The cover made me to pick this up.
I’d seen it on a previous visit to the library. Thinking it to be a horror novel, I avoided it. On another visit, the cover again caught my interest and curious, I read the synopsis on the back. “Sci-fi,” I thought. “Pweh!” I don’t like sci-fi and sometimes the concepts discussed scare me more than the horror novels. Again, I didn’t bother to check out the book.
But the third time I saw it on the shelf, I was again curious, sci-fi or not, and decided to just read the first sentence:
“Hand over the entire internet now and nobody gets hurt,” she said, aiming the toothbrush at the nurse like an evil magic wand.
Since then I was hooked and hardly put the book down until I was done.
Described as a techno-thriller, Normal is set in the present day at a mental institution called Normal Head, deep in the forests of Oregon, that accepts futurists, scientists and social scientists who think professionally about the future, who have gazed too long into the abyss and are depressed by their job.
The story follows Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist recently committed to Normal Head who uncovers a conspiracy there when a patient goes missing leaving behind a pile of bugs. To do so, he has to unite the starkly divided patients, who are separated into two groups: foresight strategists, “civil futurists who think about geoengineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom” (paid by nonprofits and charities), and strategic forecasters, “spook futurists who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom” (paid by global security groups and corporate think tanks). (Goodreads)
“Adam did. He was a futurist. They were all futurists. Everyone here gazed into the abyss for a living. Do it long enough, and the abyss would gaze back into you. If the abyss did that for long enough, the people who paid you for your eyes would send you to Normal Head.”
Normal was not what I expected. I didn’t expect to be hooked or entertained or even to see some of my thoughts about the present and the future reflected in it.
It’s a novella, coming in at just 148 pages, making it a quick read, and I sped through it, completing it in a few days because I was busy with work while reading. Otherwise, it’s a book that can, and probably should, be completed in one sitting.
The humor in the first sentence caught my attention and compelled me to keep reading. That humor is threaded throughout the story, lightening the tone though the topics discussed are heavy.
The characters aren’t well rounded, but I think they serve their purpose of presenting topics that the author wants his readers to mull over. The foremost being our heavy reliance and addiction to technology and the internet, which is emphasized through how the novella was initially published — it was serialized, and also shown in how our protagonist, Adam, speaks of the world or how he feels, such as watching Portland “scroll by” as he’s driven to Normal Head or thinking he needs “airplane mode” because he’s tired. Adam is so hooked on technology that “his handwriting had lost the fluency of daily practice” because he mostly types.
“Society needs people to stare at a ball of shit at the end of the world all day. It’s a living.”
Through other characters, we learn about the work of futurists, how such work affects them mentally and how they cope with what they know and expect of the future. When I started this book, it was the first I’d heard or paid attention to the word futurist. I thought that I didn’t know of folks who could be labelled as such. But as I read, I realized that I’ve often heard of the work of futurists. The story made me think back to Lauren Redniss’s illustrated nonfiction book on weather, Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future, in which she discusses, among other things, an invention that could manage global warming and the debates about it. I realized that’s the work of futurists.
The story isn’t scary, but it left me a little shaken. At the end, I was left wondering what the future holds. It’s something I often think about, especially when I learn of new technological developments, diseases, wars, or social strife. Where are we heading and do I want to be around when we get there? Will I be around?
These questions often pop up whenever I watch dystopian zombie movies, which I love. Such movies are fun and sometimes cheesy, but they also point out that the decisions we make today can have dire consequences in the future. What are we doing to prevent that? The story also made me wonder how far is too far when it comes to new technological developments? Should we rein in our curiosity in certain areas to preserve aspects of our livelihood we hold dear?
I also like that story is built around my favorite quote, which is by Friedrich Nietzsche:
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
It shows how all things are connected and how much we are influenced by what we encounter or work with on a daily basis.
The more I read, the easier it became to see that this could easily have been a depressing read, hence the need for the humor. Ellis is a great writer and kept the suspense going until the end, when we learn how the patient disappeared. It wasn’t what I expected and yet it felt a bit underwhelming. I guess that’s because of how the mystery was uncovered. It was subdued.
Overall: ★★★★☆ 1/2
Funny, suspenseful, and thought provoking. This was a great story that I enjoyed reading and I hope there will be another book.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I’d like to get myself a copy.