The Employees, a workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn, reviewed by Titus Chalk

Powerful men like to send things into space. Perhaps the darkness between the stars is the proximity to godliness they seek. Perhaps they want simply to untether themselves from Earth and its trifling concerns like workers’ rights. There is something of both these ideas in Olga Ravn’s latest novel, published in Danish in 2018, before its translation to English last year (by Lolli Editions in 2020 in the UK) and shortlisting for the international Booker Prize. Ravn’s powerful man is not Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson, but Dr. Lund, a shadowy presence throughout this formally inventive novel. Lund is the man behind a race of “humanoids”—fleshy bodies birthed from pods to be the perfect worker, with an artificial intelligence that may also be granting them something like consciousness in space’s endless night.

This, of course, can be a problem. Especially for a company hell-bent on exploiting both humans and humanoids, well away from terrestrial confines. The crew of the Six-Thousand Ship, a bizarre collection of anodyne rooms on an undefined cosmic mission, is riven by the humanoids’ burgeoning self-awareness. Exploration of the planet New Discovery, and the retrieval of mysterious “objects,” have catalyzed the conflict. The objects now populate the ship’s recreation rooms and give off a strange, mesmeric energy. One humanoid describes it thus: “The fragrance in the room has four hearts. None of these hearts is human, and that’s why I’m drawn towards them.” Another says, “The first fragrance in the room is a delicate one. It’s right there as soon as you walk in: citrus fruit, or the stone of a peach […] I find it very erotic.” The objects’ allure (they may even be alive) inspires these poignant, lyrical confessions, and Ravn turns to smell to bring these moments alive. Smell is, paradoxically, the sense that evokes mortality, the possibility of decay, an end to the organic, even when hermetically sealed in a tin can hurtling through space. It is often credited as the postmodern sense: it returns the body’s fleshy reality to the cerebral, the absurd, the fragmented—in short, texts just like Ravn’s.

Why might death be lurking, though? There is a bubbling conflict aboard the ship, which thankfully lends momentum to the novel’s poetic meanderings, once it hardens around halfway through. Like most of the book, it reaches us in the form of oral history. Ravn breaks her narrative into short, numbered “statements”; snippets of interviews conducted by functionaries dispatched to the ship to investigate the objects’ influence on the crew. There is something absurd to this—the export of Human Resources protocols and language to the depths of space—and Ravn extracts no little satire from foreshadowing the privatised space Bezos, Branson, Elon Musk et al would have us believe is mankind’s next great leap. The formal choice highlights the alienation on board, too: Ravn shows us the way the managerial class wants its workers; as isolated voices, competing rather than cooperating. Perhaps this is why the investigators stress they are on an observation mission rather than an intervention (initially at least): They are more than happy to witness the humanoids split from their crew mates, eating together in the canteen for example, ignoring even humans of whom they had grown fond, as long as the “work flow” does not suffer. Workers divided among themselves are fine by the board of directors.

Most of the ship’s humans are supine, too (“I’m sure I’m not the only one to appreciate your visit,” one tells the investigators). Certainly, all have taken a role as a cog inside a flying perpetual motion machine. The crew’s only mission, before the objects appeared, seems to have been the tending of so-called “bio-draperies”—mysterious organic curtains, each with their own idiosyncrasy. These workers are Mark Fisher’s capitalist-realists par excellence—socialized to see no other alternative than performing work-like actions on an infinite mission, which they know will last until their deaths. One workers’ statement sums up this predicament: “We put on our suits and carry out the movements,” he says, Charlie Chaplin tightening bolts in space.

The same worker, who is falling for a humanoid co-worker, also says, “We want to escape from here, but not to escape each other, so this place is our only option.” That is until New Discovery and its crop of objects. This utopia, and the influence of its humming, glowing, odorous artefacts, provokes a powerful yearning in the humans, who miss Earth. But who perhaps also want something different to the pervasive capitalism that rules their lives. If the end of the Cold War robbed us Earthlings of any tangible political alternative (whatever the crimes of actually existing socialism), consolidating the neo-liberal consensus’ stranglehold, New Discovery, lush and untrammeled, invites its explorers to dream of another world, another system. Only the (literal) construction of race prevents them from finding common ground on what that might be—with disastrous consequences for all concerned.

Ravn’s workplace satire and parable for Earth-bound classes is a timely read, those billionaires burning rocket fuel as fast as possible in their bid to look down on us all. There is a pleasing purpose, too, to her gestalt. Its splintering of the story feels quintessentially postmodern; its atomization of the Ship’s crew agonizingly bleak. The accumulation of first-person narratives robs us of scene—and in that respect, that lack of much interaction, the text feels haunted by the possibility of a first-person plural, a “we” that might have been. The desire for connection between human and humanoid, thwarted by capital’s prerogatives. It is a tragic takeaway from a tragic book. Unfortunately, it is also a book that can feel dry and humorless at times—the satire so close to the bone as to be barely perceptible. A Danish friend tells me the book is funny in the original language, so it is unclear if a) I lack a sense of humor, b) My sense of humor is different from his—or there are wider culture differences in what constitutes humor or c) that something has been lost in Martin Aitken’s otherwise limpid translation. In any case, anyone expecting a riot, should probably steer clear. Or perhaps turn to someone like George Saunders, an author who marries clever craft, leftist politics and speculative story-telling with a spoonful of humor that helps the medicine go down.

Ravn’s work here is certainly admirable and we are lucky to have another voice join the English-language canon (this is the first of her novels to appear in translation). Whether the formal invention here—an immersion in the ship and its voices somewhat akin to the Lea Guldditte Hestelund installations that inspired the story—will be enough to excite most of us is debatable. But there is intention and substance here in spades (in space?), even if I yearned for more connective tissue and a brisker pace, especially at the novel’s start. We are in Solaris territory here, not Star Wars. And while the mundanity of the star-trekking life proposed here is grinding in all the ways 22nd-century space capitalism almost certainly will be, a dash of levity, a colorful blaster burst or sabre swipe, might have lit up this story on its grim death-drift through the interstellar darkness.

The Employees, by Olda Ravn. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. New York, NY: New Directions, February 2022. 144 pages. $19.95, hardcover.

Titus Chalk is a British writer based in the US. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Nimrod and the Peauxdunque Review. He is also the author of Generation Decks (Solaris, 2017), a history of the fantasy game Magic: The Gathering. He has an MFA from the University of Kentucky and can be found on Twitter at: @tituschalk.

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