MAZES & MONSTERS
Updated: Feb 23
John Power Jr. speaks to Simon Stålenhag, author and artist behind Tales From The Loop, about his new book The Labyrinth and the dangerous power of nostalgia...
Arriving at the tail-end of 2020 Simon Stålenhag’s new narrative art-book, The Labyrinth, feels timely. Whilst his debut, Tales From The Loop, presented a world which juxtaposed the strange and unsettling with the familiar, children playing alongside broken down robots rusting in fields whilst giant container ships hovered over Swedish suburbs, it still felt like the kind of place you might like to visit.
Stålenhag’s subsequent books, such as Things From the Flood and The Electric State, may have shown a world in increasingly greater states of disrepair but there was still a warmth to them. The Labyrinth upends that, gone are the rich blues, splashes of warm reds and yellows and meticulous reconstructions of the recent past. Instead we find ourselves in a world painted in sombre hues and pale tones, its cities drowning in ash, skies a pallid sea green and all that might be familiar left in rubble and ruin.
Whilst it might have been written before the pandemic, The Labyrinth feels prescient and draws upon anxieties that have been building up long before the virus struck.
‘I didn’t feel like another retro-futuristic, nostalgic kind of book was relevant,’ said Stålenhag. ‘I had started work on several different test aesthetics, laying out the foundations for a few different projects. Two of them were very optimistic, well… maybe not exactly optimistic, I have nothing against optimism, but they felt self indulgent.’
‘When I started work on Things From the Loop, it was reflecting a period of my life, ideas from my mid twenties and even my childhood to some extent. I was inspired by looking back at the 1980s, the early 1990s, the same as the people who created Stranger Things and these other nostalgic pop-culture phenomenons like Super 8 and Vice City.’
‘So my first books grew out of that, but then in 2016 it was obvious that the world had changed, there were darker things going on. You started to feel like history was happening and in a bad way. So it just really felt self indulgent to just sit around reminiscing.’
That change in outlook is reflected throughout his new book. In the world of The Labyrinth the apocalypse has already happened. The world as we know it ending when strange orbs appeared and began to transform, ecologically devastating, the planet. Forced underground, the survivors now emerge to scavenge for supplies, and answers, in the ruins of the old world.
State of the planet, both real and fictional, aside 2020 has still been a good year for Stålenhag. Alongside a hugely successful Kickstarter for The Labyrinth, his debut book, Tales From The Loop, made the jump to the small screen with an acclaimed Amazon TV series, whilst the film adaptation of The Electric State now has both Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown and Avengers: Endgame directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, attached.
Whilst it still might be novel to turn on the TV and see his fictional worlds brought to life, Stålenhag has always conceived of his creations in cinematic terms and how they could be adapted to film.
‘I think I always I thought about my art a bit like that,’ he explains. ‘That these books were my own way of making a movie. Certainly with my early stuff it was my way to present my everyday life in some kind of Hollywood way. A chance to see those big movie moments set in my memories, in my childhood. Like wouldn’t it be cool if there was a dinosaur, here, in the landscape I grew up in. There’s a picture I did with an ice cream truck with two dinosaurs circling that was really my Jurassic Park moment.’
“WOULDN’T IT BE COOL IF THERE WAS A DINOSAUR, HERE, IN THE LANDSCAPE I GREW UP IN”
Of course for any creative, handing over your work, especially work that draws so much upon your own experiences, has its risks. So far though Stålenhag has been happy with how his books have been adapted, whether as roleplaying games or for the screen.
‘It’s weird but it’s definitely a pleasant feeling, I’m very happy with the [Tales From The Loop] TV show. It’s obviously not at all what I imagined when I did the book but it’s exactly what I imagined when Nathaniel [Halpern] pitched the idea to me. It looks exactly like how they presented. So I’m very proud they got so much artistic freedom and it’s different in that way.’
Slow, thoughtful and understated the Tales From The Loop TV series is very different from much of the in your face, high-octane drama of today but it successfully captures the spirit of the books and provided a welcome respite in the early days of lockdown.
‘They way they present the town and the Loop is very close to the book, but it feels a lot like the the roleplaying game that this is a fertile ground for stories,’ said Stålenhag. ‘A place where you can tell your own stories and the TV series feels like Nathaniel’s stories in this universe. It’s a bit like having Nathaniel as the game master in an RPG campaign but set in my world. It’s a very nice feeling. It has everything I wanted to see, but at the same time I just can’t turn on my TV and see it as a show because I see the process involved, so in that way it’s weird.’
