The Employees [2018/2020] – ★★★★
“You know the name you were given, you do not know the name that you have.” Jose Saramago
This book, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021, focuses on our distant dystopian future and on the Six-Thousand Ship, a space vessel on an exploration mission into space. When the crew stops to explore a previously unknown planet named New Discovery, they take certain live “objects” on board with them. Little the crew suspects that these objects will have a powerful, unforeseen effect on each member of the personnel onboard, and that means on both humans and humanoid robots. Composed entirely of (increasingly disturbing) statements given by the employees on the Six-Thousand Ship, The Employees by Danish author Olga Ravn may have a rather “boring” title, but this book is anything but that. Probably influenced in some way by both Lem’s sci-fi Solaris  and the fiction of Philip K. Dick, The Employees offers a visceral, uncanny reading experience.
The reader has to piece together the story through the individual statements given by numerous employees of the Six-Thousand Ship. This means we have to find out what happened on the ship through the impressions of others and get to know the curious “objects” only through the peculiar effect they exercised on the crew. Though the statements aim to be objective, they end up to be more like personal diaries of crew members. We find out that the objects collected on New Discovery are alive, enigmatic, fascinating, and that their appearance varies. They emit a strange hum and display a sense of unity: “It’s as if at any time, one of them can always be the others. As if they don’t actually exist on their own, but only in the idea of each other…The language is that they’re many, that they’re not one, that one of them is the reiteration of all of them” [Ravn/Aitken, 2018/2020: 14], writes one employee. “I look at them and I see us. I name them one by one, and in each case I utter my own name…What you call made is your own work. What you call found, discovered, is your own point of origin” [Ravn/Aitken, 2018/2020: 125], writers another.
There is a theme in this book of impersonal environment focused on productivity alone vs. deep, primitive feelings. Like in Lem’s Solaris, major problems soon emerge on the space ship. The trouble seems to come from the objects, but the problems they are causing prove elusive. For starters, the objects have the effect of producing in the employees a sense of erotic or romantic longing, tapping into the crew members’ dreams and eliciting emotional cravings: “All of us here are condemned to a dream of romantic love, even though no one I know loves in that way, or lives that kind of a life [Ravn/Aitken, 2018/2020: 20]. It is as though the conquest happens from within, and, soon, the employees are growing deeply attached to the objects. And, what is more worrying, each member of the crew, whether human or humanoid, thinks that a certain object has established a personal, intimate connection with them alone or signifies something important and deep for them alone: “There’s something familiar about them, even if you’ve never seen them before. As if they came from our dreams, or some distant past we carry deep inside us, like a recollection without language” [Ravn/Aitken, 2018/2020: 41], writes one employee. As the employees experience something which they cannot coherently put into words, they start using metaphors, putting down strange sentences, some of which concern themselves with smells and fragrances, another feature of the objects: “The fragrance in the room has will and intention” or “The fragrance in the room has four hearts” [2018/2020: 31, 20], they write.
The difference between human employees and humanoid employees on the ship soon becomes apparent and the two groups start to respond slightly differently to the objects, as it is evident from the following statement: “To us [humans], the objects are like an artificial postcard from Earth. To them [humanoids], they’re a postcard from the future”. Humanoid employees on the ship soon experience one strange-to-them concept – that of actually living or being alive. Similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara & the Sun , a curious insight is also sometimes offered by Ravn into the mind of a humanoid or a robot. Similar to the fiction of Philip K. Dick, a contrast is drawn between humans and the machines or other organisms that resemble and imitate humans, and a complex, uneasy relationship between the two emerges. Early on in the story, humanoid employees start to question their makers, whereas human employees start experiencing nostalgia for their distant past on planet Earth. One of the points of Olga Ravn in this book may be the irony of discovering one’s true identity by going so far away from home and by interacting with previously unknown species, i.e. rediscovering one’s humanity, home, etc. through “foreignness”.
Since the book is written solely through the statements given by the employees to the workplace commission, the novel has a feel of a real documentary material that tries to state the truth and not fantasy. Ravn’s clear, unadorned prose (translation by Martin Aitken) helps to persuade the reader that every sentence may in fact hide some deeper meaning and truth to be probably discovered in the next sentence or statement. The less is stated, the more seems to be implied, especially concerning the mysterious objects collected on New Discovery. I probably wanted to see more plot development and less repetition in the statements and the other negative is that this short book cannot help but lack in substance in some way.
The verdict is that The Employees’s unusual narrative structure presents a fascinating dystopian world that is hard to forget, as the book also touches on such themes as the meaning of being alive, ruthless productivity for the greater good vs. personal connections/fulfilment and colonialism.