak to us as the highly adaptive species we actually are.

Ur was already fallen by the time Romulus and Remus were legendarily doing the fratricide dance over some unremarkable Italian hills. Communities gathered to process and store fish in Sweden over nine thousand years ago. It’s hard to argue that we’re not wired for conurbation on some level—I mean, we’re an advanced tool-using species, we use combination and delegation to extend our affordances. (Adaptation and evolution being two completely different things that lots of people seem to find it terribly convenient to conflate.)

But, yes, there’s a narrative that cities are stressful, we have to forcibly adapt ourselves to them, and, often, we eventually have to bail out of them and “get our shit together in the country” or whatever the narrative of the day is. Putting the Normal Head institute in the middle of nowhere, away from anything that looks like an artificial construct, is a nod to that kind of narrative, as well as a signal to the inmates that this is a low-stress environment.

We distrust our own adaptive nature. I still wonder why that is.

Part four, the final installment, of Normal goes on-sale next Tuesday, August 2—join us here next week when Lauren Beukes, author of Broken Monsters, 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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