Unfamiliar with sci-fi artist Simon Stålenhag, I was sucked into his eerie dystopian history the instant I cracked open Tales from the Loop. His hyper-real digital paintings depict beautiful Swedish country towns where snow falls in the winter and children play in nature. But each of these pastoral scenes are jarring, with intrusive machines, robots, discarded equipment, and power lines upstaging the otherwise serene landscape.
The book explains that these paintings were inspired by childhood memories of the author, who grew up in a large area of Sweden that housed an underground experimental physics research facility known as The Loop. Alongside each painting is a short essay from the author’s memory. For instance, the three cooling towers in the photo above were built to release heat from the core of the Loop. The towers, which “started like a deep vibration in the ground that slowly rose to three horn-like blasts,” remind Stålenhag of a miserable day he had with a boy named Ossian, who had lured him to his house to play Crash Test Dummies, but ended up bullying him with the help of his brother until Stålenhag went home in tears.
Each painting is accompanied by one of these short yet captivating stories, and their detailed, relatable quality had me going. As I read about Stålenhag and his best friend Olof sneaking off with a boat on a nice summer day to a disturbing machine-littered swimming pond, I kept thinking, “I must go online and research the Loop! How could I have never heard about this creepy place?” Then I quickly got to the robots. Huge dinosaur and prehistoric animal robots. And towering two and four-legged machine robots, crushing everything in their paths. Suddenly, with a "Wait a minute!" moment, I knew I’d been had. The same way I was duped when I saw The Blair Witch Project and thought, at first, that it was a real documentary. But my gullibility doesn’t bother me – what a fun treat it is to be swept into a horrific alternative reality, only to find out it’s masterful fiction.
Stalenhag’s Tales from the Loop is striking, creepy, and captivating. It’s both an intriguing coffee table book and an engaging novel of sorts. And for me, it was an exciting ride.
Tales from the Loop
by Simon Stålenhag
Design Studio Press
2015, 128 pages, 10.1 x 11.2 x 0.7 inches