These are good times for literary techno-dystopias. Even setting aside the freighter of thrillers full of malevolent hackers, discriminating pessimists have plenty of ways to imagine technology enabling our doom: The Googles and Facebooks of the world are erasing our privacy (Dave Eggers' "The Circle"), creating a slurry of corporatized and militarized abuses (pick your William Gibson) and turning our very bodies into mechanized parts (Max Barry's "Machine Man"), while we send the climate into a ditch (Margaret Atwood's "MaddAddam" trilogy.) It's an ice-cream shop full of options, though every flavor you choose comes sprinkled with despair.
Warren Ellis, an award-winning British comics writer turned novelist, has poised himself to join that company: He has spent his career cultivating the dark side. In his books, he's constructed thrillers around a shadow U.S. Constitution ("Crooked Little Vein") and the theft of Manhattan from Native Americans ("Gun Machine").
The twist in Ellis' brisk, harrowing new novella, "Normal," is that while its eye is on what's next, its structure is decidedly old-school — he's bringing the bad news in the form of an Agatha Christie-style locked-room mystery. Adam, the novel's unlikely sleuth, is a futurist who's been relocated to a facility in Normal Head, Ore., after a mental breakdown in Rotterdam. Apparently this happens a lot: Normal is a kind of halfway house for broken-down TED Talk-ers who, like Adam, are suffering from a "bad case of abyss gaze." That is, they've seen the tragic endgame of their data projections and became psychologically flattened by them it.
Among Adam's cohort is a new resident — patient? prisoner? — who has mysteriously gone missing. Replacing him on his bed is a mass of insects, a scene so starkly symbolic that that it deliberately invites all manner of interpretations. Nature's bottomless capacity to worm its way into our antiseptic, tech-driven lives, perhaps. Or a literally Kafkaesque symbol of our broken, grotesque humanity. And Ellis does have a message about our future to deliver via those creepy-crawlies. But first he delivers a witty, if somber message about our present.
In the early, satirical pages of "Normal," Ellis trains his microscope largely on the small army of thought leaders who clot conference schedules and business-magazine pages. One of Adam's allies at Normal, Lela, introduces him to the two tribes in residence: "Foresight strategists on this side. Nonprofits, charitable institutions, universities, design companies, the civil stuff. On the other side? Strategic forecasters. Global security groups, corporate think tanks, spook stuff. You know the score."
"Foresight strategist" and "strategic forecaster" is a distinction without a difference, and early on Ellis plays up the absurdity of this culture. They're slaves to technology, like the Normalite who begs a nurse for a moment of Internet access. ("I only wanted to see some pictures of cats. A GIF or two. That's all.") They spew technobabble: Adam snarkily observes "some happy solutionist idiot ... talking about how watching the watchers makes for a balanced and benign social substrate." They can't handle their own grim projections: They're "people in a useless fake profession who somehow didn't have the mental fortitude to play pretend in return for paychecks all day," as the facility's grumpy director puts it.
But Ellis isn't entirely joking — though he has a sense of humor, his vision of the future is as bleak as Adam's. Across "Normal" he riffs on the psychological warfare that's triggered by an uploaded beheading, cities as magnets for outsize decrepitude and (most likely to cause you to lose sleep) the coming swarm of ungovernable and malicious mini-drones. A man asks Adam: "Would you agree that all the major societies of Earth are broken? Those things that we call civilizations? Are they all busted and terrible systems?"
"It's hard to argue with," Adam deadpans.
In "Normal," Ellis is engaging in the very soothsaying that he's poking fun at, an irony which can be grating. Cassandras can be accurate but irritating, and though "Normal" is short it carries a heavy weight in the form of its dour pronouncements. ("We teeter on the brink of world financial ruin and a return to the days of trading ... seashells for food, every ... day," one character swears. "The pressure of time is inexorable." "Money is the dark unknown god driving us all towards certain bloody doom.")
But as a writer experienced with superhero fare and crowd-pleasers — the action film "Red" is based on his graphic novel — he knows a solid plot can allow a reader to forgive a lot of bad moods and sophistry. "Normal" was released in a digital format last summer in four parts, and he has a knack for taut, fast, cliffhanger-driven installment writing. To that end, the closing pages of "Normal" have both the propulsive power of any solid thriller and the kind of social awareness Dickens might appreciate, even if he couldn't have imagined psy-ops and the Internet of things.
In one important regard, though, Ellis isn't following the script. Atwood has combined the words utopia and dystopia into "ustopia" because, she writes, "each contains a latent version of the other." Humanity seems to carry on after the apocalypse of "The Road"; the totalitarian regime in "1984" ultimately fades. "Normal," though, draws a blackout curtain over that sliver of sunlight. The promise of an equitable future where our privacy and livelihoods are secure is forever in doubt. "The thing about the future is that it keeps happening without you," a dispirited Adam intones toward the story's end. Ellis suggests that the sole upside is in our real lives — we don't have to live in the locked-room mystery he imagines if we're wise enough to act on the warning he delivers. But if he's a betting man, it's clear he's not doubling down on our future.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix. A book of his criticism, "The New Midwest," will be published in February.
By Warren Ellis
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 160 pp., $13
What: Warren Ellis with Cory Doctorow
Where: Pieter Performance Space, 420 W. Ave. 33, Los Angeles, 90031
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5