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A smart, tight, provocative techno-thriller straight out of the very near future—by an iconic visionary writer

Some people call it "abyss gaze." Gaze into the abyss all day and the abyss will gaze into you.
There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geo-engineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom; strategic forecasters are spook futurists, who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom. The former are paid by nonprofits and charities, the latter by global security groups and corporate think tanks.
For both types, if you're good at it, and you spend your days and nights doing it, then it's something you can't do for long. Depression sets in. Mental illness festers. And if the "abyss gaze" takes hold there's only one place to recover: Normal Head, in the wilds of Oregon, within the secure perimeter of an experimental forest.
When Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist, arrives at Normal Head, he is desperate to unplug and be immersed in sylvan silence. But then a patient goes missing from his locked bedroom, leaving nothing but a pile of insects in his wake. A staff investigation ensues; surveillance becomes total. As the mystery of the disappeared man unravels in Warren Ellis's Normal, Dearden uncovers a conspiracy that calls into question the core principles of how and why we think about the future—and the past, and the now.

148 pages, Paperback

First published November 29, 2016

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About the author

Warren Ellis

2,053 books5,708 followers
Warren Ellis is the award-winning writer of graphic novels like TRANSMETROPOLITAN, FELL, MINISTRY OF SPACE and PLANETARY, and the author of the NYT-bestselling GUN MACHINE and the “underground classic” novel CROOKED LITTLE VEIN, as well as the digital short-story single DEAD PIG COLLECTOR. His newest book is the novella NORMAL, from FSG Originals, listed as one of Amazon’s Best 100 Books Of 2016.

The movie RED is based on his graphic novel of the same name, its sequel having been released in summer 2013. IRON MAN 3 is based on his Marvel Comics graphic novel IRON MAN: EXTREMIS. He is currently developing his graphic novel sequence with Jason Howard, TREES, for television, in concert with HardySonBaker and NBCU, and continues to work as a screenwriter and producer in film and television, represented by Angela Cheng Caplan and Cheng Caplan Company. He is the creator, writer and co-producer of the Netflix series CASTLEVANIA, recently renewed for its third season, and of the recently-announced Netflix series HEAVEN’S FOREST.

He’s written extensively for VICE, WIRED UK and Reuters on technological and cultural matters, and given keynote speeches and lectures at events like dConstruct, ThingsCon, Improving Reality, SxSW, How The Light Gets In, Haunted Machines and Cognitive Cities.

Warren Ellis has recently developed and curated the revival of the Wildstorm creative library for DC Entertainment with the series THE WILD STORM, and is currently working on the serialising of new graphic novel works TREES: THREE FATES and INJECTION at Image Comics, and the serialised graphic novel THE BATMAN’S GRAVE for DC Comics, while working as a Consulting Producer on another television series.

A documentary about his work, CAPTURED GHOSTS, was released in 2012.

Recognitions include the NUIG Literary and Debating Society’s President’s Medal for service to freedom of speech, the EAGLE AWARDS Roll Of Honour for lifetime achievement in the field of comics & graphic novels, the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2010, the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and the International Horror Guild Award for illustrated narrative. He is a Patron of Humanists UK. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Essex.

Warren Ellis lives outside London, on the south-east coast of England, in case he needs to make a quick getaway.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 532 reviews
Profile Image for Felicia.
Author 47 books128k followers
December 18, 2016
I was sent this book and I didn't know what to expect. It was written in installments over the last year, and now it's compiled into one work. It's a really interesting cyberpunk-ish novella involving governmental surveillance, paranoia, and a bizarrely engaging set of characters. A really quick and fun read.

It also has my favorite line from any book this year, it made me laugh out loud: ""Dickson appeared from nowhere, like the world's shittiest elf..."
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,485 reviews12.8k followers
December 13, 2016
Adam Dearden is a burnt-out futurist (someone who thinks professionally about the future) who gets sent to a special facility in an “experimental” Oregon forest (whatever that is) to recuperate: Normal Head. And then an inmate disappears and the place intended to be devoid of any kind of intrusive tech is suddenly swarming with surveillance.

I’ve been a huge fan of Warren Ellis’ comics for years and really enjoyed his first novel, Crooked Little Vein, but his latest foray into fiction, Normal, is absolute pants!

There’s no story. The missing inmate is just a thing that happens - it’s never pursued in any meaningful way let alone resolved. Instead the book is wafer-thin characters acting as mouthpieces for Ellis’ rambling thoughts on surveillance. Nobody says anything interesting. And that’s the whole book!

