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'Tales From The Loop' Doesn't Forget The Robots (Or The Dinosaurs)

All the best science fiction has giant robots in it. That's just wisdom.

All the best science fiction has spaceships. Has ray guns and maybe dinosaurs, too. Has a sense of clutching wonder that takes you right in the chest, stutters your heart, widens your eyes and sucks the breath right out of you.

But really, it's about the robots. Any sci-fi or spec-fic story that proceeds through the middle quarter without the addition of a giant robot or two? That's a writer who's not bringing his A game. Who doesn't understand the rules or just didn't try hard enough.

Simon Stålenhag did not forget the robots. More to the point, Simon Stålenhag can't forget the robots, because in his remarkable, beautiful new art book, Tales From The Loop, he has embedded them into our collective past, offering a vision of an alt-history Sweden in the late 80's and early 90's where they clack through suburban streets, lurk in the backyard trees, or lie, still and cold, abandoned in snowy fields.

It's a child's vision of a time not so far gone. A man's memories, carefully curated, of simpler, stranger, more mysterious times when he and his friends played in the echo spheres and collected the cast-away bits of scrap shaken off by the slow deterioration of the gauss freighters. It's the story of The Loop — a massive particle accelerator buried beneath the fields and frozen ponds and Swedish suburbs — and the uncles and fathers who worked there.

"The illustrations in this book focus on my generation of Mälarö children and the environment we grew up in," Stålenhag writes. "As to the facility itself, its machines and other technology, I have tried to illustrate it all in detail"

Illustrate is the important word here. Because anyone who knows Stålenhag's name most likely know it in reference to the gorgeous, rich, occasionally stunning landscapes he paints. Images of Sweden's fields and hills. Its suburbs and streets. Its mecha and magnetrine loops. For years, he has been telling the slow, haunting story of a time and place that never quite existed, a world that diverged from our own at some point after World War II, forked left and went strange. "The landscape was full of machines," he says. "If you put your ear to the ground, you could hear the heartbeat of the Loop, the purring of the Gravitron."

See one of Stålenhag's pieces once and it will stick to you like tar. Follow you home. Color your dreams. The reality he imagines is infectious. It'll eat yours whole, and his robots and dinosaurs and savage, blonde children will become yours, too.

At some point, though, the images became ... not quite enough. Stålenhag began, years ago, releasing them on his Facebook page. They leapt the ocean, though. Found their way to professional appreciators. Got a signal boost from geeky websites and fans who fell hard and head-first into his imaginary world and kept asking for more. They wanted comics. They wanted movies. They wanted, more than anything, an explanation.

Stålenhag published Tales in Sweden (in Swedish) and then launched a Kickstarter campaign in April, hoping to raise $10,000 to self-publish an English version of the book. It was a small project, just something for the fans. He cleared his goal in four hours. And then went on to raise over $320,000, blowing through stretch goals as fast as he could come up with them.

Because yes, his art is that affecting. See one of Stålenhag's pieces once and it will stick to you like tar. Follow you home. Color your dreams. The reality he imagines is infectious. It'll eat yours whole, and his robots and dinosaurs and savage, blonde children will become yours, too.

It helps that the writing is simple, small and intimate; his voice affectless and pure. Stålenhag offers only the smallest of vignettes in Tales — a paragraph, maybe two. Like phantom diary entries, scratchy with age and never more than a few hundred words. And they are about nothing more than ditching school to play amid the wreckage of the Loop. About the boy who kept a dinosaur as a pet, the twins who switched bodies, the horrors of the Friske family, the strange door in grandfather's basement and the phone with only one button.

If you've got a geek in your family who needs a Christmas present, this should be it. They'll love you forever. If you've got a young nerd in need of corruption — a kid who'd benefit from having their reality shaken and their head filled with impossible things — this'll do the trick because, Tales has the magic. It's got the robots, the weirdness, the dinosaurs.

But most of all, it has the wonder. No one who picks this book up will be the same person when they put it down again. And no one will ever look at the suburbs (or the 1980's, or knots of blonde-haired neighborhood boys) quite the same way again.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.