The Electric State is very much a different book from Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood. Those books had a retrospective narrative – the point of view for those books was from the viewpoint of someone looking back on events with a sense of nostalgia. The Electric State, on the other hand, has a more conventional narrative, while still having significant themes of memory, but definitely without the warmth of nostalgia.
The Electric State has more of a road trip narrative. The book follows Michelle, a 19-year old girl, and a robot companion as they try to make their way across the Southwestern united states to the coast in California. Through this, through Michelle’s memory of the past, we get glimpses of a US torn apart by an unexplained war – whether it’s a civil war or one with a foreign power is not explained and in a lot of ways doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that the war was one fought by drones in virtual reality, and after the war, the virtual reality technology went out to the civilian population – where it took a very addictive toll. People died, succumbing to the addiction and starving to death or suffocating. Others had their minds pulled into a sort of collective hive mind, a more nightmarish version of a transhumanist collective, at least viewed from the outside.
Consequently, the physical and societal toll the war and its aftermath had is written over this ravaged vision of the American Southwest. Stores have teenagers with assault rifles as security, roving bands of VR-headset wearing near-ghouls travel through the street, blasted out hulks of drone warships the size of mountains (or at least very large hills) are strewn across the landscape, some just abandoned, some hollowed out by scavengers. And then there are weirder robotic constructions, created by neither-God-nor-Satan-knows-what.
Thus, Stålenhag’s art has a very different feel. There isn’t the sense of pastoral weirdness that we got from Tales from the Loop – instead, there is a very real sense of dread lingering and persisting through every page, greater to the later parts of Things from the Flood. In Things from the Flood, there was the sense that things there were becoming, if they weren’t already, wrong. In The Electric State, we’ve blown past wrong a long time ago and careened headlong into fucked.
Consequently, it makes for an ending that I can’t quite put a finger on, tonally. I can’t tell if it’s intended to be hopeful or tragic. There’s a part of my brain that says that this ending could possibly be hopeful, but I’m not really sure how hopeful it could be, considering the rest of the state of things. Even more, a hopeful ending almost doesn’t feel internally consistent with the rest of the story, when things are this FUBAR, what chance does anyone have of even a glimmer of happiness?