Only Human

The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century by olga ravn, translated from danish by Martin aitken. new york: new directions. 144 pages. $20.

The cover of The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century

IN STORIES ABOUT INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL, space usually wins out over time. The accounting of minutes and hours is too petty, too human, for the vast distance between one star and another; some genres just won’t accommodate the clockface. This is true of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in which mad astronauts prove incapable of distinguishing between past and present, as well the Swedish poem and film Aniara, about a spaceship destined for a future of endless drift—which is to say, no future at all. Few places are as interminable as outer space, which urgently raises the question of where one is while rendering the natural follow-up—for how long?—moot. (Hell is another.)

Olga Ravn’s The Employees is a fine take on this dystopian problem. Ravn’s novel of space travel and labor unrest is set in the not-too-distant future, which is as bleak as you might imagine. Here, there is only the Six Thousand Ship (a vessel carrying a crew of workers) and New Discovery (the planet it orbits). The ship is undergoing an internal audit—corporate bureaucracy being its own timeless premise—because its employees have taken to acting strangely; they’re lying down in the middle of tasks, whispering conspiratorially in the canteen. Ravn’s novel is a record of their explanatory “statements” to the authorities, with the transcripts presented, fittingly, out of chronological order.

Separated from quaint, earthly time, the crew initially adheres to Six Thousand’s on-board schedule, but it is soon apparent that the capitalist workday is just as disorienting as a total temporal vacuum. “It’s impossible to maintain any sense of direction,” one worker complains. For the reader, too, time functions like a loose knob, to be rolled and fiddled with desultorily; you can read The Employees according to pagination or statement number, but the ending never changes, a narrative deadlock that Ravn pulls off with grace. Readers can only guess which character is behind which statement, a situation further complicated by the fact that some members of the crew are humanoids rather than “born” humans. Uploaded with software perfected across generations, these machine laborers turn querulously to their overlords for explanation: “Could I be a human if you called me one?”

Many of the transcripts share this anxious tone, with speakers deliberating over what it means to be alive. In this workplace, imposter syndrome is ontological: The humanoids seem real, but what is a body that will never die? The humans are mortal, but what is death without a sense of time? Finally, all crew members must work, which means they lack the freedom that would make any semblance of humanity meaningful. The mood of their statements is arbitrariness cut with a despairing sense of inevitability—less a narration than a frightening drone of increasing volume and derangement. Which sounds like a bad thing, until one realizes how hard it is to affect the two qualities at once: how quickly the inevitable overrides the arbitrary, as in allegory, or the arbitrary outmodes the inevitable, as in postmodernism. Ravn gives us both.

Because of this, as well as its use of the anachronism “ship,” The Employees feels close to Greek mythology. Like the figures of an epic, the workers seem composed of equal parts fate and randomness, automation and rebellion. The actual business of the Six Thousand Ship is nevertheless wholly modern: resource extraction, as employees make occasional excursions to harvest commodities known only as “objects.” These soon come to derail—delightfully—both the ship’s functioning and its crew’s philosophizing.

Ravn originally wrote what became The Employees for the artist Lea Guldditte Hestelund, to accompany her 2018 solo show in Copenhagen. The sculptor gave the writer glimpses of her work; in response, Ravn composed “little testimonies” that eventually morphed into autonomous fiction. Ravn’s readers can find photos of Hestelund’s leather and marble curiosities online, but looking would be cheating. In The Employees, the point of the objects is their mystery. A rare physical description of one is ventured in the groping tone of a concussion victim: “The cords are long,” and there is “a strap made out of calf-colored leather with prominent white stitching. What color is a calf, actually? I’ve never seen one.”

The objects intercept and disturb what seems initially like a typical sci-fi paradigm—human versus machine, rebels versus despots. They are strange entities that “multiply whenever they like, in bunches and clusters.” This prompts the same slow-burn horror one feels looking at an ant farm, a skin rash, or the dizzying holes of a pumice stone: those flush and self-generative patterns that Georges Bataille refers to in Eroticism as “biological disorder” and the “ferment of life.” Ravn’s book burrows into this notion, examining the way life can seem mindless, even robotic, in its imperative to grow. One employee dreams of “hundreds of black seeds in my skin . . . when I scratch at them they get caught up under my nails like fish eggs.” In lines like this, Ravn accomplishes a body horror that far surpasses most films of the type. 

The usual categories that demarcate life from non-life are bent and skewed under the influence of the objects. Crew members coddle them, and draw potentially subversive comparisons. One worker, perhaps in their thrall, remembers what it was like—prior to her job on the ship—to be a mother: “When the child puts its mouth to my breast, I was both a body and an object to it. When the milk squirted, I was both the milk and not the milk.” What is normally taken as the sine qua non of human authenticity—motherhood and sexual reproduction—becomes something weirder, passive, and perhaps more faithful to the experience of making and giving life. In Ravn’s telling, humanity is sometimes as mute and yielding as objecthood, especially when steered between the trammels of a workday. Objecthood, meanwhile, can be the animating force behind everything. 

Zoe Hu is a writer and PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center.