I’m not going to remember any part of Normal not just because it was so unimpressive and forgettable but because there’s nothing here to begin with. It’s laughably described as a “techno-thriller” but actually it’s just an immensely boring and static pseudo-narrative. Even Warren Ellis fans are gonna struggle to enjoy anything about this drivel.
Profile Image for Jon Nakapalau.
4,928 reviews686 followers
September 13, 2019
Love his work in comics; so when I saw this book I snapped it up. Very interesting story about technology and the rift between inception and application - what happens when you are part of something that is used for evil - you did not see it coming (or did you just ignore the bigger questions because you were focused on you own little area of theoretical importance). Nice quick read with very deep questions.
Profile Image for Ray.
Author 16 books290 followers
November 30, 2017
I could listen to Warren Ellis riff about End-of-the-World/apocalypsism scenarios all day... and I'll take any narrative excuse at all to explore these Big Ideas. In true Ellis fashion, it's mind-boggingly smart and at once too short. Much to ponder. Also, often funny in that charming yet fucked up way. Here's to hyperintellegencia paranoia!
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
996 reviews1,132 followers
February 22, 2019
Warren Ellis’ brain is a very, very strange place; I never really know what I am in for when I pick up any of his work, and “Normal” fits Ellis’ pattern of bizarre, unexpected, funny and disturbing.

When your job is to think about the future, whether as a strategic forecaster (the kind employed by corporations and governments) or as a civil futurist (such as urbanists and geoengineers), your work will eventually take a toll on you, on a very different level than the work-related stress most people have to deal with. Indeed, when all your mental energy is focused on predicting ways to temporarily dodge the seemingly inevitable doom of humanity, it is very easy to slip into a rather peculiar kind of mental illness, known to some as “abyss gazing”. This can go from relatively straightforward depression to more violent incidents, such as cannibalism. Luckily for the poor chumps who suffer from this condition, the Normal Head facility, located somewhere in an experimental forest in Oregon, is the perfect place for futurists who have lost their grips on reality. There, they are allowed to remain completely off the grid and some of them eventually recover, and get well enough to be allowed Internet access and given a bit of work.

When Adam Dearden is sent there, he knows it’s for the best: he did lose it big time in Rotterdam, after all. But as luck would have it, on his very first night at Normal, a fellow patient disappears from his locked bedroom, leaving a pile of insects where his body should have been.

Now Warren Ellis clearly loves the sound of his own voice, and he uses his characters as mouthpieces all the time to rant about government surveillance and other such topics: don't expect subtlety from this gentleman. But that means the plot suffers a bit, and in this case, it simply feels rushed. I wanted a lot more of this lovely, utterly insane prose that occasionally made me laugh out loud, more about these strange and unstable patients and their work... It simply ended too soon.

Fans of dystopian speculative fiction will probably enjoy this compact locked-room mystery, that feels (and reads) like a “Black Mirror” episode on speed. If you enjoyed “Crooked Little Vein” (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), this might also be your cup of tea.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,307 reviews20 followers
January 31, 2020
Warren Ellis takes his tinfoil hat out for a spin again in this paranoid slice of techno-fear-mongering. There isn’t much here plot-wise, and I wouldn’t recommend it to mystery lovers, but I enjoyed it.

Remember, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you...
Profile Image for Joel.
554 reviews1,622 followers
December 6, 2016
Shades of Gibson, in that it will make you depressed to live in 2016. I mean, more so.
Profile Image for Carlos.
588 reviews289 followers
June 25, 2017
The actual rating would be 3 1/2 stars for me . This was a short story , I haven't read short story books in a long time ... it was engaging ... but it was superficial ...there is no time for development of characters but then again it was only 148 pages ... but if you are into sci fi and thrillers , you might like this ...the story is not bad , it is innovative and fast paced ... get a good coffee by your side and you'll finish this book in a blink ... and the conclusion is scary in that it could be actually happening in the near future.
Profile Image for Marianna Neal.
470 reviews2,153 followers
July 2, 2017
I loved the idea behind this novella, but I really think this could have been executed better. This speculative futuristic story had so much potential! I kept wanting to know more about this near-future world and all those people who think about the future professionally, but there just wasn't enough time for that in this short novella. It also didn't really offer anything new as far as the commentary on our over-reliance on technology goes, and missed an opportunity to properly explore the mental illness angle. Overall, a fast-paced and enjoyable read, but it's not something that's going to stay in my mind for long.
354 reviews122 followers
June 23, 2018
This book was about futurists who stare into the abis to long and go insane from it. They are taken to a sanatariam where they remain the rest of there lives.
I would recommend this book to all. It is a quick easy read.
Enjoy and Be Blessed
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,849 followers
January 30, 2019
This novel has a breezy lackadaisical fan-fiction feeling to it. I had the sense that Ellis just typed along, and this novel is what happened. I enjoyed reading it. I felt a little neglected by it, though. It felt as if the author kept trying to project a feeling in my direction of not caring whether he impressed me or not, or whether I kept reading or not. The feeling was pronounced enough to make me believe he really did care about impressing me, and by trying by pushing me away, was trying to make me care more about staying.

