Review by Paul D Houston
This is a short novel by writer, Warren Ellis and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Warren Ellis is one of my favorite authors because his work is throbbing with a strange and purposely weird energy. His stories are theoretical fantasies full of possibility and curiosity. There are many different elements in his work at all times, from science-fiction, to crime-noir, to historical theory and always with intense characterization. Warren Ellis' characters are all hyper-strange and deeply fascinating in weird and wonderful ways, and it's sort of the hallmark of his writing. His plots are of course, wonderfully inventive, but most of the time, its his characters that capture the reader. And it's no different in this book. NORMAL is a short story, only 148 pages, but it's the epitome of Warren Ellis's grandest writing and features a whole host of wonderful characters.
First let me explain the concept, in a boiled down fashion...
There's a hospital/asylum in the eastern mountains of Oregon, called Normal Head, that takes care of the smartest minds on Earth once they've gazed into the abyss and become broken. It's a place cut off from the world, no tv, no radio and no internet (for the most part). This collection of Earths greatest minds, while cut off from the world still contribute to it, at least those that are able. At a cost, companies and corporations, concerned with the advancement of the world, employ some of these greatest minds. For their theories, their inventions or for their observations. And that access is a commodity. A very carefully controlled one, only certain trusted and approved agencies are allowed access to. So, an outside un-approved and very dangerous agency, invades this sanctuary, wanting the information and knowledge throbbing therein. Using insanely advanced technology, this outside agency, in it's attempts at access and control, inadvertently creates a mess of chaos which threatens to send the whole place and possibly the world hurtling into the abyss.
"It is a hospital, but it has only one kind of patient. People who have tried to look into the future in order to try to save the world and have been driven insane by it. The worst kind of insanity, Adam Dearden. We've all been sent mad by grief."
The main character is Adam Dearden, a man who worked on creating unique drone technology that would aid government and police forces in their attempts to quell protest, among other things. After having an experience, which showed him how his work can be used in the most devious of manners, his mind broke and he was sent to Normal Head in Oregon. Other characters, like the insane mad-man and delusional wanna be super-villain, Colgrave and the deeply connected, uni-mind character, Jasmine Bulat are like comic-book characters. Their almost comical madness really make them interesting characters. But amongst the dozen or so characters we are introduced to throughout this story, it's the character of Clough, possibly, Adam Dearden's closest associate in this story, that made the biggest impression on me, as far as secondary characters go.
"Money," Clough declaimed, "is the dark unknown god driving us all towards certain bloody doom. A giant formless thing in the horror films that you should not directly look at lest you go mad and all that bollocks. It's crushed the world into new shapes and all we want to do is drink its dark milk because that is the nature of its horrible fucking magic. It's why we're all here. And whatever happened to Mansfield is about money. And all the things they're going to come and ask you are all about money."
Clough was a financial forecaster or something like that. His whole world was spent talking to those whose sole purpose was accumulating money. It eventually drove him mad and into the holds of the hospital at Normal Head. But the points, Warren Ellis is making through this character is a thing I've been tossing back and forth in my mind for years. I've come to the conclusion, that we've crafted a society around a new god, and it's money, or at least profit. It's become something we're now full on worshipping. Without it, we are less of a person, less of a contribution to the world, etc. In fact, there's a comic book that explains my thoughts a lot better than I can personally explain right now. It's a book called THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS, written by Jonathan Hickman and illustrated by Tomm Coker. While this comic book goes full on into the spiritual and esoteric nature of money and profit, with the world being controlled by the god Mammon, it's essentially a story about how money has broken and taken us all under its control.
Anyway, NORMAL as a story is just a great read. I wish it was more than 148 pages, and I wish there could be a follow up. In fact, I think this would be a great movie. It's succinct, features an intense and wildly inventive plot and has imaginative and strange characters. If I had lots of money, this would be a movie I'd definitely put into production.