While dystopian sci-fi painter and conceptual artist Simon Stålenhag’s last two series, Tales From The Loop and Things From The Flood, are part of an alternative Sweden populated by robots, woodland creatures, and ruins, in a new series, The Electric State, Stålenhag offers up a sudden narrative shift. The robots and ruins still dominate the paintings, but Stålenhag tells The Creators Project that this story is set in an altogether different universe.
“The first two books were a nostalgic daydream of growing up in the Swedish welfare state (albeit a crumbling welfare state on the cusp of reform),” Stålenhag explains. “[Whereas] The Electric State is a horrified nightmare of western society in the digital era, almost a bit satirical in tone.”
A road trip journey of sorts, The Electric State is set on the highways and streets of an alternate rural California of the late 1990s. There, Stålenhag says, a new type of virtual reality technology — spawned by a second civil war fought with drones — has ventured far off into what he calls a “creepy tangent.”
The story follows a teenage girl and her toy robot as they move from the ravaged wastelands of western Nevada, through the Sierra Nevada mountains, and out towards the coast north of the Bay Area. A third figure accompanies them on their journey—a character wrapped in blankets, wearing a VR helmet. Stålenhag says that this character is either disabled or lost in a VR-induced coma.
Stålenhag’s two previous series explored landscapes like southern Sweden’s forests, rural areas, and come urban environments. He compares these areas to New England’s climate, while the rest of the country is dominated by pine forest, and is cold and wet. The Electric State, on the other hand, features scenes that explore the solitude of the America’s deserts in the Great Basin area. In that way, the series feels like a fusion of American Westerns and post-apocalyptic science fiction.
And the post-apocalyptic vibe Stålenhag seems to create is not far off the narrative mark. He says that the story features some kind of ecological disaster. There are periodic dust storms that sweep in from the east, making the area uninhabitable.
“We don't know how far this wasteland stretches inland, so people are migrating to the west, towards what we call California but [which] in The Electric State is part of Pacifica,” says Stålenhag. “A new state encompassing California, Oregon and Washington. This is the opening setting of the book and where we first meet the three travelers, emerging from the beige haze.”
The Electric State, like Stålenhag’s digital painting series, are unlike many other types of popular science fiction. They are novel-esque, but the stories are told with images, not words. They are cinematic, but still very much paintings. They are also similar to comic books or graphic novels, but they don't follow those rules either.
To create dynamic worlds like The Electric State, Stålenhag uses an exclusively digital workflow—a Wacom Cintiq Companion running Photoshop CC. He started creating these landscape scenes with surreal elements about fourteen years ago when he was in his late teens. Stålenhag credits Swedish wildlife artists like Gunnar Brusewitz and Lars Jonsson has being his principal influences, inspiring him to create landscapes and wildlife studies in watercolor at a young age.
“When I was around 18 I discovered the album covers by Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis and was immediately struck by something in that landscape format,” says Stålenhag of the designers who created record sleeves for the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and others. “I was at the same time still very much in love with the Swedish landscape that I grew up in, so I started to experiment with adding surreal objects and events into my rural landscapes.”
“A few years later I discovered Ralph Mcquarrie and Syd Mead and was totally hooked on the whole 70s and 80s sci-fi art thing,” he adds. “So I started to practice my ability to draw robots and spaceships and futuristic vehicles.”
Shortly thereafter, Stålenhag rediscovered his childhood obsession with nature, this time in the form of dinosaurs. So he taught himself how to draw dinosaurs.
“Suddenly, I found myself having all these different passions,” he says. “The dinosaurs, the retro sci-fi thing, the Pink Floyd covers, and the Swedish landscapes, but not nearly enough time to start a side project for each passion. So, the obvious thing was to combine it all in the same project, and that's what ended up being Tales From The Loop.”
Stålenhag is currently working on turning The Electric State into a book in the same format as his previous two series. After that, he isn’t exactly sure what he will do.
“After having done so many rural California scenes (I have even made a custom Photoshop brush for painting Monterey Cypresses) it will probably be a return to the Swedish landscape again, in some form,” Stålenhag says.
Whatever landscapes Stålenhag ultimately settles on, it is certain to be another unique visual take on science fiction storytelling. But, one would hope he continues to explore how digital and technological culture will impact the future. And not just humanity’s future, but that of the entire ecosystem.
Click here to see more of Simon Stålenhag’s work.