I'm spending a lot of words here now trying to explain the peculiarity of this author-reader tension. It felt different from the relationship I fall into with most novels, where I usually feel the author is trying to persuade me to enter into their story. This novel doesn't care if I like it or not. That indifference, rather than the story itself, became the most interesting thing to me about my reading experience.
Profile Image for Toby.
832 reviews328 followers
April 1, 2017
Really lazy writing with a good idea. I'm not sure Ellis has learned that writing fiction is not the same as writing a graphic novel, his dialogue is especially weak, often reading like a cheap joke written by a teenager to demonstrate how world aware they are, and painfully reminiscent of the crap my friends churned out in film school. There's some good stuff in here, obviously, Ellis didn't just become an idiot overnight or anything, it's just lost in the silliness and obviousness. Surveillance, culture, tech dependence, post-truths, the ability for any lunatic to spin a believable explanation out of their tin foil hat covered heads, it's all important contemporary fears but a 150 novella is not the place to fully explore them and it seems the fiction of Warren Ellis is similarly not the place.
Profile Image for William.
163 reviews17 followers
August 2, 2016
Interesting premise, but the novel itself is too unfocused to do it justice. I wanted to know more details about the world, but Ellis would just jump around to concepts that didn't seem to exist other than giving the book a sense of "ripped from the headlines" recency.
Additionally, I think the initial serialized four-part release didn't make sense for a book that is 120 pages long, and it ended up distracting from the novel as a whole.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,770 reviews4,239 followers
March 13, 2022
When I plucked this off my to-read pile, I didn’t really remember what it was; as it’s composed of four collected parts of a previously serialised story, I assumed it’d be pretty substantial, but in fact it’s little more than a short story. It gets off to a good start: the concept of Normal Head, a rehabilitation facility for strategists who’ve done too much ‘staring into the abyss of the future’, was fascinating to me, and I was interested enough in the protagonist to be gripped by the details of the incident that brought him there. (It’s also very cute that the final phase of treatment before release is called Staging.) There’s just very little space for the story to go anywhere – and it ends even sooner than I thought, since the last 15% of the book is an interview with the author.

TinyLetter | Linktree
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews126k followers
November 16, 2016
Any time you pick up something by Warren Ellis, you know it’s going to be weird and wild and awesome. The same is true for his new novel, Normal, a techno-thriller about two groups of strategists taking on the challenge of the impending end of civiliazation. When staring in the face of doom brings on depression and anxiety, they are sent to a special recovery center to get better. But then one of the patients goes missing…

Backlist bump: Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

Tune in to our weekly podcast dedicated to all things new books, All The Books: http://bookriot.com/listen/shows/allt...
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books277 followers
September 19, 2017
"All communication becomes dangerous" (56)
Normal is a fun novella with a terrific premise. Every so often futurists go insane when they look too deeply into the future, a condition Ellis dubs "abyss gaze" (15). A facility called Normal (!) treats them, and that's the setting. Into Normal enters our freshly mad protagonist, who quickly stumbles into a locked room mystery.

This little book has many pleasures, all familiar to anyone who's read Warren Ellis. There's a lot of humor, often darkly tinged ("phones are half-trained demons always ready to betray you." (26)). There are plenty of intriguing ideas, like a scientist who cultivates her gut flora to expand her intelligence. And there's just sweet writing:
The speaker was a man from the north of England, by his accent, with a face like a mallet and skin like a map of Yorkshire scratched out in gin-broken veins... But a grin split if like a spade through clay. (18)
Several major issues hue Normal. The book is very concerned with digital surveillance, flagged early on: "all communication since Windhoek seemed fraught with danger" (10) . It's a dark meditation on where social media, robotics, and mobile are headed. There's a subplot involving the sociology of futurism, as Ellis posits a divide between those working for art and nonprofits versus those wedded to finance and security agencies.

