“One Murder Is Statistically Utterly Unimportant”: A Conversation with Warren Ellis
August 15, 2013 | by Molly Crabapple
Somewhere, on an NSA server in Utah, there sits an email from Warren Ellis threatening to strangle me to death with my own intestines.
Our all-caching surveillance state is something that might have been thought up by Ellis himself. A writer of novels, comics, essays, and movies starring a machine-gun-toting Helen Mirren, Ellis looks more deeply than most into our potential futures. Born in working-class Southend-on-Sea, he is best known as the writer of the canonical graphic novel series Transmetropolitan. A decade before the Internet-enabled explosion of independent journalism, Transmet corrupted a generation of young reporters, giving them the notion that journalism was the bullet that could “blow a kneecap off the world.” In January, he published bestselling Gun Machine, which exploits genre conventions to explore the ghost cities that exist in both high finance and the minds of the insane. Most recently, Ellis released Dead Pig Collector, a novella about love and body disposal, as a Kindle Single with FSG. He is currently at work on his first book of nonfiction.
We’ve been friends and sometime collaborators for a decade. When I told him I’d like to interview him for The Paris Review, he demanded proof that the editor hadn’t confused him with the violinist Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds. When Sadie emailed to confirm that she realized he was, in fact, the bestselling author, he wrote me back: “I DIDN’T SAY ‘BEST SELLING’ YOU HORRIBLE INFANT!”
Ellis wears a field hat, drinks very old whisky, and chain-smokes Silk Cut cigarettes. He is forty-five years old.
You’re semi-crack-addicted to information. Whenever we talk, you have a podcast, the Economist, some ambient drone music, and a reader full of links open. Dead Pig Collector was inspired by an article you read on Chinese garbage disposal. Tell me about your information consumption.
This is going to be just another way for you to insist I listen to the sounds of insects having sex and calling it music while you pollute your apartment with the strains of some idiot with a ukulele wailing about consumption and sodomy.
We call that culture. As an Englishman, you wouldn’t understand.
What would you know about culture? You come from the town that gave the world the cronut.
Cronuts are tasty. As an Englishman, you wouldn’t know what that word means.
We have a joke in this country about American food. It goes like this: “American food.”
I’m sure my information diet isn’t that special. I check the overnight email and RSS feeds in bed, read the Guardian, BBC news, and the Foreign Policy dailies, and scan Twitter over coffee and juice while listening to a couple of podcasts (I subscribe to around fifty podcasts). I have digital subscriptions to the TLS, the LRB, The Economist, National Geographic, and The Wire magazine. I try to read a Kindle Single a week, but I’m getting bad at that. I usually have a few books on the go. I watch Instagram a lot—that service was on the verge of doing some really interesting stuff, and I have a feeling it might die of Facebook disease. You know people are not only running things close to “secret brands” on there, but also selling drugs? I get maybe a dozen email newsletters, maybe less. I live on my phone: I have a bunch of news and informational apps on there.
How do you sell drugs on Instagram? I’m imagining mushroom tea in mason jars. You’ve built several online communities, have a huge network of artists, futurists, and writers around you, and are known for supporting young aspiring types—you were the first well-known person who ever supported me. Are these your human sources of inspiration, curated in a similar way?
I don’t believe any of the above is true. I just try to keep an eye on people who are doing and seeing interesting things, so that I may eat them and take their power. From all the way over here in a dead-end town in England, it’s all I can do, and it’s what the internet was invented for anyway. Also, what eating people was invented for.
I prefer to bathe in their blood myself. Keeps the skin pearly. To continue in the vein of inspiration, how did you research Dead Pig Collector?
The honest truth? Maybe five hours. I tripped over the phrase “dead pig collector” in a Foreign Policy story about pollution in China, and the whole idea occurred to me. Then it was just a case of getting on yet another PRISM watchlist by doing online searches for people talking about getting rid of bodies. Which was very easy to find. And then maybe ten minutes when I had the notion that the Chinese, of all people on Earth, must have invented a cellphone with a built-in cigarette lighter. Which of course they had. And then it was just four days of writing—the whole thing, as I say, was in my head, and it was just a case of getting it out.
How does this experience of writing—having the idea emerge from your brow like Athena—differ from the usual process?
The rest of the time, it’s taking in as much information as possible, and piling it all into a compost bin at the back of my head, and waiting for it to heat up to the point where Datum X plugs into Datum Y and produces a story idea. Which can take years to happen. And after that it’s usually a case of reading for weeks and months to gather enough material to support the story or prove that it was stupid and that I should go to the end of the garden and lay down and just die because I’m useless.
Both Dead Pig Collector and Gun Machine, your last novel, are tied to cities—in the case of Dead Pig Collector the sun and peeling, disposable flash of Hollywood. What do you see as the future of cities?
Well, let’s not confuse L.A. with a city. It’s a collection of settlements tied together by a thousand miles of highway. But, when I have my pessimistic head on, I think that everyone can see the future of cities coming down the road, and the people who will be able to afford to live in the secured arcology-like communities are just as afraid of it as the people who'll be outside, wandering around in failing infrastructure and wondering exactly when the social contract dissolved.
We’re reaching one of those points—and it is cyclical, they come and go—where we associate the phrase “the future of the city” with technological marvels and new ways of doing things, when instead we should be associating the phrase with Occupy Sandy. You saw Occupy Wall Street throw up basic infrastructure overnight, even though you basically lurked in the library like a troll, right? What did that look like?