It’s easy to see why his books are such perfect material for adaptation both onto film and tabletop. Like Stålenhag’s previous works The Labyrinth leaves much unsaid, for all the hyper-realistic detail he renders his paintings in, there’s always a mystery about them, a lacuna waiting to be filled by the reader’s own ideas and imagination.
In the case of The Labyrinth even the nature of the civilisation ending intrusion is never spelled out, it’s completely alien, unknowable. ‘Carl Sagan said the universe is neither benign or hostile it’s just indifferent,’ explains Stålenhag. ‘The orbs are some kind of intelligence that is totally indifferent to us. We’re just like some kind of micro-organism that they probably don’t even care about, they exterminate us because they need to terraform our planet. Or at least that’s what the scientists believe, the book doesn’t even really go into that, it’s just an unknown phenomena that’s beyond our comprehension.’
Whilst the alien heralds of the apocalypse might be unknowable, the reaction of the human authorities will be more familiar. Alongside themes of environmental devastation The Labyrinth channels Stålenhag’s ongoing concerns with both state violence and the rising tide of authoritarianism. Concerns that despite the result of the recent US elections aren’t going away.
‘I have two projects I’m working on now in tandem,’ he explains. ‘one [Europa Mekano] that is probably most fitting for a book, the other is something more like a film format, I’m still exploring ideas. Europa Mekano, I don’t exactly know what will be, but basically it’s early 2000s so it’s a bit nostalgic, again, and I’m struggling with that.’
‘When the election results came in I definitely felt like maybe we can go back to business now. But it’s not over yet, you still think “well what’s Trump going to do now” and you start fearing for American democracy again and then you’re back to “ah crap, I guess I can’t go back to nostalgia yet.”’
Stålenhag’s well aware that the trope of the glorious past is a well that the far right have often returned to, from grand national myths to, more prosaically, the kind of Facebook groups that weaponise the ephemera from the recent past. For someone whose work gains much of its power from both meticulously reimagining their own childhood and in leaving gaps for the reader to fill it’s an increasing dilemma and one he’s confronting head-on.
‘There’s something quite fascistic about nostalgia, which I hate. I mean of course I hate fascism but I hate that element of nostalgia that I just recently identified as being fascist.’
‘My followers on twitter have a progressive slant, but I think that’s more because of my personality, not my art unfortunately,’ he said. ‘In the beginning I had a lot of alt-right people from Sweden retweeting my images in the context of them being reactionary to modern Sweden and I really had to say “No, you’re misunderstanding me, I’m not nostalgic for that, I’m just remembering all the times from my childhood that I hated life and now I’m glad I’m not there anymore.”’
‘See that’s nostalgia for me, remembering when I was 16 and life sucked and how much anxiety I’d have just waiting for the bus to go to school. There’s something cosy looking back at hard times and our collective trauma of growing up, but it’s not that I want to go back there!’
“SEE THAT’S NOSTALGIA FOR ME, REMEMBERING WHEN I WAS 16, LIFE SUCKED AND HOW MUCH ANXIETY I’D HAVE JUST WAITING FOR THE BUS TO GO TO SCHOOL”
Stålenhag is increasingly pushing back on such interpretations of his work. ‘There was someone today, I posted a Karl Popper quote from his book The Open Society and its Enemies, where he is literally describing what Trump’s doing and its from 1945. And the quote is about how state leaders who subscribe to conspiracy theories, how if they fail it can never be them it has to be people plotting against them.’
‘And then one of my followers said something like that’s exactly like the regressive left and then something else about censorship. You know, all the things you hear from the alt-right about how the left is secretly taking over society and forcing us to, I don’t know, learn new pronouns. I can’t even understand what it is they think the left is trying to do but anyway somehow he got that out of that quote. I mean congratulations on being the exact thing the quote talks about. He said my art has influenced his writing a lot, how is that possible? I feel like I must have done something wrong!’
‘I tried to make it [The Labyrinth] ambiguous, but if your take away is that state violence is good then you misunderstood it. I mean, basically, I’m trying to address issues of political power,’ he reiterates.
‘I can only quote Starship Troopers, where Michael ironside’s character says something like “violence is the ultimate authority that all other authorities derive from.”’
‘That quote in the context of that film should have told everyone who saw it that Starship Troopers was supposed to be a satire but for some reason people still managed to misunderstand that movie’s intent. Ultimately The Labyrinth is about violence and authority, you can read stuff in it that’s less broad if you want but that’s what I was primarily interested in.’
The Labyrinth is out now published by Free League Publishing
This article originally appeared in Wyrd Science - Session Zero
All images by © Simon Stålenhag / Free League Publishing