The Employees

This year’s International Booker long list has not been shy about including all manner of forms and genres. Olga Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) is a case in point: a science fiction novel written as a series of witness statements. The novel is set on the Six-Thousand Ship which (some assumption is required here, as it is throughout the novel) has left Earth in search of new planets – see, for example, the planet New Discovery from which a number of objects have been taken to the ship. It is these objects which seem to have precipitated the crisis on board which is being investigated via the employee interviews, “with a view into gaining insight into how they related to the objects and the rooms in which they were placed.”

This is not a game in which the reader can guess the objects (see, for example, Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home). The employees’ feelings towards the objects are more important than what they are. In particular, many talk about the object as if they were alive, whether positively (“I talk to her while she rests”) or negatively (“The three on the floor seem especially hostile”). Many of the employees become attached to the objects:

“Your sending an object back to Homebase feels like having a tooth extracted, a tooth that was located in the chest.”

In any case, the objects seem to be a catalyst rather than a cause, disrupting the balance between the two categories of employees on the ship: humans and humanoids, and it is here we find Ravn’s real focus, allowing her to ask profound questions about what it is to be human. Some of the humanoids in their statements demonstrate a longing to be human:

“In the same place that she feels the longing for earth inside her, I feel a similar longing to be human.”

In the same statement, the speaker wonders, “Is it a question of name? Could I be human if you called me so?” A humanoid who has been told there are problems with their “emotional reaction pattern” wonders:

“Is this a human problem? If so, I’d like to keep it.”

At the same time, humans sense that humanoids possess advantages:

“We’re weighed down by the memories of where we come from and what we left behind.”

In a more humorous moment, a humanoid wonders, of their human co-worker’s habit of resting between tasks, “Perhaps it’s a an old custom from before my time?” As the novel progresses (though there is no real chronology until the end) the difference become more threatening:

“I don’t share the opinion of many of my co-workers that the only real solution would be to discontinue the human section of the crew.”

We learn that the human and human workers have begun to sit apart in the canteen.

Once we understand the issues Ravn is exploring we can see how skilfully she weaves then into then narrative. The question over whether the objects are living or not now becomes central to the experience of the crew:

“When the crew are dead, the objects will still be here, in the rooms, unaltered by our having come and gone. So you’re asking me: Does this make the objects bad? Do we blame them for their lack of sympathy?”

This statement, of course, applies to the humanoids as much as the objects. Ravn’s concern with what it means to be human also explains the frequent mention of dreams, something we would normally regard as a human attribute, but here experienced by the humanoids as well. Less obviously, the objects are often described by smell (“The fragrance in the room has will and intention.”), a sense we do not generally associate with machines. Finally, humans have access to holograms of children for morale:

“…the child hologram has without doubt helped stabilise me as an employee here, and I can see that it’s been beneficial to my work effort.”

This also touches on another concern, as evidenced by the title, the way in which humans are reduce to employees, and the dehumanising effect of that.

Just at the point you might feel The Employees will go no further than mediate on these topics through the medium of the witness statements, plot kicks in. In the final pages, events occur to further challenge the reader in their view of what it means to be human while at the same time providing a moving conclusion to the novel. The Employees is the essence of original and thought-provoking  and thoroughly deserves its place on the long list.

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9 Responses to “The Employees”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    Excellent! I’ve just ordered this one as I thought it sounded really interesting. Looking forward to it.

  2. fulcherkim Says:

    I really liked this

    A version of the objects can be seen here

    The novel was inspired by an art exhibition and originally formed part of the exhibit

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks for the link. I had read it was inspired by an exhibition but hadn’t realise how closely aligned with the exhibition its origins were. When I started reading I thought, in traditional s/f fashion, what the objects were would be important. I think the vagueness with which they are described enhances the general blurring (between human and humanoid).

  3. Radz Pandit Says:

    This is one novel on the longlist that has quite intrigued me. I do plan to buy it eventually even if it misses the shortlist.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s quite difficult to say whether it will make the shortlist – a lot people seem to like it, but it’s also an unusual pick in the first place – it feels like perhaps one judge has championed it.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    I saw your Twitter conversation with Frances yesterday, the one where you were saying how impressed you’d been by this novel. Isn’t it great when you get a surprise like this, something that seems to have come out of nowhere to set the longlist alight!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, this is largely why I like reading the long list – there’s usually at least one book you wouldn’t otherwise have picked up which surprises you.

  5. Books of the Year 2021 Part 3 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) was a surprise (and surprisingly popular) inclusion on the […]

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