The Employees: a workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn (2020)
- Beautifully poetic prose
- Very little plot
(understood at the end if you stick with it)
- Not your classic sci-fi
The Employees is a Danish text (translated by Martin Aitken) which reads like poems, written as statements from employees on a spaceship sent to a new planet to investigate the Objects they find there.
The novel opens with a disclaimer, explaining that the statements were collected over 18 months, interviews to find how employees relate to objects and rooms, which have been shown to ‘give rise to permanent deviations in the individual employee’. Such an ominous opening jumps straight into Statement 004, where one of the employees describes an Object for the first time – which have been explained to be loosely based on the sculptural installations of Lea Guldditte Hestelund, a visual artist based in Copenhagen, which were made to be ‘not really human, but still living’. It takes until Statement 031 on Page 33-34 before you realise that some of the employees aren’t human. As the statements continue, it becomes clearer the difference between humans and humanoids – before becoming harder to tell them apart, especially when the only different between them is ‘those who were born’ and who die, and those who don’t.
Beautifully written in a deft and poetic language, the dreams and thoughts of the employees are very sensory and often a bit disorientating. However, as the humans start to remember earth, the imagery is more known and striking. Dealing with themes of humanity and the home contrasting against corporate isolation and connection, it is clear this novel was written by a poet.
However, there is some aspects that make this a science fiction. The plot (there is a plot, just hang in there!) that develops through the statements, through the reader’s connection of these statements to form individual characters and their progression, emerges the classic sci-fi trope of android, in this case humanoid, revolt against their masters. The safety of a classic sci-fi plot within such a uniquely written novel is very expertly done.
Coined as a ‘science-fiction satire on corporate language’, it has been likened to the greats such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Arrival for its use of a favourite trope: the discovery of an alien artefact that defies human comprehension, and likened to Jeff VanderMeer’s novels about mutation and nonhuman sentience. Ultimately, its praise is clearly shown in its nominations for multiple Book of the Year and reviewers picks, long- and short-listings for prizes including the International Booker Prize 2021. The Employees is definitely an extraordinary addition to the sci-fi genre, expanding not just on important themes, but redefining the genre with poetic language. While this novel might not be for everyone, it’s a must-read for any sci-fi readers out there looking to be taken on a strange, visual journey.
In an interview with the publisher, Ravn admitted to being ‘very interested in the idea of life. Something that is alive but not human.’ The idea of the novel was a commission for a sculpture, Lea Guldditte Hestelund as mentioned above (see website here: http://www.leagulddittehestelund.dk/) where she was to make notes on the pieces and scatter them around the exhibition room. When Ravn found she had too much material, and even started to invent Objects herself before they were created, she knew it was to become a novel – and was published a mere month later as a novel.
Ravn said her main themes for the Objects as that of the egg, representing reproduction, with aspects of trypophobia, to use the contrasting emotions of attraction and repulsion. The novel is said to be ‘deeply sensory […] suffused with aroma and alert to tactility’ which is clear you understand that the exhibition itself had a perfumer to involve all the senses. She said to do this as a way of ‘using art as a way of relating to the world, relating to each other to make it liveable, to make it bearable to be alive.’ With the title and main plot of the novel is being the employees, there is an aspect of the workers being ‘awakened’ by the objects, ‘in a way that only art can make you’.
Ravn’s background is poetry, ‘attuned to structure, concision, and lyricism in ways only a poet could be’ which ‘reads like a dramatic text, a collection of monologues that could also very well be prose poems’. However, the language isn’t the only standout in this novel, also evoking strong emotions and themes of transhumanism, sentience and the nature of humanity; what is the meaning of happiness and the exploration of inner lives; and reduction of corporate jargon as a ‘critique of a life governed by the logic of productivity’.
Inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin and her essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, Ravn wanted to create something that ‘looks if it’s more like a bag than a straightforward narrative’. This is something she definitely achieved, the statements being chronological but not all statements shown, however the multiple characters not designated creates confusion. This ‘polyphonic’ use of characterisation means some characters can be deducted by the plot or their tone, others will remain a mystery to the common reader, which seems to be Ravn’s purpose. Deemed as ‘multiple, oscillating perspectives in a singular, vacuum-sealed setting’.
