Exploring the Uncanny, Sci-Fi Dystopias of Simon Stålenhag
To celebrate the release of his third book, 'The Electric State,' we spoke with the Swedish painter about the fear of technology, the rise of fascism, the power of art, and (of course) robots.
All art by Simon Stålenhag, courtesy of Skybound Books
The first piece of Simon Stålenhag’s work that I remember seeing is mostly a parking lot. A green incandescent street-lamp lights two figures standing beside an idling car, brake lights red. They are bundled up in coats and hug their arms to them. Rising up on a hill on the left side of the image is a suburban house, warm windows, and in the distance we can see the sprawl of a town at night. The tarmac of the parking lot is wet.
Above the two figures, way out above the town, hang three enormous ships, suspended in the air through no visible means. Their silhouettes are heavy. Running lights stripe down their sides. The painting is titled The Gauss Freighters. Neither figure pays them the slightest bit of attention.
In all three of Stålenhag’s collections—one part art-book, one part picture-book—the mundanity of everyday relationships play out alongside science fiction imagery that is as beautiful as it is unsettling. In Tales From The Loop, children grow up on an archipelago beneath which lies a gigantic government research project. By Things From The Flood, these children have become teenagers but the facility, long since decommissioned, still makes its presence felt.
In his most recent book, The Electric State, released in the US this September, a teenager named Michelle and a robot called Skip travel across a version of America in which something has gone profoundly, uncomfortably wrong.
I sat down with Simon to talk about growing up, various kinds of robots, tabletop games, and whether or not technology will save us.
Waypoint: All three of your books are stories about young people who are probably growing slightly older. What is it about stories of young people that draws you to tell them?
Stålenhag: I mean, Michelle is nineteen, and it feels like I can write about being nineteen now when I'm thirty four. I feel like I understand that age, or myself at that age. I think I can write about myself. I have something to say about that, and I don't really think I have much to say about being an adult. It doesn't really feel like I have any experience.
Even though you've been an adult for some time now?
Yeah but it's—I don't have any kids. I'm married, but I met my wife when we were almost kids, we were nineteen, and so I feel like both me and my wife are living in this kind of... we're both artists, and we're both putting off those big, big decisions like getting a house and getting kids in favour of doing art, and it would be wrong for me to write about something typically grown up.
You often paint the characters of the adults in your stories as not just flawed—flawed is almost too light a word.
There's a kind of deep pessimism towards adulthood in all of your books. Could you speak to that a bit?
Being an adult for me is understanding that you are still a kid. I think that, for me, is the most adult thing you can do: understand that you're a kid, but somebody has to pay the bills. There are people who think there’s something else to it, like “Something will happen! You will become a man!” Something like that. That never happens, and I think those characters... I don't think they specifically symbolise adulthood, I think they symbolise conformity. People choosing to be somebody that they're not. They think they're acting in a certain way, because that's what society expects from them, and they expect to get a reward for it, but the kids—I mean I'm not sure they see through it, but they react to it. They don't like it, and I remember that's how I felt being that age. I waited for that thing to happen. Adulthood.
I never stopped doing the things I did as a kid. I still do the same things, I just take responsibility for my actions. That's the only thing that's different. I had adults around me who told me that it meant something else, like “You have to stop doing these things once you reach a certain age,” but that wasn't true and I think that people who say that are missing out.
It's also not right to tell a kid to stop doing something, like “grow up”. The only thing we need to do is to take responsibility, and for me that's what childhood is. Being able to do stupid things, and be mean, and make mistakes, and have adults take responsibility for it instead of having to carry that. I think a lot of kids don't have that. Sometimes at that age, I felt I didn't have parents around, so in a way I wasn't allowed to be a kid for a few years. I had a very happy childhood up until I was around ten, when my parents divorced and then it became clear to me that there was no… they weren’t more… they were just as much like kids as me and my friends. They weren't more cool or anything. It was all kind of a lie.
"Instead of being hyper-real, you can design stuff that kind of answers to the emotional quality of what you're trying to say. You can make a building that looks very sad."
