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.


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.

Book Review: In by Will McPhail

TL;DR – a tale of existentialism through observation, courage, and a lot of coffee shops.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

In tells the story of Nick searching for meaning in his life. He knows there is more than meets the eye to everyone he meets, but he does not know how to reach them. Every conversation, every encounter is on a superficial level.

Even when he meets Lorena, a sassy, engaging woman, he struggles to feel anything below the surface. Their ‘dance’ is one where they both stand behind protective walls they have built over time.

When finally he dares to speak his mind and true feelings to someone, he discovers something beyond the bubble of his own existence. He discovers the significance of others, and he learns that to live life means you have to become vulnerable.


Every now and then you stumble upon something that leaves you speechless. Something that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. In by Will McPhail is one of those reads that will linger with you and make you re-examine how you live your life.

This is not your normal graphic novel. As both artist and writer, McPhail uses everything at his disposal to create a poignant, meaningful, and significant story. The minimalist nature of his character designs, the detailed beauty of his backdrops, the way he conveys emotions such as nervousness through how he draws dialogue bubbles/speech balloons, and his use of colour ensures the reader will want to examine every page in detail.

And that’s just the art.

The story he tells is of a character named Nick who is searching for genuine connection. It is not just the meaning in his own life but also the meaning in others. He works as an artist drawing carp for a fishing magazine and carries around a sketchbook wherever he goes doing doodles.

In a city thriving with people, he feels lost and suffocated. He ventures into random coffee shops and bars seeking to have meaningful dialogue as well as to get out of his lonely apartment where he spends too much time either watching porn or listening to Joni Mitchell on replay. But everyone he interacts with is stuck keeping their head down, nose to the grindstone, and fearful of revealing anything deep about themselves because it could lead to ridicule, strange looks, and vulnerability.

Nick knows he is no better than anyone else, stuck on the outside looking in (not that he believes anyone is really ‘in’). But when he finally builds the courage to step outside his own fortress/prison, he experiences doorways into lives filled with colour.

Life is filled with highs and lows. Laughter and tears. There is strength, hope, and love in vulnerability even if it causes you to fall to your knees.

Essential reading.

5 out of 5.

Book Review: Saga (Volume 6) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

TL;DR – Marko and Alana chase down the location of where their daughter is being held. With the help of Robot IV, they fly in under the radar to save her.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

After being separated from both her parents, Hazel ends up in a detainee centre for enemy noncombatants with her grandmother, Klara.

Marko and Alana break into a hall of records on planet Variegate in search of information of where Hazel has ended up. They discover the detainee centre holding Hazel is on Landfall. To get into the centre, they’ll need the help of the now disowned and demoted Prince Robot IV (who is now a knight errant).

Together they manage to break Hazel out. The family is now whole once more and then some… for it turns out that Alana is pregnant again.


Saga continues its journey of exploration of its main characters as they navigate the ongoing war and bloodshed between Landfall and Wreath. Hazel is now a young girl and receiving education on Landfall at the detainee centre. She develops a close friendship with her teacher (who believes she is a Wreather because of her horns on her head) but discovers that Hazel (who reveals her secret) is the child of both a Landfallian and Wreather by showing she also has wings. Hazel’s teacher is so shocked that she faints and hits her head on the corner of a desk.

This demonstrates the perceived impossibility of Marko (Wreather) and Alana’s (Landfallian) union. The entire galaxy is of the belief that the two sides hate each other so deeply that the idea of one on each side falling in love and having a child together is so preposterous that it causes other aliens to faint.

Marko and Alana finally locate where Hazel is held and seek help from Robot IV who would rather blow his television head off than help the pair. Having lost his wife to a murderer, Robot IV is only concerned with raising his squire son in peace. In his own words, “I’m taking my boy and getting as far away from those two black holes as possible.” But good ol’ emotional blackmail ensures that Marko and Alana get their way. There is some surprising humour in this sequence of events.

Volume six also brings us back to Upsher and Doff, our investigative journalists for the Hebdomadal. They receive news that The Brand is dead, and thus the spell cast upon them by the bounty hunter (i.e. the one where if they speak of the forbidden relationship between Marko and Alana to anyone they’ll die) has been broken. Thus, they jump back on the news trail and interview Ginny, the ballet teacher that Marko almost had a fling with in volume four. However, in the process, they get roped in through threat of death by The Will who is hunting down Robot IV to get revenge for killing The Brand (his sister) and The Stalk (his ex-girlfriend). The Will has taken a turn for the worse as he’s high on drugs and keeps talking to an imaginary The Stalk who is happily egging him on for bloodshed. See a pattern here? Seems like Robot IV’s description of our lovey-dove fugitives as black holes is not far off.

With the journalists help, The Will manages to locate where Robot IV was last seen, but when he arrives he only finds the little squire and his protectors, Ghus (the seal) and Friendo (the giant walrus). Robot IV has already left with Marko and Alana to rescue Hazel, leaving his son with Ghus. A bloody scuffle occurs where The Will loses the fingers on his right hand, and he is about to start his revenge spree by killing the little squire, but at the last moment, his drug-addled brain conjures up a conversation with his dead sister, The Brand, who convinces him that revenge will not fill the holes in his heart left by the murders of his sister and ex-girlfriend. He leaves in search of some sort of absolution.

The final pages ends on a happier note for once (compared to previous volumes) where we see Marko successfully rescue Hazel and they are reunited with Alana. In the process, one of the detainees, a Wreather transsexual named Petrichor also escapes with them and is able to determine that Alana is pregnant with another child. The shock on Marko’s face and the smile on Alana’s face is priceless.

Overall, the best scenes are when Hazel finally gets back with her father and mother, along with the surprisingly funny sequence of events involving Robot IV who reluctantly agrees to help them (this is a nice change because in prior volumes, Robot IV was on mission to kill anyone in his way from finding his son). That darkness is now all on The Will, whose spiral into the abyss is a fine contrast to the light shone by Hazel. I still struggled with the journalists, Upsher and Doff (in previous reviews of Saga volumes, I commented that Upsher and Doff felt like filler characters, there to pad out the story). But volume six ties off this arc nicely and brings about anticipation of what will happen next.

3.5 out of 5