The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag

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Banner by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More; photo by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com

 

A young girl and her little bobble-headed robot travel across a dystopian America, heading for the coast.

Doesn’t sound too worrying, does it? Might even be adorable.

Don’t be fooled. This is an infectiously spooky, creep-inducing story told in sparse prose and stunning digital paintings. The mounting unease I felt while reading this was unexpected, but, man, did I enjoy myself.

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In Stålenhag’s America, circa 1997, the country (perhaps the world? We never find out) has fought some sort of massive war using technology that has allowed humans to pilot giant warships and battle-robots remotely. The scars and detritus of this war litter the landscape: craters, huge abandoned shooting ranges, and the carcases of incredible weapons left where they fell like discarded toys and picked over by scavengers. It’s not a lifeless world, however. We see evidence of other travellers in their parked cars and headlights on the road, we see lights on in suburban homes as the girl drives by, and as she moves into more populated areas, we see … far more unsettling things.

The technology used in the war has bled out into the entertainment market. A company called Sentre has created the neurocaster, a VR helmet that looks like a plague mask as designed by Apple. But neurocasters are proving to be fatally addictive, amongst other things. As for the drones leftover from the conflict, many have undergone strange makeovers and now, oddly cobbled together and trailing vine-like cables, they appear to have a life of their own.

Stalenhag Shooting Range

Visually, a big part of the appeal of Stålenhag’s work in The Electric State is that it echoes so much of my childhood – a childhood spent watching and re-watching Hanna Barbera cartoons and movies like Flight of the Navigator, Robocop and Blade Runner, and playing games such as Pacman and Flashback. There’s almost a George Lucas/Steven Spielberg vibe to this alternative America, but with fewer adorable robots and undertones that are a whole lot more disconcerting.

That’s not to downplay Stålenhag’s writing though. It’s sparse, yes, but without it there’s only half a story. In the written part we learn the girl Michelle’s backstory, and, ever so slowly, her reasons for the journey she’s on. Through her we learn a little about how the world got the way it did and what’s she’s been through to survive. Her story is a human one of loss, followed by loss, followed by loss, and it’s heart-breaking in its brevity. Then there is the second voice. At first it seems to be giving us a more factual account of the war and the technology behind it, but it becomes clear later that it is the voice driving the man who is tailing Michelle.

One of the things I loved most about this book was that Stålenhag chooses, at two critical moments in the story, to forgo words and tell us what happens in a series of much more closely related images. Both these moments occur near the end, and I won’t say too much so as not to give anything away accidentally, but there is a movie-feeling to both episodes, they are utterly absorbing, and I swear I could almost hear what was happening, as if my brain took the lack of descriptive writing as a sign to fill in the blanks for itself.

This was a far more successful marriage of word and image than I expected it to be. It’s also a book I’m really looking forward to reading again, because I feel like there’s more to be gleaned from some of those incredible digital spreads than I got first time round. And, yes, it’s left me with a lot of questions: who were the Americans fighting? How far has the Convergence spread? And what is its goal? Who was the man following Michelle and who did he work for? Who was it giving him orders? But I think some of the allure of The Electric State is in these unanswered questions.

 

 

 

Simon Stålenhag? Now most firmly on my radar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 thoughts on “The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag

    1. It’s a novella-ish length illustrated story. But the illustration tell some of the story. It’s … unusual, but very cool.
      Feel I need to mention to you that it touches on a same sex relationship however. Just in case you were thinking of reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, right?! My husband got it last xmas and kept plaguing me to read it, and I was all like ‘yeah, yeah … sure, in a minute’. Now I can’t understand why there isn’t more fuss about Stalenhag. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’d like to offer a further thought: author Stalenhag isn’t simply giving us a moving and disturbing story, but is (likely unintentionally) giving us an entirely new genre of storytelling. I can’t really agree “The Electric State” falls into the ‘dystopian’ genre, given a dystopia is, after all, a functioning and rationally-behaved society (albeit one where all the negative traits are in control). What we see through the twin pinhole apertures Stalenhag provides is a society that is neither really functioning nor behaving at all rationally. Rather, we see one that is undergoing a simultaneous collapse of recognized order AND a metamorphosis every bit as unsettling and inexplicable as the fate of Kafka’s unfortunate protagonist Gregor Samsa. The is especially true as the last four plates in the book, all presented without a single work of text, leave us with more questions than answers, and cast many of the scenes we’re treated to beforehand in a wholly new – and deeply unsettling – light.

    For those interested, the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games & Animation posts an annual “student reel” of some of their best work, and both 2018 and 2019’s reels boast some impressive adaptations of scenes from “The Electric State”.

    2018 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcNHD1-OAeg at 0:46
    2019 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JULNdUms_co at 0:12

    German visual artist Felix Voigt adapted the final chapter of the book using the Unreal Engine software, presenting a perfectly-visualized rendering of those scenes:

    Finally, Stalenhag created a soundtrack for the book itself, which can be found here:

    https://simonstalenhag.bandcamp.com/album/the-electric-state

    With any luck, the forthcoming feature moving based on the book will do the material justice. Here’s hoping, anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow – you’re absolutely right, it’s not really dystopian at all, is it? I love your comments, and thank you for the links – I’m particularly interested to hear Stalenhag’s soundtrack.
      Thank you! 🙂

      Like

  2. I’ve been a fan of Stalenhag’s art since discovering it a few years ago, but I’ve never read this. I love how creepy and evocative some of the images are though. I really need to get this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s really well done. If you took the pictures away you’d lose half the story, same as if you took the words away.
      I hope you enjoy it when you read it. 😊

      Like

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