You paint the character’s mother in Things from the Flood the way we're talking about, with regard to the adults having to take responsibility. There’s a great moment where the kid is excited about the mysterious floods, and his mother is clearly traumatised by the events that are happening, and the fact that she has to take responsibility for those events.
That's very much how I felt around the divorce. My best friend, my childhood friend—it's actually kind of in the book, in a way—my friend was probing me, how I felt about the whole divorce, and I was like “No, I think it's cool, it's going to be awesome to move into Stockholm.” I didn't want to take it in, so I kinda focused on those external things. “It's going to be so close to McDonald’s,” or whatever. I mean, I heard the conversations between my parents on the phone. I heard them arguing, and I hated all that, so I kinda escaped into video games, like, the make-believe world. Basically things like the characters do in Things from The Flood…
Climbing on machinery, and...
Yeah, but they were imaginary machines. It was kind of a lonely and desolate time.
I feel like it's really telling that we've been talking for twenty minutes, and we haven't talked about robots, or machines, or technology up to this point.
[Laughter] Oh no, yeah, that part.
So much of what comes through in your work is your fascination with the people who are situated in these landscapes. You write about kids who are only liked because they're really good at shooting penalties, or you write about kids climbing and playing on abandoned machines. Why do you situate these stories in worlds of outlandish technology?
[A long pause]. I think it's a trick... to get people's attention.
[Laughter] Have you seen Hereditary ?
No, I haven't.
There's an interview with Ari Aster, the director, in which he's asked why he made a film that’s about so much family drama, and he said something like: “Because stories about family drama don't sell. I had to make a horror movie.”
Oh yeah! Exactly!
Do you feel the same way about your robots?
Yeah! It's partly that, and it's also because I like…
… You like drawing robots!
Yeah, I like drawing robots! I'm a child of B-horror, so it's in my blood. I can't paint a picture without some big robot, or something with tentacles or something. and it feels like it's also a way of… it's like a cliché, but a way of projecting the inner landscapes of the characters. Instead of being hyper-real, you can design stuff that kind of answers to the emotional quality of what you're trying to say. You can make a building that looks very sad.
It's more of a malleable material to work with, instead of using documentary realism—but still, it's mostly real. Very little of each picture is actually stuff that you can't find in real life. All the buildings are real, I've been to all of those places. Almost every picture is a real place. It's more like a matte painting, like shooting a film based on real locations. I want it to feel as real as possible, but then you want that extra layer on it. You’re kind of unplugged from the day to day tone of it. Anything can happen, like you’re in this parallel universe.
"I'm just scared of what technology shows us about ourselves. That's what scares me. ... It seems like the bullies from high school are basically running the world."
Do you begin work by trying to depict a place as realistically as possible and then—
Yeah, I try to make a kickass painted version of a landscape. Like, “How do I make the best brushes to create the plants that I know grow here?” Or “How do I simplify this mass of information into brushstrokes?”
I really try to focus on that, so I get that kind of foundation. Most of my ideas for images come from photos, which I just paint rough sketches on top of. So when I have an idea, like “Oh, this would be cool with a big thing on the ceiling,” I’ll do a sketch—maybe I'll do like twenty five sketches—then I’ll pick one and make a fully rendered illustration.
What opportunities did you feel you had, when you were thinking about Tales From the Loop as a tabletop RPG, and can you speak to how your experience with tabletop might have informed that?
I mean honestly, I don't have that much experience with it. I am the kid in ET, I'm Elliott, I'm not his brother. I'm the guy who wasn't allowed—
Who sees people playing tabletop and wants too but is like, “agh!”—
Yeah, my brother was playing a Swedish pen and paper RPG called Mutant, which was very influential to my work. It was based on Gamma World, I think but it's set in Sweden. It was made in the eighties. Reading it now, it feels retro-futuristic: the most advanced computer you could find in this world is five hundred and twelve megabytes and the next step is... I think it's called “cyber” and that's just a brain in a jar.