As a futurist, I enjoyed the portrayal of the field, plus the speculation in futuristic ideas. Ellis knows the topic well, sketching out a group of people who take real and lonely risks in dwelling in years to come. "It's like we're the sin-eaters for the entire fucking culture, looking at the end of human civilization because it's supposed that somebody should. I'm fine, by the way." (62) Ellis even references a classic Bruce Sterling line ("The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky") with this amplification:
That's the future, Adam fuckling whateveryournameis. City-states rammed with aging people huddling up against hospitals and looking up in terror for the big storm that will come and go and leave them floating facedown in thirteen feet of shit. And I can't do anything about it. (61)
Personally, I haven't seen the professional tension between non-profit and security futurists, but there is certainly a difference.

Before I go further, let me throw up spoiler shields, since the plot does advance.

Overall, a very entertaining read.
Profile Image for Vuk Trifkovic.
513 reviews41 followers
August 19, 2016
5* for the concept. Asylum for broken futurologists. amazing.
4* for the turn of phrase. Some wonderful stuff I will try to drop in my conversations.
2* for the actual writing. Too many set pieces and awkward transitions.
Profile Image for Donovan.
697 reviews66 followers
December 7, 2016
That's a helluva book. I hadn't read any prose by Warren Ellis but it's pretty damn good. A punchy, funny, dark mindfuck. It's not quite as colorful (literally and figuratively) as his comics but it's a fast and furious read.
Profile Image for Eddie.
145 reviews26 followers
April 10, 2017

boring boring boring.. never went anywhere...

Profile Image for Laci Long Carrera | Book Pairings.
568 reviews168 followers
May 18, 2017
When I came across Normal it was categorized as a science fiction novella, but it’s really more of a futurist, speculative fiction novella. I’d also say that this is a cautionary tale about what could happen if we continue to give up our privacy willingly for the sake of convenience.

Normal takes place in the not so distant future at Normal Head Station, a mental-health/rehab facility for forecasters and futurists to seek treatment after burnout and looking into the “abyss” a few too many times. These are very intelligent and powerful people who have cracked or lost their way. I found this concept fascinating personally.

Anyways….Adam our main character arrives at Normal and within 24 hours of his admittance another patient goes missing and left in his place is a huge pile of bugs. Adam then takes in upon himself to get to the bottom of this mystery while navigating this new world he finds himself in.

I loved the questions that this story evokes around technology, privacy, mental illness, and culture, but I didn’t love the ending. I thought it felt rushed and left a lot unanswered. Nonetheless it is still a quick and enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Edward  Goetz.
81 reviews16 followers
December 3, 2016
I put this on my science fiction shelf, but most of it is probably real, which is actually pretty scary. Ellis is a bit of a futurist and he manages to pack quite a few of his ideas and theories into the space of a novella.

Normal is a place where futurists go after they have nervous breakdowns. The book follows one such person from intake, meeting other interesting people (with disturbingly interesting ideas), to the final big reveal of why this particular person had his breakdown. It is also peppered with hints of a not so bright future for our planet.

I enjoyed Ellis' other novels, 'Crooked Little Vein' and 'Gun Machine.' I liked this one too, but it seemed like he was trying to make a statement about the world we live and where it is going, rather than write a proper novel.

Still worth a look because Ellis is never boring and there are several pretty funny scenes.

Profile Image for Emily.
938 reviews41 followers
March 16, 2017
I grabbed this slim book from the library knowing the basic premise, but not really knowing what to expect, and I ended up really liking it. It's amusing, but also horrifying, specifically if you spend too much time imaging futures likely and unlikely, it IS likely to drive you crazy. I think modern life to a degree requires that we hold the future in careful abeyance lest the weight of it crush us. This book playfully looks at what happens when we fail.
Profile Image for jenni.
271 reviews33 followers
January 22, 2017
I'm not at all ashamed to say that sometimes when I read a book I just have no clue what in the good god damn is really going on. This is one of those times.
Profile Image for Repix.
2,177 reviews411 followers
June 8, 2019
Aburrido y sin sentido.
Profile Image for Sara.
1,178 reviews48 followers
December 26, 2018
Odd little sci-fi book. In the future (or possibly happening right now) futurists who have mental breakdowns due to how the future looks to be, are sent to Normal Head in Oregon. Normal Head is a mental institution and is a pretty odd place itself. As for plot, a patient goes missing and there are a lot of insects crawling around. An investigation ensues.

I found some of this confusing, lots of technical mumbo-jumbo, but that doesn't detract from the plot. It does detract from holding my interest. Okay book, just at times a bit over my head.
Profile Image for Philip.
1,388 reviews72 followers
March 9, 2023
Odd little story about inmates at a remote Oregon clinic/asylum for corporate/government futurists who've "stared too deep into the abyss" and inevitably come to the depressing (yet all too believable) conclusion that we're all screwed. So fairly dark; but then it suddenly veers into farce before swinging back again to end with some paranoid "ubiquitous surveillance state" doom-and-gloom.

