The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn
“My human coworker 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? Where would your food come from? Who would keep you company? How would you get by without work and without your coworkers?”
Set in the near future on a workplace spaceship, The Employees explores what it means to be a human, particularly in the context of work. The novel is told in a series of statements from employees to a shadowy “committee,” designed to help them “gain knowledge of local workflows and to investigate possible impacts of the objects, as well as the ways those impacts, or perhaps relationships, might give rise to permanent deviations in the individual employee.” These mysterious “objects” have been found on planet New Discovery, and are having a strange effect on the employees of Spaceship Sixteen.
In the novel, Ravn poses that this sort of antiseptic, sterile, quotidian, routine “life” is not really living at all. The rich, emotional context of the mysterious “objects” shows that real life is weird, emotional, and messy. Through the unsettling and inexplicable impacts of these objects on both humans and humanoids alike, the employees come to question both their humanity and (much to the committee’s chagrin) their work.
The story is told sparingly through different employees’ workplace impact statements. This stylistic choice juxtaposes the seeming normalcy of a working life with the brutality the world of employment can mask, and thus shines a light on the true horror of work in a capitalist society. “Shopping had a kind of numbing effect on me, and now that it’s no longer something I do, I’ve started having thoughts and feelings that turned out to be sad.”
Corporate lingo in the context of the bizarre events taking place on the spaceship seems sinister and frightening. Even scarier is the total focus on productivity even in face of tragedy, offering a brutal satire on rise and grind culture. “Why do I have all these thoughts if the job I’m doing is mainly technical? Why do I have these thoughts if the reason I’m here is primarily to increase production? From what perspective are these thoughts productive? Was there an error in the update? If there was, I’d like to be rebooted.”
The Employees is, at its core, about what distinguishes us as human. Ravn uses visceral, synesthetic language when describing the objects. They are more than just material. Being human is shown to be sensory and emotional, human-ness is seen as an intangible but important quality, somehow different from artificial intelligence. But humans and humanoids have to come together to overthrow the true evil of work, as work is what separates us from humanness. “This is not a human, but a coworker.”The Employees’ subtitle, A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century, offers a wry view of the implications of capitalism on our future. The novel takes place on a spaceship and has both human and humanoid characters, but at its essence, it is, like all good sci-fi, a story about what it means to be living in our reality. “I like being alive. I look out at the endless deep outside the panorama windows. I see a sun. I burn the way the sun burns. I know without a doubt that I’m real. I may have been made, but now I’m making myself.”
Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.