The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century
Olga Ravn, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
New Directions, $19.95 (paper)
A recent experimental science fiction novel by Danish poet Olga Ravn, The Employees, takes something akin to the epistolary form, but it might be better described as a long-form poem. Originally published in 2020, it soon received a brilliant English translation by Martin Aitken that was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. Its premises are familiar Science Fiction ones: it centers a great spaceship, called The Six Thousand Ship, built to reach far planets around other suns, discover new beings, and return to Earth with treasure. The wondrous new planet of this book is called New Discovery. The planet’s Earth-like geography—of forests, warm valleys, regular nights and days—belies the fact that it is home to some very unearthly beings—the so-called “objects” that the crew collect to bring home to Earth. But The Employees contains nothing like a conventional narrative, and the reader must piece together most of this on their own. Instead, the focus of the book—and its unusual form—are made clear by Ravn’s subtitle: “A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century.”
The Employees is a sequence of brief employee “statements,” numbered from 004 to 179, which has been recorded by a committee (not further described) “with a view” to gain insight into employee relations, and to “assess performance, task-related understanding, and acquisition of “new knowledge and skills.” These employee statements constitute the text of the book. Some statements are brief, some longer; some resist; some explain to the committee what they achieved, or what others failed to do. Some statements are lengthy, accounting for a speaker’s grievances or self-explanation. Some are short: Statement 005, for instance, is a single sentence: “My body isn’t like yours.”
The effects of these statements on the reader varies, as does the statements’ strangeness. The employees are singular, with their own opinions of the journey they have gone on and the “objects” they have brought back. Few names or titles are given: just the invisible committee, the employees, the assessments. The exception to this is that we know some of the interviewed employees are not technically employees at all: rather, they are a kind of helper or worker called humanoids. Though the humanoids clearly differ from the human employees in both their physiology and inner life, both the human employees and the humanoids share a common obsession. All are greatly concerned about the objects the employees have gathered from the green fields and forests of New Discovery and kept for study. For both the humans and the humanoids, “cleaning” the rooms on the ship where the objects are housed constitutes a major part of their daily routine.
Some employees describe the objects as eggs, with something like the common meaning, but their appearance is less important than the fact that they produce strong emotional reactions in the employees. The speaker of Statement 004 tells the committee: “It’s not hard to clean them. The big one, I think, sends out a kind of hum, or is it something I imagine. . . . It’s no problem keeping the place clean. I’ve made it into my own little world.” But the employee of Statement 012 doesn’t like to go in there: “They [the objects] make me touch them, even if I don’t want to. They’ve got a language that breaks me down when I go in. The language is that they’re many, that they’re not one, the one of them is the reiteration of all of them.”
Statement 014 is made by a humanoid. She likes the room and the objects, which she finds very erotic. “Every time I look at the object, I recognize my gender in it. Maybe that’s why you think of me as an offender,” she says to the nameless committee. “Half human. Flesh and technology.” The humanoid worker’s response to the objects gives us some clue to their rich and conflicted inner life: the humanoids yearn, fear, suffer emotional upheavals. Some are loved, others shy or confused about their ontological status:
You tell me: This is not a human, but a coworker. When I began to cry you said: You can’t cry, you’re not programmed to cry, it must be an error in the update. . . . All I’m here for is to serve you. All I want is to live close to the humans. All I want is to sit near them and rock my head so I can be embraced by their fragrance.
The humanoids aboard The Six Thousand Ship are as varied as the humans who have built them, supplied their updates and their add-ons (which seem to be pets or pet-like companions), and tasked them with routine care of the objects.
The program, the committee, and management—otherwise invisible—remain suspicious of the humanoids, who (if I read correctly) are neither robots nor androids. Human–humanoid interactions grow stranger as the Earth gets farther away. “I want to be stabbed with a knife by a humanoid coworker,” a human coworker states. “I want to perish at someone else’s I wish. . . . I want to feel ecstasy, if only once, on the Six Thousand Ship.”
The statements of the hundreds of workers, the sadness and lostness and love and pointless labor aboard the The Six Thousand Ship exemplify the nuanced manifestations of comedy that novelist Milan Kundera discerned in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels, and termed “the comical absence of the comic.” The immense Six Thousand Ship certainly contains a kind of spacious, utopian absence: crowds of workers mill here and there on urgent or pointless tasks, assignations, escapes. As if to hold in the reader’s mind the true vastness of space, there even remain a few employees left behind on New Discovery, amid the objects, walking the woodlands and hills.
The Employees is a short book, but it contains multitudes. Ravn’s open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations is poetry, and her love for her imagined persons is like Walt Whitman’s love for his: I concentrate toward them that are nigh. Who has done his day’s work? Who wishes to walk with me? Will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove already too late?