Warren Ellis is awesome. Let’s get that out of the way first. He is, without a doubt, one of the great minds of modern sci-fi. His characters are foul-mouthed residents of morally blank, misanthropic landscapes. His work is a wealth of imagination and futurist thinking. Even outside his books, Warren often broaches topics such as technology, transhumanism and the human relationship with progress, having become something of a regular public speaker at conventions. In my opinion, though, what truly gives us insight into Warren and his view on the future is his detailed approach to characterization.
One of the elements science fiction regularly struggles with is its odd habit of placing the emphasis on plot and high concept spectacle rather than character dynamics or development, which is why a lot of sci-fi franchises wind up devolving into a mess of pseudo-philosophical navel-gazing and lose track of their general thesis (notable examples include the Matrix sequels and the latter half of the Alien franchise). The characters too often come to service the plot as opposed to being a natural part of it. Sci-fi, in a problem apparent too in many high fantasy novels, has trouble giving us great characters when it’s more obsessed with moving the plot forward than giving us a good character arc (again, Matrix sequels).
Warren circumnavigates this problem this with ease. His characters are vivid, colourful, broken, snarky, and uncompromising—and, most importantly, they take center-stage at all times in any given story. As outlandish as Warren’s plots might sometimes get (an issue of Secret Avengers once featured kung-fu battles in an Escher-esque setting inside a collapsed parallel universe), he always maintains a psychological realism that tethers everything, keeps it relatable.
Spider Jerusalem, for example, feels like the natural result of the world depicted in Transmetropolitan. A man broken down by drugs and self-harm, attempting to ameliorate his intense rage towards all the collective apathy around him and the hedonistic, amoral city rife with chaotic consumerism. If the past is a foreign country, the future might surprise us with its familiarity. Ellis said in an interview, “Transmetroplitan is probably closest to the future we’re most likely to see. In that, it’s just the times we’re living in now amped up some more.”
The world of Transmetropolitan is meant to give us a temporal culture shock. The most startling feature of this crass, alienating new world Warren created is the sheer abundance of information, and how it breaks people or numbs them to the core.
Similarly, Doktor Sleepless is Ellis’ treatise on the mad scientist archetype. He uses the book to examine a world turned decadent, discontent with modernity. At one of his talks Ellis mentioned “Ballardian Banality”, which is actually just a term for the general malaise people feel when they are not getting the future that was promised by science fiction, or getting it too late to make the promised difference.
This is also the crux of Ignition City, where Warren examines people trying to cope with a world that has completely discarded its dream of space travel. Both these works broach different aspects of the same theme: progress does not always march in the exact direction we want, or even the one we may expect.
In general Ellis’ stories delve into how humans interact with progress, and how societal change can wreak havoc on individuals. Ignition City uses technology as a stand-in for broken promises and a shattered social consensus about the direction of the world. Transmetropolitan captures the formation of social movements, political movements (good or bad), and new identities brought in by advancements in communication and biotechnologies. Global Frequency, perhaps Ellis’ most optimistic work, is a rescue fiction that touches on how normal, everyday people can rise to the occasion and be empowered to save themselves through organising knowledge and expertise. One common thread is the idea of human nature as our own greatest stumbling block.
But behind what seems like skepticism, there is always a substratum of hope under all of Warren’s work. Ellis comes off as someone who believes whole-heartedly in human greatness but writes cautionary tales of cultures falling prey to our collective vices and inner demons. Human beings, even if they’re being turned into digital masses of cloud particles and data or implanting alien organs into themselves, are still human in some irreducible (yet undefined) way. In his stories, society moves forward, but the settings always reflect flaws that seem primal, ingrained in us. Like the best science fiction, his work humanizes our place in a future at once alien and commonplace, and reflects the present back at us with startling clarity.