Updated: May 4
What do we have to gain from being good, productive members of society? Steph Glover reviews Olga Ravn’s ‘unnerving, dark’ and ‘long overdue’ work about humans struggling for reason on a space ship far from Earth.
‘My human co-worker sometimes talks about not wanting to work, and then he’ll say something quite odd and rather silly. What is it he says now? There’s more to a person than the work they do, or A person is more than just their work? Something like that. But what else could a person be?’
Structured as a series of witness statements collected by the ‘workplace commission’, The Employees examines the lives of both human and humanoid workers aboard the Six-Thousand Ship as it orbits the planet New Discovery. After the ship takes aboard a number of strange objects, the crew finds itself developing curious attachments to them, aching for feelings like warmth and intimacy, and questioning the purpose of their lives as employees. Through a chilling and abstract forecast of the future of work, The Employees examines what we may become in the future, and to some extent, what we already are. At its core, it asks one fundamental question: what does it mean to be human?
Through a chilling and abstract forecast of the future of work, The Employees examines what we may become in the future, and to some extent, what we already are
Olga Ravn’s critique of life governed by work and the logic of productivity is long overdue. Through poetic insight and emotional eloquence, brilliantly delivered via Martin Aitken’s translation from Danish, she has created a frightening, astonishing literary experience. The witness statements themselves are fragmented, non-linear, and layered with meaning. Some are fleeting, describing a thought or memory, while other longer, more detailed accounts provide insight into the lives of the workers. The overall picture painted by these poignant declarations is relatively opaque, yet the reader is left with a perplexing, overwhelming sense of the crew’s emotions.
As the statements reveal the impact of the objects on the workers, we can begin to piece together the events surrounding an incident aboard the ship, and the distinctions between humans and humanoids become less clear. Tensions arise as the humanoids become increasingly sentient, experiencing emotions like grief and loss that they associate with being human; they evolve to circumnavigate the updates that were designed to maximise their efficiency and prevent them from becoming too aware.
The idea of home exists only in memory, and they live in a state of perpetual melancholic nostalgia
The humans, meanwhile, grow increasingly hopeless. The idea of home exists only in memory, and they live in a state of perpetual melancholic nostalgia. They know that they cannot keep up with the humanoids. They express contempt towards their work, and provisions are made to improve their mood and productivity. In one statement a humanoid says it is ‘my responsibility to make sure the human section of the crew don’t buckle under to nostalgia and become catatonic.’ Of course, this begs the question: are these provisions being made to improve the humans’ wellbeing or just their performance as employees?
In many ways the ‘programme’ that contrives and controls the humanoids, and the ‘organisation’ that governs the Six-Thousand Ship resemble the systems that we are a part of today. The Employees viciously critiques our capitalist society and all that we are willing (or forced) to sacrifice in the name of productivity. It highlights our struggles with individualism and conformity, the clinical nature of our work environments, and the consequences of professional hierarchy. In one statement, a human describes an interaction with his employer: ‘I didn’t know who I belonged to in his view. Whether I was human or just something innate… I felt I was artificial, made, nothing but a humanoid machine of flesh and blood. My maker’s screen. Fabricated, conducted.’
The Employees viciously critiques our capitalist society and all that we are willing (or forced) to sacrifice in the name of productivity
The Employees also sheds light on our ever-deepening relationship with technology, raising important questions about automation, AI, and space colonisation. Against the backdrop of the Six-Thousand Ship, the integration of human and humanoid workers casts doubt on the belief that technology can fix all of our problems, and on the desire to improve, enhance, and upgrade everything and anything, including ourselves. Under a progress-based, efficiency-driven rationale, the benefits of creating employees are obvious: they are more durable, they can be reprogrammed and updated, and they are not mortal. But the humanoids’ belief that they are human stems from their ability to feel, not their ability to work. Ravn suggests that our unwavering faith in technology has made us blind to its limitations, and asks whether we ought to pin our hopes on systems that continuously fail us.
I previously mentioned how The Employees is, at its core, concerned with what it means to be human. But, in light of our place in this modern world, perhaps we should contextualise this central question, and in its place, ask: what do we have to gain from being good, productive members of society? If work is our sole purpose as humans, what are we working towards? And if we were to detach ourselves from these systems, what would become of us? Ravn’s ambiguous and emotive style, combined with her fractured, disconcerting storyline leaves this book wide open to interpretation, prompting the reader to draw their own conclusions. In just 133 pages, she has managed to probe some of the most pressing and complex issues that face our modern societies, and encouraged a crucial re-evaluation of norms that we hardly question. The Employees is entirely unique in its strangeness. It is unnerving, dark, and at times, difficult to process. Yet hope is instilled in the differences that still remain between ourselves and the workers on the Six-Thousand Ship. For the time being at least, we still have our home, and the freedom to choose differently.