Review: The Employees, a workplace novel of the 22nd century – Olga Ravn

Spoiler alert – this article includes spoilers of the novel, if you’re looking to read it unspoiled do not proceed.

The 2021 International Booker Prize shortlisted novel has received much deserved attention for its sensory and tactile language which creates the world of the Six Thousand Ship, a workplace comprised of human and humanoid crew. There are some beautiful juxtapositions between sterility and vitality, ontology and bureaucracy, and these contradictions create an eeriness and uncanniness which kept me completely enthralled with the text but on edge. The book is short enough that I didn’t get tired of that feeling, this work is easily readable in one sitting.

But one of the aspects of the work which I found particularly intriguing was that of form: the novella is comprised of witness statements as part of an organisational investigation. What that does, in practical terms, is gives Ravn the freedom of discrete statements, each one able to start the story anew, building layers and switching tone as often as the work requires. It almost becomes reminiscent of a flash-fiction exercise on a theme. It is also well suited to the circulation around the space in which the objects reside, and it came as no surprise to me to find out (retrospectively, after finishing the book) that the concept had originated from pieces which acted as spoken word accompaniments to a 2017 exhibition for a sculptor, Lea Guldditte Hestelund. I imagine it worked very well to enhance the visual experience, though I would also say I enjoyed visually creating weird objects and smells from the poetic descriptions provided, for me that was an element of the fun of the book.

The form also allows the workers on board the Six-Thousand ship to pivot around the text and I thought it a very interesting way to portray the opposite of omnipresence: a gesture towards the unknowable phenomenon of experience. It also created a not unconvincing facsimile of workplace investigations, heightening the sinister enjoyment (dark humour!) when the Board of Directors take the decision to “Biologically Terminate” the Six Thousand Ship to preserve the vessel and its cargo. The unrelenting mechanics of process leading to evaluation and outcome and the obliging nature of the loyal crew is stark. The humanoid crew seem primarily complicit with their own extermination because they know will regenerate – though containing echoes of myths around the afterlife, this is a logical conclusion for these characters to make: their regeneration has been designed into them. However, the organisational loyalty of the human crew is less linear and more diverse, but with a connecting thread: obsessive worship of the objects. The humans worry about what will happen to the objects after they are exterminated, they worry about the “wellbeing of the objects” – the last statement from a human which is not about the objects is obedient and compliant, but ultimately he does not know what to say. The humans are subservient to the objects (and to their mission of transporting the objects) to the point that they’ve lost themselves. Or have they? They still place meaning in their roles as keepers of the objects.

The waves of ontological paradox within the landscape of bureaucratic cogs asks us questions about meaning and value, the meaning of work and how it relates to our sense of selves, and what might be at stake when we defer our meaning to an organisational meaning. It is definitely an interesting world to explore.

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