“The stories I tell here are mostly based on the memories of myself and others: especially my childhood friend, Ola, who possesses a near-eidetic memory and has been able to recall all our schoolyard stories down to the smallest detail. I am eternally grateful to him for his help with the content of this book.”
The Loop. The world’s largest particle accelerator, built in Sweden in 1969. Active between 1970 when the first experiment was conducted and 1994 when it was decommissioned.
Last year I was introduced to Simon Stålenhag’s work for the first time when I read The Electric State and fell a little bit (massively) in love, so it seemed fitting for this year’s SciFiMonth to offer up some thoughts about his first book Tales from the Loop. This is really just an excuse for me to do what I do best and squeee long and loud.
Tales from the Loop doesn’t tell a story in the same way that The Electric State did. It is instead, a collection of vignettes capturing the childhood of the author’s alter-ego, paired with Stålenhag’s incredible paintings. Where The Electric State used text and image to tell the two halves of a complete story, here the two aspects support one another more loosely. But the result is no less stunning.
The Swedish childhood depicted in Tales is incredibly similar to my own 1980s childhood here in Britain. Those cars, those clothes, those references, are all part of the Eighties aesthetic that I still remember very clearly. Also, the type of childhood being remembered is very familiar. No, I never saw any giant robots or dinosaurs, but I spent a lot of time out-of-doors exploring locally wild areas with a motley group of children my own age, before computer games and books became a larger part of my life and I retired indoors. And the world felt a little less busy and little less full when I was a kid, which (whether that’s true or not) Stålenhag’s images capture beautifully. The wide-open spaces and still moments in some of these paintings feel very like the village and surroundings I grew up in.
Equally, the author-artist captures the way the world felt when adulthood was at a remove. The way things fit together when you’re a child is so different to when you’re an adult. Things filter through, the odd story about the death of a local thug or a peculiar neighbour, but otherwise the world around you is alive with your own imagination.
And imagination is what Stålenhag does best. I feel like he is still very much in touch with the child he was as he fills the Swedish landscape with incredible structures: giant metal spheres and circles and abandoned magnetrine discs, robots and vehicles of all shapes and sizes, an abandoned android, dinosaurs, and overshadowing everything, the three huge cooling towers of the Bona power plant. His magnetrine ships and the escapee robot are my personal favourites, all fabulously plausible, but then every single painting is an invitation for you to believe the way you did as a child.
There is a tension between the text and images that I found fascinating and which, in lieu of a definite storyline, drew me along through the book. Sometimes, one of the vignettes will talk about a rumour, say, that circulated among the friends and classmates, or the adults around them, but will never confirm if there was any truth in it. The accompanying artwork will suggest that many of the rumours and snippets of gossip were more than true and that Stålenhag’s alter-ego saw more than the text ever states. This is the case with the “talk of prehistoric monsters in the woods”. The text is all hearsay, but the pages that follow, four double page spreads showing dinosaurs alongside roadways and in fields and including rougher sketches of dinosaurs of various types, suggest that the artist saw such things for himself. Alternatively, the text will occasionally be far more explicit in its description of a remembered event, only for the painting alongside it to remain at a distance. It’s a very seductive combination.
Almost as seductive is the atmosphere, which is palpable. You can smell the changing seasons, can recognise those universal moments in every childhood and young-adulthood, can feel the passing of an era. Using his beautifully spare prose, Stålenhag describes the changing of Swedish society – increasing privatisation and parents’ divorces – and in his pictures we see the abandoned structures become overgrown and rusty. Tales gently mourns the passing of childhood just as much as it attempts to preserve it.
“We walked in long lines through the winter nights, and you could see little points of light go on and off in the darkness – cigarettes smoked by teenagers who had gathered around their wrecked memories, like a requiem.”
If you like the look of Stålenhag’s work you can see more on his website The Steel Meadow (I love his tagline: “Kitchen Sink Sci-Fi since 2005”), including some very intriguing glimpses of his latest work The Labyrinth.