Who needs to read 700 hundred pages of Red Mars when you can just read Olga Ravn’s 130 pages and get almost the same thing + extra existential anxiety?
The Employees is a series of statements from the inhabitants of the Six-Thousand Ship, some of them humans, the others humanoids – the not-so-different grown and made. All of them are here to work. We never actually get to know what it is they are working, but the corporate language and attitude towards work are enough: the content of the work is not relevant, it is work that matters. It is also work that brings humans and humanoids in close proximity. But what is it that tells them apart? The documents that clearly state whether they’re humans or not – because we know documents are the ones to be trusted, bureaucracy has never failed us. The possibility of death without regeneration, without being put in a different body. Are these enough to convey someone’s humanity? And what’s so great about humanity after all when programming can get you the work done just as well? There are some hints, it might be the human ability to innovate, to go outside the program and find something new, it might be the emotions, falling in love, what could be greater?
I like him, this human coworker of mine, his interface is impressive. I’m stronger than him, and have more endurance, but sometimes he’ll get an idea that means we can do our job in less than the designated time. He’s got an incredible knack for streamlining, from which I gladly learn. I’ve become a lot better myself at seeing how a workflow can be adjusted so that the task at hand can be completed more efficiently. This has surprised me rather a lot, because I’ve never known such improvements in my performance without an update being involved. Whenever we save time, I’m ready to move on to the next task straight away, but my coworker always says, Now let’s sit for a bit.
As the statements unfold, human and humanoid become categories that do not portray actual differences, but classes. The humans have walked the Earth, the humanoids haven’t. It’s the humans that designed and programmed the humanoids. It’s the humans that should be in charge. The humanoids are genuinely fascinated by humans, like seeing something they have yet to become. The humans are almost afraid of the humanoids, due to the possibility of the same becoming. Then there’s the reader (human or humanoid? who even knows at this point?), unable to tell apart the two categories, too entangled in their own desires and fears.
When the crew brings on the ship a series of strange objects from the planet New Discovery another layer is revealed: humans (or not only?) become almost obsessed with some of these weirdly named objects that sometimes look like earthly objects and sometimes look or smell like nothing familiar. These objects feel to the members of the crew like the most alive things on the ship – it is the objects that are alive, it is the humans and humanoids that are the objects caught under an abstract spell. Is it the unknown or just the need to feel attachment towards something?
On top of everything else, the language used is at times very poetic and makes use of all the senses, in particular the smell. For me, it’s very difficult to imagine a smell from a description made up just of adjectives so I make use of my own synesthetic associations that probably aren’t matching with Olga Ravn’s intentions. But that’s the fun. Also what if with every book came some perfume that was made to match it? I hold no copyright over this idea so please, someone, anyone, make it a thing!
The Employees seems to pose a multitude of questions and dilemmas, both philosophical (mostly metaphysical) and political. It’s the condition of workers that unites the two categories, but work is such an insidious concept, as we already know: some hate it, some define themselves through it, some are utterly indifferent towards it. Work is political. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but as I’m writing this in 2022, it definitely is. The book opens these questions, what are our answers?
I believe in the future. I think you need to imagine a future and then live in it.