Oh, right! The next logical step.
Yeah, from five hundred and twelve to, you know, infinite.So my brother was playing that game, and I was too young. I couldn't fully grasp the rules but I was playing it with my other friends. We were making characters, rolling the dice and seeing what stats we got. I think we liked looking at the pictures in the Rulebook, basically.
I haven't been a big RPG player myself, but when I first read the first manuscript for the first game it was written by a guy around my age. His treatment was like a synopsis—it was so good. He really understood this world. The things that he wanted you to be able to do was such a perfect match for me. Making a game where the players are able to shoot guns, or whatever… that would feel wrong. It's not what the book is about.
But he sort of understood that, and all the psychological side of it. You can be traumatised, you can be bullied, and all of that was so spot on. I was so confident that this guy could do this, so it was a thrill to see somebody else further explore this world and make it interactive.
I want to ask more broadly about how—the last few years haven't been particularly good, politically—
—And have also thrown up more and more ways in which technology is being used to exploit people. How do you feel your work is, going forward, responding to that, if it's responding to that at all? Can you picture a world in which technology is not something that is used as a tool of exploitation?
I don't know, I'm not that worried about the technology, actually. I think that's the only way out. I think if we don't learn to—I think technology is what's going to save us in the end. I don't believe that we can disconnect and everything will be fine.
What's worrying me is people. The people, and what they believe in, and the uprise in… all the hate that you see. I mean, it's a combination of that with the technology. It's not the technology itself. It's sad to see—it's like getting a receipt and seeing it on paper, the truth of what humanity is.
At least seventeen percent of us in Sweden feel like they can vote for... basically fascists. A fifth of our population is fine with that. And that's in a country that doesn't have—we don't even have any major problems to blame on anyone! The only “mistake” liberal democracy in Western Europe has made was trying to make it better for other people than white men, and that's the collapse that the right is talking about, that the alt right is talking about.
Sweden is a good place to live and there are a few problems, but they’re not in any way comparable to the resentment and anger and hate from the far right. I think technology in this place has allowed people to live inside a bubble where it is acceptable to have these... basically racist views, and you can live inside this digital bubble where you're not—there’s not a real person that's going to tell you that's wrong. You don't have to be ashamed of it.
And I've always known there were a bunch of racists in Sweden. Where I grew up in the countryside, it was kitchen table racism. I will say, fifteen percent of all the people? That sounds reasonable to me, but they would never vote for a party with those views because they knew somewhere that this was not acceptable. That this was... basically “locker room talk” in a broader context. But now it's like, “No, it is okay for you to say that you have been robbed of something,” and that is where I'm scared of technology. I'm just scared of what technology shows us about ourselves. That's what scares me.
Do you think that as an artist, and specifically as a Swedish artist, that this is something that is going to be reflected in your work going forward?
I think what I'm working on right now, what I constantly feel that I want to address, is basically masculinity. Or toxic masculinity. I think that's what I'm working on now is focused around. Or destructive masculinity. And I think that's also behind a lot of this movement, the alt-right movement, and the hate movement.
It’s something that I've personally always had trouble with… being told that I’m supposed to be a certain way, because I was born in this certain gender. I have always had a problem with that, and now it seems to me like those things have really just scaled up. It seems like the bullies from high school are basically running the world, and that’s something I feel like I always want to say something about. What it does. Because I don't see how it can do anything good.
It's a form of coercive power, aggressive power, that destroys its victims, and it destroys the wielder of that power as well. It's like a sickness. I think all men can, to some extent, relate to that. I mean, I know that I have inherited something from my father and the men around me. Some kind of anger, or way of dealing with emotions that is very toxic. That I really had to… you have to work on it, to be free from it, and it's really really hard. The people running the world—they're really just exploiting it.
And at the same time, it's very nice to see that there are a lot of people reacting to it, and organising against it but it's really—to me it always feels like the common denominator… it's an angry man behind everything. Behind every bad thing that ever happens.
