October 24, 2018

Review: The Electric State

The Electric State The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't think I've ever read a graphic novel like this. It's almost a picture book, with the gorgeous art telling as much of the story as the text. This is a cyberpunk alternate history set in the alt-90's of a decaying America that has splintered into several smaller states: the protagonist is on her way to "Pacifica," for instance. We are plunked abruptly down in the aftermath of a drone war, in the midst of a sort of virtual reality zombie apocalypse. This stems from the "neurocasters," VR helmets with long snouts that most people in the country (at least the people who remain) now wear. The consequences of this are depicted on the very first page: a somber desert landscape, blowing layers of dust over half-buried, decaying skeletons, their bare skulls still adorned with their neurocasters.

Our protagonist is Michelle, a teenager with a congenital neurological condition who can't wear a neurocaster. She is going to the coastal town of Point Linden, accompanied by Skip, a small yellow robot who is actually being remotely controlled (through the neurocaster network) by her younger brother Christopher, who has been separated from Michelle for eight years.

This book's art is incredible: every page finely detailed and worthy of further study. When Michelle and Skip reach Point Linden, the illustrations take a creepy, surreal turn. It becomes obvious that a new world, populated by alien hybrid beings, is being created: mismatched drones welded together into towering new mechanical beings dripping with wires, and followed by their acolytes, groups of neurocaster-wearing humans. As near as I could follow from the story, they are animated by a networked group consciousness, symbolized by the huge red-lighted towers in the backgrounds of many of the pages. Michelle doesn't try to communicate with them--she's only after her brother. She finds him, still wearing his neurocaster, and Michelle, her brother, and the little yellow robot continue on their way to the sea.

The book's ending is abrupt and ambiguous, deliberately so, with no text, only four pages of haunting illustrations. I hope the author continues the story, because I definitely want to know what happened. Still, this is a beautiful and unique graphic novel, and it's one of the best things I've read this year.

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