The Nostalgic Dystopia of Simon Stålenhag
When Poetry and Melancholy meet Science-Fiction
by Julien Djoubri
It is difficult to tackle the work of an artist like Simon Stålenhag. I have always been fascinated by his work, ever since the release of his first book Tales from the Loop and the next two volumes. I’ve never been to Sweden, I even grew up in the south of France, which in terms of climate is quite the opposite. And yet, the illustrations of this artist have always spoken to me. They make me think about something inside me, a kind of nostalgia for a time that I have never lived through but that I know by heart.
All of Simon’s work is on the border between great natural landscapes and Science Fiction, two subjects that often clash. One feels a kind of nostalgia, sometimes even melancholy when observing them. Because here, we are far from a world at war or a cyber-punk town like Blade-Runner. No, here time almost seems to have stopped at a moment that never existed.
But I know this moment because it is the sum of the elements of my childhood. A lot of things speak to me when I look at the works of this artist, the silence that runs through the plains where old robots are no longer in use, the feeling of tranquility when one observes some of these inert machines, the amazement at the use of technology.
These are illustrations that seem to have always belonged to the Geek culture, to Science-Fiction, giving the impression that they’ve always been there. But that’s not all Simon Stålenhag’s talent, because the stories he writes are even more exciting, even more striking.
Between Nature and Robots
An old blue Volvo, just like my parents’ friends might have had, is parked in a car park in the dystopian world of Simon Stålenhag. Next to her is a young woman with a leather jacket, a red backpack on her shoulders, climbing a small hill. Everything is furiously reminiscent of the 90s as we know them. Except that the young woman is holding hands with a small robot with a huge, round, childlike head, and together they are looking at what appears to be giant plastic ducks that have been shot with guns.
This is exactly the kind of landscape that can be found in the worlds of this Swedish artist. But as you can see in the picture above, the important thing is not the fantastic element. On the contrary, Simon likes above all to depict landscapes, which are often grandiose, and leave room for nature itself. This passion for the wilderness goes back to his childhood. At the time, the artist was fascinated by what surrounded him: birds and the Swedish countryside. He could spend hours drawing them, depicting this everyday life.
It is only after working in the video game industry, and learning how to draw robots, that Simon will gradually integrate elements of science fiction into these immense landscapes. It will be the moment for him to combine these two passions: depicting large landscapes and rediscovering the futuristic imagery of the 80s that had cradled him when he was younger.
If Simon Stålenhag likes to introduce these huge robots in his creations, it is above all because he loves to create them. He himself admits that he is unable to paint illustrations today without introducing machines or even sprawling creatures into them. Simon is above all a fan of horror, science fiction, and B movies. It is this source of inspiration that will push him to find his own style, closer to the emotion he feels at the time of his work.
We’re dealing with a mixture of genres here. The general style is reminiscent of American realism and painters such as Edward Hopper or Winslow Homer, finding the same way of presenting landscapes and scenes with little action. It is through this style and technique that these artists manage to transcribe their emotions, much better than through a photo. Simon’s illustrations are very fine and he gives the impression of being able to make buildings or robots look sad or even melancholic.
This is the strength of this artist, painting real landscapes (all his creations are based on real places) and adding his touch of science fiction to convey a feeling, an emotion, and very often, a message.
Becoming an adult means understanding that you are still a child…
Like many genre artists, Simon Stålenhag uses science fiction to communicate and tell stories. It’s not all about beauty and graphics, quite the contrary. The robots and retro-futuristic elements are there to catch our eye, before plunging us much deeper into the story these works tell. Because Simon is not only a talented illustrator, he is above all a genius storyteller.
For this artist, being an adult is mainly about not forgetting that one is still a child, but simply with extra responsibilities. And it is with a certain pessimism that he describes adults in his works, putting them all in the same bag. Often resembling each other, he represents the conformity towards which society can tend, how much we all wish to be something else, someone we are not.
It is an idea that he will defend through his various stories, the idea that adults must behave in a certain way to be rewarded. It’s a feeling that all children have already felt when they look at their parents, this incomprehension of what it looks like. All this influence and this way of looking at adults are going to be influenced by his own history, he whose parents divorced when he was still a teenager.
Science-Fiction as an Entry to Reality
Simon Stålenhag will gradually introduce personal elements into his stories, adding a touch of nostalgia. And to say the least, this is reflected very well in each of his illustrations. No matter which book you leaf through, you will find family stories in different forms. Once you scratch your way through the storytelling a little bit, you quickly realize that science fiction is mainly a pretty package that actually hides stories much deeper than you might expect.
Even if the Swedish artist uses technology as a tool and as a graphic element in his works, it is also a way of highlighting it in order to denounce certain abuses. How not to think about the company Sentre, which is part of a huge military conglomerate but which also sells VR helmets to the general public? Numerous illustrations in his third book The Electric State depict groups of people standing still with their virtual reality helmets on their heads, all immersed in another universe.
It is through this satire that Simon reveals his point of view on technology in general. It is with an amused look that he makes us observe the origins of the tools we use every day, which are often of military origin. But the Swedish artist is also someone who is suspicious of technology, and this is something we find in his characters. Even if the drifts are immediately visible, one can also see a kind of fatalism in realizing that the only way to fight against the vices of technology is to do it through technology.
A Transmedia universe
The depth of the universe created by Simon Stålenhag is what has allowed him to expand his way of telling stories even further. For while it all started for him through his illustrations, it is through participative financing that he will be able to finance his books, receiving incredible support from his fans and the public.
But the artist is not going to stop there and will continue to develop his universe first of all with his adaptation in role-playing, still under the name of Tales from the Loop, where one will be able to incarnate children or teenagers in this dystopian universe and face intelligent machines or travel in time or in parallel dimensions. Being myself a lover of role-playing games, it is always a real pleasure to see universes we fall in love with declined in the form of games, allowing us a greater immersion.
But the adventure is far from over. His world has been adapted by Amazon in the form of an anthological series of 10 episodes, also called Tales from the Loop. The atmosphere is perfect, full of nostalgia, and full of visual effects to fall down. We find exactly the spirit of Simon’s stories. Through the different episodes, we follow different characters with their own mini-stories, which are all connected in one way or another. The music fits the story perfectly and that’s the kind of adaptation that I think a lot of artists would revert to.
Currently, its universe continues to be declined thanks to a new crowdfunding. This time the goal is to create a board game based on his universe. How can I explain to you that I have already put my little pieces in it, as it is the kind of project I want to see realized. Not only because I love the author, but because I admire completely original universes like his and all the forms his story can take.
Simon Stålenhag is an artist whom I admire for his creative force. He has a background that is rare to find, consisting of a perfect mix of storyteller and talented illustrator. The world of Tales from the Loop is by far one of my favorites, and I am delighted to see an artist who is able to develop so much in his creation while at the same time offering real messages and reflections.
If you don’t know it yet, I can only invite you to plunge headlong into this universe so poetic and vast. It’s a kind of journey from which you don’t come back unscathed, but from which you come back grown-up.