Is there anything that you can say about the fourth book that you're working on? I've seen that you've been posting art on your website of a car approaching some kind of bunker with dandelion heads on its walls. Is there anything that you're able to talk about with that?
That's the next book project, and it's going to be about this “family.” It's a kid and two adults, and they come in this vehicle in this gorge landscape, and they find this bunker. The kid is alone in the bunker, and the adults are out doing some kind of research in the surrounding environment, and we're going to see through some flashbacks what the backstory of the kid and this configuration of people is.
We might learn something about the world, but it's really the first post-apocalyptic thing I've ever done. The Electric State is kind of on the verge of something happening and Tales from The Loop and Things from The Flood they're basically—they're basically just realism with robots thrown in. But with this one, it’s like everything's ash and you can't breathe in the atmosphere so… we'll see. I'm working on the story, but I know I have these people.
I knew I wanted to do something—this is something else about the current state of the world. To me, it just felt like I had to do something that featured a lot of ash.
[Laughter] Yes. Yeah, I know the feeling.
Yeah, it's the only thing that makes sense.
Right. There's a point at which it just has to be ash, right?
Yeah and there's also… fire is important in the story. Men burning things up. That’s basically the theme.
I haven't had a chance to see the new edition of The Electric State , the US version, but from what I've seen it looks like the design of the book has changed very slightly.
Yeah, it's a different image. They wanted to have Michelle on the front, which is really nice. I like the one that I had in the Swedish version—to me that was always meant to be the cover—but them wanting Michelle on the cover makes sense from a story point, and I really liked that they wanted to push that story instead of just... “here is some cool artwork.” They wanted to focus on the character, and so they chose that picture. I kind of had to fight to have the pink...
They always liked the idea of having the spine in pink, but I wanted the text to be pink as well. To me, the pink colour in The Electric State—kind of rose red—for me it's like Michelle's heart. It's a symbol. I mean, to some extent it symbolises menacing technology, but it's also always something in the distance that shines rose red. To me it's like something about her heart not giving up, and keeping on going, and it's some sparkle of love. It's so important to me to have that colour. I mean, it's a very happy colour.
Which makes it all the more striking in these landscapes.
She's a very compassionate character. I read this quote from... what's his name, who wrote Infinite Jest?
David Foster Wallace?
Yeah, in regards to American Psycho or something. He criticized the Generation X writers for making satire without people you cared about. Like American Psycho’s just like “Oh, look at this psycho!”
“He's the worst!”
“He’s so psycho!” He felt that if you don't… like, we already know things suck. We don't need you to tell us that, again. Show us something that's worth living for.
I feel that comes through very clearly in all three of your books. Characters find joy in the spaces they're in, either through reinventing the landscapes, or through queering them, or through spending time with people they love in them.
When I read that quote, I felt like it was pointing at me, because I was about to just make a picture of this broken world. So I really tried to think again. It really made me want to find the character of Michelle, and I started to think like... “what is the most unexpected relationship to see play out in this very dystopian world?”
Something that I regret bitterly is that she’s also inspired by my older sister, and I missed the chance to dedicate the book to her. I also have an older brother, and I couldn't decide! “Should I dedicate it to both of my siblings?” But this really is my sister.
When my parents were divorced... I mean, she was eight years older than me, so she was maybe eighteen or nineteen, and I was ten. I would wake up in the night and hear my parents fighting, and I would come sleep in her bed. She was a teenager, but she was really like a mother to me, and she was telling me that everything was alright. “Everything's going to be alright.”
That's also something that I really, really wanted to communicate in the book. To me, and my heart, this book is really dedicated to my sister and our relationship, but I failed to get it into the book.
I'll make sure to put it on a website. Which isn't quite the same, but you know.
It's like a quarter of the way there.
I don't know how to—the way I'm going to do it now is not dedicate any of my books to anyone, because if I do it now, it's like... we have a saying in Sweden which is: “If you don't mention anyone, you haven't forgotten anyone.”
Huh! We don’t have that expression, which...
It’s a good one.
… which might be telling. It is a good one.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.