Behind the unsettling sci-fi landscapes of Simon Stalenhag’s ‘Electric State’

A boxy blue car, like the old Volvo my dad used to drive, sits parked in a desolate lot in one of Simon Stålenhag’s dystopian illustrations. Fastened to its roof rack is a kayak. A young woman in white sweatpants, a hooded leather jacket, and red backpack stands on a nearby hill.

It’s a familiar scene from my 90’s childhood — except the girl is holding hands with a bobble-headed robot and staring up at four animatronic ducks riddled with bullet holes from some recent wargame. One of the duck’s heads is blasted straight through. Dust gathers in the distance. As with a lot of Stålenhag’s work, it’s a haunting image that carries an air of tranquility. The focal point isn’t the devastated ducks but the gentle embrace of the human and her robot.

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It’s been a big year for Stålenhag, a Swedish digital artist who’s gained something of a cult (and Kickstarter) following for his evocative depictions of rural and suburban landscapes mixed with eerie science fiction elements. In July, it was announced that Amazon Studios would adapt his breakout artbook, Tales from the Loop (2015), into a television series. In September, Stålenhag’s most recent work, The Electric State (2017), was released in the United States.

The narrative artbook follows the journey of a young traveler, Michelle, and her robot, Skip, as they head west to the Pacific coast through an alternative America torn apart by civil war and the trappings of military-grade virtual reality. Along their journey they encounter colossal warships that loom over the horizon like metal mountains and dead VR addicts still plugged into their headsets. Set in the 90s, the story mixes one-part nostalgia with one-part sci-fi into a captivating cocktail.

We spoke to Stålenhag about his inspiration for the book, his creative process, and whether he considers The Electric State a cautionary tale. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

With Amazon purchasing rights to Tales from the Loop, knowledge of your work has gone more mainstream. But, for people who aren’t familiar, how would you describe the scenes you create?

Simon Stålenhag: My art is basically science-fiction-themed landscape painting. I try to approach scenes as if they’re real, as if I’m actually seeing these things. I’m more inspired by landscape artists and wildlife art than science fiction art. Although, I am also very inspired by science fiction.

When did you decide to place robots and spaceships into images of rolling hills?

I started with landscape and wildlife art. I drew birds and Swedish wildlife when I was a kid. That was my big passion. I always wanted to paint things that I see in my everyday life. And then I started working in the video game industry and I learned to draw all these the robot and monsters and science fiction themed stuff, and it just kind of bubbled out while I was doing the landscape.

I’ve had two passions, really. I had landscape and wildlife interests, and then rediscovered all these science fiction classics of the 80s, of my childhood, when I was in my early 20s. All the nostalgia of that era. It’s like I wanted to do two projects — one science fiction and one landscape — but I didn’t have time, so I had to combine them. It always felt natural to mix them together.

That’s one of the aspects that makes your work so gripping — it combines real, nostalgic, sort of rural settings with a kind of a high-tech alternative reality. It’s foreign things surrounded by the familiar.

Yeah, it’s like a two-part trick. The natural and familiar elements are like a trick to get you to buy into this science fiction stuff. But also, in terms of my own passions, I kind of use the science fiction stuff to trick people into seeing the ordinary stuff. Like, Oh yeah that’s how those cars looked like. To me, I’m not sure which part of it I enjoy the most or which part I want people to look at the most. Sometimes it’s the regular stuff, the ordinary and everyday items that I want people to look bit extra at. Sometimes you have to use some tricks to get people to do that.

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What comes first for your creative process? Is it the story or the scene?

Most of the time it’s actually music. I make music playlists and I kind of see it play out as a film. I scrape the whole concept, the whole aesthetic from the playlist. With The Electric State I made this 90’s alternative rock playlist with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson and Rage [Against the Machine]. A wide variety of music that spoke to the characters and attitude I wanted use. My previous books were much more the 80s and early 90s, more of that kind of innocent childhood nostalgia. With the Electric State I wanted to do something that was grungier and more about alienated youth culture. This is basically my Kurt Cobain book.

At one point I actually called main character “Negative Creep,” from the Nirvana song. I put that character in this creepy, weird version of the mid-90s U.S. This was before I did the actual research and the actual road trip that Michelle goes on in the book. I did the three-week road trip with my wife and mom. I wasn’t sure what exact landscapes and what exact settings I would use, but I knew I was going to see stuff that was going to fill my head and make me want to paint. I already had the character and the mood.

You’ve said previously that your work is very personal to you. I’m curious how the character Michelle develops as a personal character. You took this road trip, so that has a personal element but I’m wondering if there’s more.

The road trip was like the opposite of the book. It was a very happy experience. We were kind of singing along in the car. But the personal experience that I drew from were my own teenage years. When it comes to her story and memory flashbacks, they weren’t autobiographical but I’ve been on those similar situations. I wasn’t a foster kid and I didn’t have it as bad as she had it, but I’m a divorce kid and I kind of try to draw from those experiences of feeling abandoned.

The relationship with Skip was inspired by my older sister who took care of me when our parents divorced. She was eight years older than me and she was a taking care of me and my older brother. I wanted get that love into the book but place it in a very dark world. You can’t have everything be gloomy and dystopian. To me it has to have some kind of hope. That was the challenge — to make that relationship seem real.

With the backdrop of gloom in the story, it really magnifies things like hope and love. It makes them kind of pop.

Yeah, in a way it became easier to make that stand out because having a very grim setting and then having this girl speaking very compassionately to the tin-can robot.

I’m curious about your idea behind Sentre, the conglomerate that sells VR headsets to consumers but is also a part of the military industrial complex. Where did your idea for this company come from?

Sentre was inspired by the way a lot of our information technology, like the internet and computers, seem to come from the defense budget. We wouldn’t have this technology if it wasn’t for some defense projects back in the 50s or 60s. I wanted to mirror how cell phones and the internet became a consumer commodity but how they came from something else. How they came from within the war machine.

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It’s meant to be satirical in a way. I wanted to make fun of the mid-90’s crazy boom in consumer information technology and all the advertising and the general tone of the home consumer electronics tech that we were flooded with in that era. I wanted to have fun with that aesthetic and make it into a kind of zombie thing.

Is the story a cautionary tale?

It’s more of a satire. It’s not too serious. There is a serious threat inherent in our technology but it’s almost cliché by now. Nuclear energy is a source of energy but you could also destroy the planet. Social media is a similar thing. It connects people in oppressed parts of the world and it can be used for good and bad. Right now it feels like it’s out of control and used in undemocratic ways. But this book isn’t about that. It’s more satirical.

But I am scared by technology and the way it’s used right now. I also don’t think there’s any other way out of our problems. I think technology is the only way to go. We just have to learn and get better at using it responsibly. I’m not the person to say how that should be done. But that’s the big question and problem of our age.  I sometimes feel like if I really would have wanted to address that problem, I wouldn’t do a book like The Electric State, which is much more personal. It’s about family. The backdrop of a dystopian high-tech world is just the way I do it.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a very proper post-apocalyptic work. It’s claustrophobic, much more confined, set in a bunker. We get to see some flashbacks. But it’s much more of a war traumatized world. My main idea right now is to capture the confusion of all of the trauma of the apocalypse and try to get stories about some characters. It’s definitely a darker story than the Electric State.

When do you think you’ll release that?

Hopefully late next year.

Do you have a working title?

Right now it’s called the Labyrinth.

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