Having just read and enjoyed (despite my middling ratings) Ellis' graphic trilogy The Trees, I was surprised to see that he'd written some novels as well, and so was curious to see what they'd be like. And, well...now I know.
Profile Image for Milliebot.
810 reviews23 followers
August 16, 2017
This review and others posted over at my blog.

I picked this up because of the cover (illustrated by Pedro Sanches) and borrowed it because of the description and I’m pretty sure I missed most of what was going on, but it was fun to read so I don’t care.

I read this entirely in one sitting because the characters were so addicting and I had to know what was going on in this madhouse up in the woods. This book was not at all what I expected, but I’m not mad. I assumed the “abyss gaze” was a form of sentient AI that was somehow controlling people. Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought that, but, whatever. Really this is a book about foresight strategists who have gone mad from looking into the many infinitesimal details regarding how many problems we need to solve based on our way of life in order to avoid certain destruction.

On a high level, I understood the basic commentary about our society that this book dished out. In regards to the specific details and truly understanding what all these once-sane characters studied, I’m bloody clueless. Oh well, don’t care! Adam’s character was fun to follow and the people he met in Normal Head were interesting in so many ways.

This book was darkly amusing and made some interesting predictions about where our society (and those across the world) could end up and how we might end up developing and using our technology.

If you’re looking for a quick, semi-morose read full of technological predictions, crazy people and a little dose of mystery, I think you’ll enjoy Normal.
Profile Image for Zedsdead.
1,093 reviews65 followers
August 17, 2021
After having a nervous breakdown, a strategic futurist finds himself in a special mental hospital (named Normal) that caters to his profession. When one of the patients transforms into 200 pounds of spiders, beetles, and centipedes, he must maintain his splintering sanity long enough to figure out what the hell is going on.

As a mystery, Normal is adequate, but this thin (150pp) volume is really a vehicle for Ellis to sound the alarm about various looming social or technological catastrophes. Each patient lost their mind to a different pending doom.

The urban design specialist has seen how fragile city water supply systems are to the types of storms that will be cropping regularly over the next several decades. An economic futurist predicts imminent global financial ruin. ("It's a runaway process. The absolute best thing anyone can do is grab desperately at the throttle. But they don't because it's a speeding death kaleidoscope made out of tits.") A third patient foresees a return to feudal monarchies after the incipient 'failure' of liberal democracy, and a fourth believes that her gut biome is a second conscious entity inhabiting her body. Several patients expect civilization to collapse when AI technology reaches a tipping point.

So Ellis preaches the end being nigh for a few chapters, and the story whizzes along to a quick, satisfying conclusion, and (shrug) it's not bad.
Profile Image for Rein.
Author 59 books304 followers
December 30, 2016
"The Gun Machine" will probably remain my favourite book by Ellis, but this one comes in as a close second, passing by the "Crooked Little Vein". Disguised as an Agatha Christie type detective story on steroids, it is actually a collection of encounters for the main hero (to which we should add our own encounter with him), each of these disclosing a desperate vision of a future, from a particular and rational point of view - and yet always an insanity predicated on the need to remain sane. Well, Ellis is famous (or should I say notorious) for his mad-sounding alternative realities to be either actually existing (as in the "Crooked Little Vein") or imminently plausible, and a few among those that "Normal" offers are easily recognizable from current public debate. What there could have been more of (and the book is a meagre 148 pages in a small format, eye-friendly font and generous line spacing) is precisely the detective story itself, as we know he can write a mean one. (The solution to the riddle was more than satisfactory though.) "Normal" also develops a key image that I had unwittingly also thought of myself for the story I intend to write once the two novels on my desk will be ready - just showing these things float around us in the air, I guess.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,826 reviews12 followers
February 7, 2017
This is much better than the first Ellis novel I read, Crooked Little Vein, as both characters and story stepped up. I am aware that this was initially serialized online, but that's OK, so was the last John Scalzi book I read.

While a little of the basic concept follows Ellis' current Image Comics series Injection, I think he executes character and story better here. Normal Head Station is where agencies (government, private, covert, and overt) send their forecasters and futurists when they have looked into the abyss a few too many times, and go slightly, or more, mad.

The reader meets main character Adam on his first day at Normal, and in less than 24 hours he has a mystery to deal with. How did a patient just disappear and leave about 200 pounds of bugs in their bed?

As a prose novelist I do think Ellis' writing and character work is improving. I liked Adam, and by the end of this short book I cared about why and how he ended up in Normal. The side characters are very two-dimensional, but I'm OK with that as their purpose is to help move Adam and the story forward.
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