While the most recent leg of our International Booker Prize longlist journey involved a quiet drive into the countryside, today sees us embarking on a much more ambitious expedition, possibly the most expansive in the prize’s history. While it’s cold outside, there is an atmosphere of sorts, and we’re certainly not alone, with about six thousand other intrepid adventurers for company. But if nobody can hear you scream in space, that’s probably because nobody’s listening, so luckily today’s choice rectifies that oversight. Do you have something you need to get off your chest? Come this way…
The Employees by Olga Ravn
– Lolli Editions, translated by Martin Aitken
(digital review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
In the twenty-second century, far from Earth, a vessel known as the Six-Thousand Ship is on a Star Trek like voyage of enquiry, seeking out new worlds and lifeforms. The ship eventually finds a planet dubbed New Discovery, and on exploring its surface, the crew find strange objects, unmoving yet undoubtedly showing signs of life. The objects are taken back to the ship and placed in rooms, ready for analysis.
And that’s where the reader joins the mission of The Employees, a book very different to how it might sound from that first paragraph. In fact, Ravn’s novel is a fairly short work made up of a number of statements given by those on board the ship, all of them taken from one-on-one interviews with an anonymous (and silent) observer, there to get feedback from the titular employees and ensure that the mission is running smoothly. Spoiler alert – it really isn’t.
Ravn’s novel is not what you’d expect from the Booker longlist, with SFF usually conspicuous by its absence. However, there’s a lot more to the book than a mere tale of space exploration. The writer is using the isolated setting to explore several themes, with the focus shifting slightly as the statements pile up.
The full title (The Employees: a workplace novel of the 22nd century) pushes the reader into seeing the novel as a futuristic take on the world of work, and there are certainly elements of that. The interview format will be familiar to anyone who has worked at a large company and been asked to talk to an outside consultant, with the supposedly neutral observer offering workers an opportunity to air grievances. Many of the staff do just this, while others simply reminisce about life back home, but there are a few (as is the case in any company) who are slightly more reticent, and cynical, not trusting the anonymous interviewer.
In truth, though, The Employees is less about life in the workplace and more about life in general, with particular emphasis on what it means to be human. The first few statements focus on the objects found on New Discovery and the effect they have on the crew’s mood, yet it soon becomes clear that we can’t really talk about the crew as a homogenous entity. A distinction soon emerges between humans and humanoids, the born and the grown, and they approach the interviews rather differently, showing different emotions and needs. Many of the human crew members are struggling with homesickness, knowing they’ll never see Earth again, while the humanoids are attempting to work out their place in the universe:
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.
p.87 (Lolli Editions, 2020)
Once they start to think beyond their immediate task, these humanoids wonder whether they have a function, or reason for existing, outside work.
At the heart of The Employees, then, is the question as to what it means to be human. The objects are the catalyst for an existential crisis, causing human and humanoid workers alike to reflect on life and wonder what it’s all about. The two groups, forced to work together every day, reflect here on their co-workers. Some of the humans find the humanoids strange but useful; some become attracted to their colleagues, while others are repulsed. Conversely, the humanoids are fascinated by the humans, wanting to know more about their nostalgia, and what drives them:
My human co-worker 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? (p.33)
It’s not giving too much away to say that the conclusions are rarely cheerful, and that the humanoids start to find their lot slightly unfair.
The most notable feature of Ravn’s novel is its intriguing format of statements, which provide a steady drip-feed of information for the reader to make sense of. With the exception of a brief introduction, and some wrap-up sections, we are told nothing about the identity of the questioner, and can only guess any questions from the responses given. This is made even more difficult by the short nature of the sections – the longest runs to two pages or so, the shortest just a couple of sentences, and slightly enigmatic at times:
Cadet 12 wears this headgear with black leather fringes hanging down over her face. None of us can work out if it’s a punishment or a distinction. (p.52)
It’s undoubtedly well structured, and Aitken (translator of, among many other books, Hanne Ørstavik’s Love) does his usual superb work in keeping the voices distinct (and the reader interested) through more than a hundred statements.
Whether you classify The Employees as a space oddity or a mass therapy session, it’s fair to say that Ravn’s book is an intriguing work, a mix between Alien and The Office, with a bit of Cocoon thrown in for good measure. In some ways, it’s a very familiar story, though, and the conclusion is certainly clear. As with any survey, the employers here will find that the answers you get may not be those you were looking for.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I don’t think so. The Employees is certainly something a little different, and full marks to the official judges for having the courage to put an SFF book on the longlist. However, despite the interesting premise, Ravn’s story never really grabbed me, probably because of the format of a multitude of short monologues. With few of the interviews filling more than a page, it made for a very stop-start reading experience, and it was clear early on where the story was heading. It was fun while it lasted, but for me the journey stops here.
Will it make the shortlist?
Again, probably not. The Employees is a little slight, and I can’t imagine the judges will put this forward as one of their final six. While it fits in with the panel’s interest in unusually structured stories, I suspect this will be the end of the road for the Six-Thousand Ship.
After a few days lost in space, we finally make it to Scandinavia, with the next leg of the trip taking us to Sweden. We’ll be slowing down the pace with a nice walk, but if things are calm and gentle on the outside, inside our host’s mind things are very different indeed. Drugs, violence and classical music – it’s fair to say that at times life can certainly be, well, you know…