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from the March 2022 issue

Olga Ravn’s “The Employees”: A Celestial Journey With Earthly Issues

Reviewed by J. Howard Rosier

Olga Ravn's slim, surprising novel compiles corporate witness accounts from a shocking interstellar mission.

Underneath the COVID-19 fervor and the ennui of quarantine lies a lopsided civilization with questions that have been thrown into sharp relief: Who can weather days without working, who cannot? Whose social position renders them immune to lapses in judgment and prophylactic behavior, whose does not? Who is deemed “essential” (that is, whose facilitating function within a service economy prevents them from making a living from home), who is (blissfully, guiltily) not? Never before has the value of one’s labor felt so clearly defined, or so susceptible to charges of exploitation. Several novels have attempted to address the pandemic’s unique ecosystem of interaction and avoidance, but so far it seems that this low-hanging fruit—the maintenance of dignity amid the grueling or pointless reality of one’s work—is the most fertile yet the least remarked upon.

Olga Ravn’s The Employees is not a pandemic novel. However, thanks to a crackling translation from the Danish by Martin Aitken, readers in English are now able to delve into its futuristic and dystopian worldview, which contains enormous insight into labor’s many actors: deciders, stewards, pawns, and—when things go awry—its scapegoats and apologists. The novel’s structure, a series of collected statements that begin as declarations, then methodically transition into confessions and judgments, allows chronological story to buttress the reader’s engagement with accumulating details. 

But what of that reader? Ravn’s modular structure suggests that the responsibility of configuring her narrative and sussing out its moral leanings belongs to her audience. The book doesn’t lack plot so much as tacitly acknowledge that plot is a construct, and therefore susceptible to the politics of control, which implicates the author and, inevitably, whoever’s hands the book lands in. Or rather, the paradigm of who has created the book’s terms (Ravn) and who has not (us) forms a mirror image of who has power in the book (humans) and who does not (humanoids, mechanized human-like beings whose consciousness can be reprogrammed), which in turn establishes a clear-but-diversionary hierarchy of what readers of the novel may try to accumulate (chronological plot) and, as a result, what they may not (meaning).

This is why it’s probably best to split up The Employees’ plot and meaning. One wants to alert for spoilers, but items on a conveyor belt are only a surprise to the employees still in training. So: in the not-too-distant future, a vessel known as the Six Thousand Ship, containing a crew of humans and humanoids, is sent on an exploratory mission into space. On a planet aptly named New Discovery, the crew encounters a series of alien items, which it takes on board the ship for examination. The humans on board, starved for familiarity, give the items nicknames, such as the Reverse Strap-on and the Half-Naked Bean, and develop fetishized attachments to them. Lacking a frame of reference, the humanoids find this behavior bizarre, even as they form attachments to the humans. Yet they are frequently “regenerated”—that is, their internal lives can be erased—and an anxiety about the practice ensues among the crew at large. A botched mutiny in which a human dies causes an elusive governing body known only as “the committee” to panic. The humanoid sections of the ship are reduced to skeleton crews, then the mission is abandoned altogether. The ship is returned to New Discovery, where the “orders were given for all biomaterials to be disintegrated while preserving the ship itself” so that the items and other precious resources can be harvested after the humans die and the humanoids exhaust their energy. The remaining humanoids abandon the ship for a valley “where flowers and trees have begun to grow forth out of the soil and the thrusting plants have pushed various objects to the surface, where they now lie scattered about in the moist earth.” It’s left ambiguous whether they will be reconstituted or left as technological waste once the ship is recovered, but one humanoid’s last recorded statement proves prophetic all the same: “These words are the last you’ll hear from us.”

The certainty with which the remaining crew’s fate is sealed lacks any revelation, though this is not for lack of surprise. The business-like nature of “the committee” neutralizes any emotional register that would arise from events. On the other hand, one cannot expect those who are cutting their losses to empathize with those whom they are jettisoning, and much of Ravn’s dramaturgy quarrels with whether catharsis can intersect with the clerical. 

Now, on to meaning: throughout The Employees, the crew’s commentaries appear numerically, but not in order. One could in theory read the entries chronologically and get a clearer arc, but this is complicated by the fact that some of the entries are missing entirely. Rather than a puzzle or a method to create an unorthodox narrative tension, this form points back to the bureaucratic filtering of the information that the reader receives. Someone (the committee, the author) is deciding what readers see and don’t see, based on what’s ideal for their interests. Thus, Ravn metes out what moments best encapsulate the commentary she has constructed.

And what a commentary. A tension emerges regarding whom the novel’s “recordings” are speaking to. They alternate between a self-conscious acknowledgment of being interrogated, where speakers comment about what “you” might be thinking, or what “you” know versus what they do. At other times, the comments are so sober and distant that the point of view is voyeuristic. “We’ve developed our own little ritual here, in view of cremation being the only option and the bereaved having nowhere to go,” Statement 037, the declaration of a de facto undertaker, reads, “Or perhaps bereaved isn’t the right word. I don’t know if you grieve over a coworker, but we perform the ritual anyway, out of respect, and you can’t exactly rule out relations occurring between members of the crew.” You shouldn’t be hearing things so intimate, yet you are. Although the humanoids are, like smartphones or computers, subject to version upgrades, they never really die, whereas human beings have not evolved at all since being on the Six Thousand Ship. The humans have control over their destiny, until someone finds them expendable—just like the humanoids. Meanwhile, for all the mentions of physical labor—cleaning, digging, cooking—the eponymous employees are primarily concerned with watching over objects that are pillaged on the journey. It’s difficult to reconcile the humans’ attachment for these unidentifiable, alien things with the lack of attachment to the humanoids who look just like them, which of course is the point. The contradiction reads as a crystal-clear criticism of human beings valuing progress in the abstract rather than being responsible stewards of what is already tangible.

The headiness is further compounded by its compression into a brisk 144 pages. Not enough to account for a whole galaxy, but certainly enough to compile a report. The depth and richness of Ravn’s premise could theoretically stretch out into multiple volumes, and one would imagine part of the novel’s appeal lies in the author’s insistence on restraint even as her forms leave behind a multitude of unresolved philosophical inquiries.

It's also worth noting that, for a novel about working without questioning one’s purpose, the mutiny that takes place is not about the work that humanoids are subjected to. Instead, the revolt stems from a resentment at not being afforded the same latitude, consciousness-wise, as the humans:

You want to know what I think about this arrangement? I think you look down on me. The way I see it, you’re a family that’s built a house and from the warm rooms of that house you now look out at the pouring rain. Safe from menace, you delight in the rain. You’re dry and smug, you’re reaping the rewards of a long process of refinement. When the storm gets up, it only heightens your enjoyment. I’m standing in the rain you think can never fall on you. I become one with the rain. I’m the storm you shelter from. The entire house is something you built just to avoid me. So don’t come to me and say I play no part in human lives.

Naturally, this puts the reader in a precarious position. How much of yourself do you see in the pillaged objects? The sub-human categorization of the humanoids? The humans themselves? When the plot eventually does come to a head, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as one would think, because none of the people you are witnessing have any control over what transpires.

© 2022 by J. Howard Rosier. All rights reserved.

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