The first fictional spacecraft were thrilling, vehicles for exploration and discovery, but it wasn’t long before writers realized that spaceships would also be workplaces like their waterborne counterparts, with tight quarters where repetitive tasks and interpersonal friction are occasionally interrupted by interludes of existential peril. The most familiar pop-cultural depiction of this, Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, opens with the groggy crew of Nostromo, a star freighter and ore refinery en route to Earth, coming out of stasis to scratch, stretch, make coffee, and bicker about money—until, that is, they are terrorized and picked off by a hideous unknown creature.
Gnomic and elliptical where most science fiction is expository, Olga Ravn’s The Employees follows a not dissimilar pattern. It is the first book by the Danish poet, novelist, and literary critic to be translated into English and was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021. Presented as a collection of records, primarily the transcripts of statements made by the crew of the Six Thousand Ship to a committee of unspecified composition, it documents the breakdown of the ship’s mission after the vessel arrives at a planet called New Discovery and the crew brings aboard a selection of objects found there.
But the objects—which are referred to only as “the objects,” the most reductive and nondescriptive term for pretty much anything—aren’t monsters and don’t chase the crew members around. None of the speakers offer a full description of these things (or creatures?), but Ravn has said they were inspired by the sculptures of the Danish artist Lea Guldditte Hestelund, with whom she has collaborated. From the fragments of information offered, they appear to resemble living stones. (Hestelund’s marble sculptures look like fleshy blobs.) They come in varying colors, patterns, and textures. They hum, and they change temperature. One secretes a resinlike substance when exposed to sunlight. Another intermittently produces what appear to be eggs. Above all, they emit fragrances that most (but not all) of the crew find soothing. Some crew members like to sleep with their faces covered by cloths saturated in the resin.
At the outset, the committee explains that it has collected statements from the employees “with a view to gaining insight into how they related to the objects and the rooms in which they were placed.” The ultimate purpose of this is “to assess to what degree” the objects
might be said to precipitate reduction or enhancement of performance, task-related understanding, and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, thereby illuminating their specific consequences for production.
Since research is the motive for most fictional and real-life space travel, the assumption that the mission of the Six Thousand Ship is to gather information about the objects comes easily, almost unconsciously, into the reader’s mind. But it is not so. The crew members describe the rooms where the objects are kept as “recreation rooms,” not cargo holds or labs.
What the employees on the ship have been hired to produce remains a mystery. Unlike the objects, which they struggle to describe, the nature of their work is taken for granted by interview subjects and interlocutors alike. They may talk about production and tasks and workflows, but only three members of the support staff—a laundress, a cleaner, and a funeral director—discuss in any detail what they’ve been hired to do by the firm known only as “the organization.”
The fragmented, disorienting narrative of The Employees arises from everything the characters know that the reader does not. The transcripts are uniquely numbered, and the speaker of each is unidentified, although at times the speaker in a previous transcript (the funeral director, the captain) is evidently interviewed again. Some statements are multiple pages long, some as brief as a sentence or two. Certain events, particularly the “transfer” of “the third officer” and “Cadet 04,” bother several of the speakers and indeed have unsettled the whole crew, but the reason for the transfers—or how exactly someone can be transferred from a ship so far out in space that many of the crew expect to die on it before it returns to “Homebase”—also goes unexplained. What the reader can quickly ascertain is that only some of the crew will die, because only some of them were born in the first place. The rest are “made,” humanoids rather than humans, and this difference will eventually determine the fate of the ship.
At first, however, the great contrast is between the language and expectations of the organization and the preoccupations of the crew members who have fallen under the influence of the objects. Early on, a humanoid employee expresses bafflement when his human coworker remarks that there’s more to a person than the work they do. “But what else could a person be?” he asks the committee. “Who would keep you company? How would you get by without work and without your coworkers? Would you be left standing in a cupboard?” The first three questions might have come from any workaholic American, but the last betrays the speaker as an appliance.
Purpose-built, the humanoids know nothing but work and needn’t worry about wasting their lives on it when their memories can be downloaded into a new body once their current one wears out or is destroyed. Nevertheless, strange thoughts and desires creep into the humanoids’ statements. One gets caught up in a spiral of neurotic worries that he might unwittingly act in a way that would at a later point contravene the interests of “the program,” the organization’s overarching mission (whatever that is!). “If I carry out an action,” he tells the committee,
that unbeknown to me is counteractive to the program’s momentum, I can do nothing but hate myself for it. But since I have no way of knowing whether an action in any given instance is anti-programmatic, how am I to know if I’m to hate myself or not?
Perhaps, he muses, he should just preemptively hate himself. “Why do I have all these thoughts if the job I’m doing is mainly technical?” he asks. “Why do I have these thoughts if the reason I’m here is primarily to increase production?”
Meanwhile, the humans brood over their memories of Earth. This problem has been anticipated by the organization; one of the crew says he was hired “to make sure the human section of the crew don’t buckle under to nostalgia and become catatonic.” Holograms of children have been supplied as consolation to those whose own children have died, and some have become almost addicted to them. Others seem to have left living children behind, but offer no explanation for why they have chosen to do so.
The presence of the objects increases the humans’ pining for Earth. All of them miss the weather, descriptions of which haunt their statements: the pink mists of morning, rain on the beach, blue light pouring over trees, “the smell of the soil, and warm asphalt, the sounds of animals and birds.” The sterile physical environment of the ship matches the corporate language of the committee and the organization, a language that constructs the crew’s conceptual environment. They inhabit an idea of life that consists only of work. Even the most fundamental bodily functions must be disciplined. “I find it hard to sleep, which I hope you’ll forgive me,” one statement reads. “I realize sleep is our own responsibility here on the ship, and I am actually trying to do something about it.”
