[𝘐 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭 𝘢 𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘳 𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘨𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘩𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘯, 𝘢𝘴 𝘪𝘧 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘩𝘰𝘸 𝘐 𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺.]
I think the power of The Employees is its immediacy. The reader is drawn into the story almost as a character themselves as the crew of the Six Thousand Ship deliver you their statements in the form of a workplace commission. Some of the inhabitants of the Six Thousand Ship are are human, some are humanoid: built with human faces, implanted with memories of far-away Earth but programmed for functionality. The crew have retrieved a collection of objects from the planet New Discovery to which they begin to form deep attachments, leading them to explore their needs, explore their limits of self, where the definition of human begins and ends.
The Employees leaves so much to the imagination – you are brought into a world with little context: the spaceship is the entire world and its inhabitants have no prospect of return to Earth. The humanoids were birthed upon the ship; the humans dwell in memories of home, of family, of what they have left behind – however we are no told why, or what work they do. The objects are described vaguely: a colour, a scent, a shape, and it is up to the reader to respond to them. The story reaches a poignant equilibrium as the humans suffer the dehumanising effects of a life away from Earth devoted to labour, and the humanoids begin to deviate from their programming in their yearning to experience humanity. There is no one character with whom to connect, but in the nameless multitude of voices I think you find a one-ness, a blurring of the boundaries between human and not as the crew members grapple with what it is that defines humanity. Is it memory? Is it the ability to love? The capacity for self-determination? The need for purpose, connection, beyond the unending routine of work? It raises ethical questions about the shape our workforce is taking and about the future of AI: that a human cannot work like a machine, but also that a machine can’t be given thought, emotion, memory and treated as inhuman, as a utility. The story progresses in a slow unravelling as the crew grapple with the psychological effects of these issues.
I loved this book so much. I love science fiction that pushes the boundaries of the genre, and in 130 brief pages Olga Ravn creates such a sensory, poetic, profound metaphysical exposition. It presents a pressingly relevant issue as we drift as a species into strange new territories and ways of being. It makes me think about the capacity for exploitation in the work place (the pressures to meet impossible hourly targets leading to high injury rates in t Amazon warehouses, the need for workers in the gig economy to work harder and longer hours for low wages and no job security), but Rather than create an environment where workers are treated with humanity, we instead move to replace them with an artificially intelligent, robotic workforce.