Friday 30 July 2021


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The Employees by Olga Ravn       {Reviewed by STELLA}
Written as a series of worker statements, The Employees is one of the most intriguing novels I have read in a while. My interest was piqued by its format: a novel written in short statements based on a series of interviews to gauge worker contentment and their response to the cargo on board. Yes, it’s the future: the 22nd century to be exact and the crew of The Six-Thousand Ship are docked on planet New Discovery collecting specimens. These specimens, Objects, are having a profound effect on the crew, both the human and humanoid workers and the bureaucrats have been sent to record their statements and to gauge how the Objects are impacting the workflow and productivity of the crew—a typical corporate-world strategy: get the workers to explain themselves so a solution, probably not favourable to said workers, can be implemented. What unfolds in the 179 Statements is surprising. The Objects of New Discovery are both feared and loved; there are antagonisms, as well as attraction, between the humans and the humanoids; some of the humans are living in a nostalgic past lost in images — holographs of their children to dwell on —  and craving experiences of a long-lost Earth; and the humanoids are various, and their different upgrades have made some indistinguishable from the humans and increasingly independent, causing friction in their role, in particular, towards the Objects. Each interview and recorded statement reveals a little more to the reader, building a sense of this world. The ship has a mission and the crew set roles, yet somehow the Objects have upset this carefully tuned equilibrium. What these Objects are is never fully explained and I imagine for each reader they will present differently. Some are smooth, others colourful, yet others fine-haired, some produce eggs and are full of seeds. Are they large or small? They seem carry-able, and one of the workers describes sitting with one in his lap. The crew assume vastly different relationships with the Objects. It may be that the humanoids respond more positively, sensing some similarities in their ‘objectness’, while the humans find them more confusing, and some are repulsed by them. It is not always clear whether a statement is from a human or humanoid, adding to the obliqueness of the text. With Ravn’s choice of structure, you could imagine a staccato-like form, and while ‘business’ language and systems are apparent and the environment of the sterile ship evokes a science laboratory, the writing is in fact wonderfully compelling. She cleverly brings these recorded conversations into the realm of lyricism, with the workers' feelings and longings exposed, along with their pleasure and anger of their purpose. From the laundry staff to the captain to the doctor, each expresses their perspective. While some refuse to speak, rebelling against the Committee, others are relieved to unburden themselves. The Employees is a fascinating look at what constitutes a human, and what might be an object — where does sentience begin? — and are we ever really autonomous? An exquisite novel with depths of thought to lose, and find, yourself in.

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