Book Review: The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag

TL;DR – our greatest threat is not technology itself, but how we use it.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

In an alternate universe, a post apocalyptic America in the late 1990s reveals that humanity and machines have become one. Almost everyone has become plugged into Sentre – virtual reality (VR) headsets that make the wearer look like a metal pelican – allowing their minds to be connected to a global consciousness, play games and control giant robots in the real world.

However, the Sentre headsets has led to a drug-like addiction resulting in people staying plugged in, their physical forms becoming emaciated, kept alive by IV drips or withered away until their bodies have died and their consciousness kept alive through machine.

But the headsets do not work on everyone, and teenager Michelle is one such person. With a backpack, shotgun, stolen car and Skip, her robot friend, Michelle treks across a desolated and ruined American west trying to reach San Francisco. There she hopes to find a boat and sail away leaving behind the desiccation, depravity and violence of an America sucked into the machine void. But not before making one final stop at a rundown house in the suburbs of San Francisco to retrieve something stolen from her.

Review

Simon Stålenhag has created an alternate world that is far more haunting and frightening than any other “rise of the machines” type scenarios that you see in sci-fi films. Unlike movies such as “Terminator” and “Matrix”, this is a world where humans have willingly embraced a technology and been consumed by it without even realising what they have done. The Electric State reminded me more of “The Road” (the film directed by John Hillcoat based on the book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy) with creepy, tentacled, giant robots thrown in.

It is a world where vast landscapes show nothing but drought, desolation and death. Skeletal remains of humans still connected to their Sentre headsets lie in rundown homes, on the side of streets, in their cars, or in the middle of shops with desert sands and decay enveloping them.

Giant robots (controlled sometimes by a single consciousness, sometimes by many) roam the land. Their purpose a mystery, but their ability to dole out death and destruction very real. And then there are the remaining humans that are not plugged in, who have become scavengers and hunters. It is survival of the fittest where the strong prey on the weak, so you best be wary and armed at all times.

As we follow Michelle and her robot, Skip, across America’s west, every page has an illustration that will linger in your mind and penetrate your dreams. Stålenhag’s artistic skill to mesh the familiar with the futuristic is disturbing. Debilitated 3-D billboards of mechanical faces, gigantic tanks riddled in the shape of animatronic rubber ducks, a broken down shed with a puppet robot peering out waving its hand, and roaming metal behemoths with hundreds of cables trailing behind them connected to humans with Sentre headsets making them all stumble around like zombies worshipping a mechanical sentinel are some of the disturbing images that take you through The Electric State.

The text that accompanies each page provides both history of how America became what it is while also providing the narrative from Michelle’s perspective. Stålenhag is careful with his story telling, revealing only so much through his words as he does through his illustrations. Together, you will re-read the paragraphs while re-examining the pictures. To and fro, trying to decipher Michelle’s intent and why things are the way that they are.

The dangers she encounters are both subtle and obvious, and by the time she reaches San Francisco to the one-storey house that has seen better days with its overgrown garden, there will be this little voice in your head screaming at Michelle to be careful or to not even bother going into the house and just head to the coast, find a boat, and leave this nightmare behind.

I won’t spoil the finale but the astute should figure out what is inside the house. And when you turn the final page, part of you will flip through its pages again to look at the pictures not knowing why you feel compelled to do so.

4.5 out of 5.

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