Ravn has said that ‘there was a point I wanted to make, that you are sort of lost in space at the beginning of the book.’ Similar to other science fiction, she uses the ‘found’ text idea similar to Ursula Le Guin and H.P. Lovecraft, which she deems as ‘true to science fiction tradition’, and she does deem the novel as a science fiction, though some might have some more commentary on the genre boundaries.
The setting and plot is clearly a science fiction, if you look at the spaceship, new planet to investigate, with android / humanoid workers onboard. Ravn said she wanted to create an android-type character, a ‘thing’ to relate to and identify with. The humans on board the ship struggle with the humanoids, especially when the employees focus on the topic of death and the self. One says ‘I’ve got nothing against death. […] What frightens me is what doesn’t die and never changes form. That’s why I’m proud of being a human.’, while another suggests that it’s ‘dangerous […] for an organisation not to be sure which of the objects in its custody may be considered to be living’. Both of these suggest that there is some unease between the humans and humanoids, however similarities and friendship also, such as in Statement 031.
Simultaneously trying to be relatable and alienating, the setting is isolated and lonely, ‘to be set in a space that was completely cut off from Earth, completely confined, with no exits.’ She deals with large themes such as humanity and the home, ‘We as humans are very connected to the earth, the planet, but also the soil. The book experiments with the idea of what happens if we remove people or humans from their land. It leads to a sense of loss and to motion-sickness.’ This stark contrast with the familiar and unfamiliar is one of the reasons science fiction works so well and Ravn does so masterfully, said to be ‘as exhilarating as it is foreboding’, ‘reshuffles a sci-fi voyage into a riotously original existential nightmare’, ‘capable of building a sense of existential horror one minute then quotidian comfort and private grief the next’.
The aspect of a humanoid revolt is not particularly unique for a science fiction, the way Ravn handles the tropes is very masterful, and the ending is wonderfully done. The classic antagonism between humans and nonhuman machines, the lack of ability to tell them apart, is subverted as one of the employee states, ‘I don’t know if I’m human anymore. Am I human? Does it say in your files what I am?’. The humanoids struggle with the concept of work, ‘A person is more than their work? […] But what else could a person be? […] Would you be left standing in a cupboard?’ This is an interesting concept, and a very relatable way for the reader to understand the revolt – they ‘seek to overthrow the reign of work, rather than the reign of humans’. Similar to Philip K Dick’s ‘hyper-capitalist system, pointing out the ways in which representations of the android body are inseparable from the corporations that produce them.’ – it makes even humanoids relatable to the reader, to feeling reliance towards employers and therefore subservient. Allowing the familiarity of such tropes, but writing in such a unique way.
References:  Olga Ravn, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century (London: Lolli Editions, 2020), pg.11.  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam ‘Reading with the Mouth: A Conversation with Olga Ravn’ Lolli Editions (2021) <https://www.lollieditions.com/lolli-in-conversation/reading-with-the-mouth> [accessed 31 March 2023].  Olga Ravn, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, pg.26.  Justine Jordan, ‘The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn review – “Am I human?”’, The Guardian 2021 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/may/12/the-employees-a-workplace-novel-of-the-22nd-century-by-olga-ravn-review-am-i-human> [accessed 13 March 2023].  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  Justine Jordan, 2021.  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  Sophia Stewart, ‘Humanoid Resources in Space: Olga Ravn’s The Employees’, Tor.com 2022 <https://www.tor.com/2022/02/15/book-reviews-the-employees-by-olga-ravn/> [accessed 13 March 2023].  Sophia Stewart, 2022.  Lolli Editions.  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  Booker Prizes.  Sophia Stewart, 2022.  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  Olga Ravn, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, pg.37-38.  Olga Ravn, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, pg.42.  Olga Ravn, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, pg.33-34.  Booker Prizes.  Olga Ravn in Rosie Ellison-Balaam, Lolli Editions (2021).  ‘The Employees A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn’, Lolli Editions <https://www.lollieditions.com/books/the-employees> [accessed 13 March 2023].  ‘The Employees’, ND Books <https://www.ndbooks.com/book/the-employees/> [accessed 13 March 2023].  Booker Prizes <https://thebookerprizes.com/the-booker-library/books/the-employees> [accessed 13 March 2023].  Olga Ravn, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, pg.22.  Olga Ravn, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, pg.33.  Lauren Nelson, 2022.  Lauren Nelson, 2022.