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Simon Stålenhag’s The Electric State – Scenes from a Psychic Edgeland: Wanderings 20/26

Released in 2018 Simon Stålenhag’s The Electric State is an illustrated novel set in an alternative 1997; in it a young woman and her robot travel through an American landscape which is littered with unsettlingly both friendly looking and creepily anthropomorphic battle drones and giant consumerist and advertising debris, and the images in Electric State depict society and the landscape as being some kind of physical and psychic edgeland and waste ground.

In contrast to much of science fiction, the majority of the images in Electric State are set rurally and the active and discarded or damaged technology is set against and amongst a background of natural beauty. Also although they are of terrestrial origin there is often something biomechanically extraterrestrial about the drones and it seems almost as though they and related machinery and vehicles have crash landed on the Earth and could be debris from a war between alien civilisations that have battled above the planet.

(The way in which they invoke discarded alien debris is vaguely reminiscent of science fiction novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which was loosely adapted for the cinema by Andrei Tarkovsky, and in which mysterious zones that exhibit strange and dangerous phenomena contain artifacts with inexplicable and sometimes seemingly supernatural properties which were left behind by unseen extraterrestrial visitors.)

In a manner which could be considered both analogous and a comment on contemporary digital technology Electric State’s alternative world features a new form of virtual reality called Mode 6 which is used to control the drones and also as a form of escape by the general public, and is so addictive that people literally pass away through neglect when attached to it. The Mode 6 headsets are large beak-like devices which are vaguely reminiscent of real world virtual reality headsets from the early nineties which were large in size as effectively they involved users strapping small cathode ray screens to their heads.

Stålenhag’s painted work connects with a lineage of science fiction art produced in previous decades such as that by Chris Foss and John Harris. However, whereas their artwork was often vividly hyperreal and had a grand space opera-esque character and depicted vast galaxies, large-scale space vehicles and exploration etc, Stålenhag’s work in Electric State is Earthbound, dystopic, more subdued and melancholic. Accompanying which even though it depicts travelling through the open landscape, there is at times something quite intimate and narrowly focused about it.



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