One day there was a fold-out table and a pile of cardboard on the ground, and the next there’s a medical clinic and gourmet soup kitchen.
That is probably what the future of cities looks like. The book I’m writing is maybe a little bit more optimistic, and more about different ways of thinking and speculating about the future of the city. There’s all kinds of context that’s been missing from the whole “digital cities” conversation.
So you see the future of cities as mutual-aid services springing up slime-mold-like in places where institutions have failed?
It’s one future, anyway. I try not to get involved in the business of prediction. It’s a quick way to look like an idiot. There’s an expectation around writers of science fiction, which I sometimes am, that we’re predictors of the future, that that is the business of science fiction. Which we’re not, and never were.
Then what’s the relationship of science fiction writers to the future, if you’re not just spitting predictions like Zora the Psychic?
Science fiction is social fiction. That’s the line from Mary Shelley through H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to the politically committed writers of the sixties and seventies. It’s about using speculation as a tool with which to examine the contemporary condition. The closest it comes to prediction is in the provision of long-range weather warnings.
Tell me more about your nonfiction book for FSG.
It’s nominally about “the future of the city,” in various shapes, but it’s probably more about the work of urban futurism and the perhaps willful ways in which it ignores the past. It’s based on a talk I gave at a digital cities conference. My first and last appearance at a full-on futurist event. I never got invited to another.
This is because you said they were monsters. Why did you say such a terrible thing?
I sat through several presentations that were all about novel ways of gathering urban information and then turning that data over to the relevant authorities and never once questioning or caring where it went, let alone what it was used for. (Oh, and one guy who presented his civic service idea as “a nice kind of bank,” in the same tone of voice you might use for the phrase “a nice kind of Hitler.”) Essentially, they were all about gathering up every codon of information thrown off by the second-to-second existence of citizenry—and that’s becoming a denser stream every day, almost a digital wormcast—and just handing it over to the local state apparatus. Dazzled by the ability to collect and offer it, not even thinking about what it would be used for. I told them an old piece of apocrypha, that an inventor gifted the King of Scotland with a brand new execution device, and was quite surprised to find himself becoming the first person the king used it on.
My career in futurism, dead on the chopping block before it started.
Moving from naive technophiles to sociopaths, Dead Pig Collector’s anti-hero is Mister Sun, a people disposal expert who you let us see from the inside. What’s it like to write inside the head of a killer?
Notably simple. It’s really an easy thing. There is no such thing, I believe, as a killer who sees themselves as the villain of their own story. Sometimes the victim of their own story, sure, but never the villain. Once you take the entirely reasonable step of deciding that the erasure of human life is unremarkable, and applying basic logic to the provision of that service, you’re off to the races. It’s really not that hard to adopt the sort of personality and mindset that sees human life as unspecial. It’s actually quite calming, in many ways.
All of the above, of course, makes me sound demented. But seriously. Imagine a world in which people will die every day regardless of your own actions. Too many to count. If you elect to kill one person today, your actions will not skew the numbers. “One murder is statistically utterly unimportant. And if you’re removing the body from sight, what does it matter anyway? What made that one person more special than all the others who died today? Nothing at all. Purely in terms of the mathematics, any possible pain and suffering you are causing is in fact within the statistical margin of error for today’s body count. Which, from a certain perspective, means it doesn’t exist.
I spent four days thinking like that.
Which presumably isn’t what you think most days (though this is up for speculation). What’s the relationship between one’s ethics and their art?
I like to say “none” because you have to be able to wear other people’s ethics in order to write personalities other than your own. But the truth, I suspect, is that your own ethics dictate how that should be done, and for which purpose. It’s probably as indelible as a fingerprint. That actually kind of bothers me. If you can’t subsume yourself into an alien ethos, then you’re being caught writing, as it were, in the same way that actors fear being caught acting. I think it’s probably quite different to painting, in terms of expression of ethics in an artform.
Also, I only threatened to strangle you that one time.
Per hour. As a writer of graphic novels, you’re known for Transmetropolitan, which follows Spider Jerusalem, a gonzo journalist living in the twisted future. At a time when journalism is radically mutating, where do you see as medium going?
Oh, ask the small ones, why don’t you …
I remember Nick Davies saying, after his phone-hacking exposes, that even other investigative journalists at his own newspaper—the independent British newspaper the Guardian—were fighting him on the investigation. Not because they or the Guardian were culpable in any way, but because they were afraid of the boat being rocked. The field’s in a pretty dismal place.
People talk about journalism having been fatally disrupted by the Internet, but, honestly, it was coughing blood long before then. The only potentially good thing about the disruption of journalism is that it’s an ongoing process, and the people who’ve made bank on that disruption today will themselves be disrupted into the ground some time tomorrow.
You once wanted to be a journalist, yes?
I was originally going to train as a journalist, passing a series of exams that winnowed ten thousand applicants down to one hundred places on a National Union of Journalists course. It additionally required, however, that I attained certain grades in my A-Levels. Which I didn’t get. They kept my place open for me for five years, but poverty meant I couldn’t retake those courses to get the required grades. I left education at eighteen. This is boring, isn’t it?
Why didn’t you think The Paris Review would publish this interview?
I’m a comic book writer. I still don’t think this is going to be run by The Paris Review.