Into this artificial kingdom seeps the organic. At the end of the book, the corporate jargon framing the statements dilates, unfolding itself into prefabricated clauses stripped of specificity and emotion:
In the case that this idea of utilizing the present record for educational purposes is pursued, the collection of empirical material may fruitfully be continued, insofar as the afterreactions of readers may be taken to provide a basis for deeper understanding of the influences exerted by the objects.
So reads the committee’s conclusion. By contrast, in their statements, the crew members increasingly describe intense dreams of being pursued by or encased in plants, of trees with leaves “that turn and spin like mirrors in the summer air.” The language they use to describe their dreams and memories is compressed and vivid, the language of a poet in Martin Aitken’s crystalline English translation. When their statements escalate into strings of clauses, the result is not numbing but incantatory, an ecstasy of remembrance, mourning, and hope:
And what would it mean to know that these two rooms contained every space we ever occupied, every morning (November on Earth, five degrees Celsius, sun dazzling low in the morning sky, the child in the carrier seat on the back of the bicycle), every day (the ivy reddening in the frost on the outside of the office building) and every night (in the room below the stone pines, someone’s breath upon your eyelid), and that every place you ever knew existed there in these two recreation rooms, like a ship floating freely in darkness, encompassed by dust and crystals, without gravity, without earth, in the midst of eternity; without humus and water and rivers, without offspring, without blood; without the creatures of the sea, without the salt of the oceans, and without the water lily stretching up through the cloudy pond toward the sun?
Just how much of this imaginative invasion can be put down to the influence of the objects? In an interview, Ravn acknowledged that the cause could instead be the committee’s questions about how the work is going. The very suggestion that it’s possible for the workers to have a range of feelings about what they’re doing is like an infection that encourages them to self-reflect, to consider which feelings they might prefer instead. And yet there is something about the objects that gets under the skin, literally.
In The Employees, the organic is a vital alternative to the totalizing lifelessness of the organization—a familiar motif—but it can also be terrifying and repellent. There’s something awful about the relentless ways other species reproduce. One crew member recalls pulling up some floorboards back on Earth to find “a puffy white mold” that “had been growing right under our feet without us knowing. Growing in the dark, it was. We got rid of it, only it kept coming back.”
Recurring symptoms among the human employees are “skin eruptions” and dreams that black seeds are embedded in their pores. (This is not a novel for trypophobes.) Images of inhuman fertility torment a crew member prone to staring at the objects for minutes at a time:
Does a human being need to have been born? Or can I be a living human expelled from a sac of slime, hatched out of an accumulation of roe, a clump of spawn in a pond, a cluster of sticky eggs concealed among cereal crops or wild grasses?
Because the objects also come in clusters, described as multiplying on the hillsides of New Discovery like “a kind of eczema,” these afflictions do seem related to their presence. One of the crew members, convinced that “the best way of establishing contact with the objects is through smell,” chews bay leaves upon entering the room in which they are stored, encouraged by the scent the objects produce in response. To some employees, the objects’ scent is pleasant, like “citrus fruit, or the stone of a peach,” while to others it is sinister. “The fragrance in the room has will and intention,” one statement reports. “It’s the smell of something old and decomposing, something musty. It’s as if the smell wishes to initiate the same process in me: that I become a branch to break off, rot, and be gone.”
A humanoid crew member declares the room and its smells “erotic,” although we later learn that her kind has been made without “reproductive organs,” because these were deemed “ethically unjustifiable to duplicate.” Smell, like taste, is a scent dependent on penetration and merging. To smell something is to absorb tiny particles of it into the membranes of the nose and to breathe it into the lungs. A humanoid describes the unfamiliar attachment she feels toward one of the objects as “like a ticklish splinter close to the heart, a splinter travelling slowly through the flesh.”
Yet when morale aboard the Six Thousand Ship finally breaks down, the conflict isn’t over the objects. Perhaps the objects have caused it by insinuating unprecedented thoughts and feelings into the humanoids, or perhaps they have simply drawn forth a division that was lying dormant. The humanoids begin to separate themselves from their human coworkers in the canteen. They speak only to one another. “Some of them are friendly,” a human crew member observes, “others seem as though they’re being torn up inside by rage. Some are on the brink of tears. Others are completely out of it.”
The humanoids regularly upload their memories and receive software updates, but the updates aren’t working as they once did. A humanoid tells the committee that she has experienced “sadness” at the knowledge that she’ll never have a child, but that
it’s not hard to bear; it’s more like a delicacy. Another reason I appreciate such a sadness is that I know it’s a deviation from the emotional behavior I was allocated, and I know too that deviating emotional behavior can be a sign that you’re starting to disengage from the update.
Some humanoids’ statements to the committee take an ominous tone. “Impending violence is by no means inconceivable,” one remarks. “We’re only just beginning to understand what we’re capable of.”
For their part, the humans languish in terrestrial nostalgia, reminiscing about strawberries, concerts, TV shows, and that perennial subject, the weather—although this talk is far from small. Several express the weary sentiment that their time is over, that they don’t expect humanity “as a category” to survive, and that the future belongs to the humanoids. “I want to stop. I can’t go on any longer,” the captain complains.
There are amusing echoes here of the sort of intergenerational workplace conflicts that newspaper feature reporters like to write about, stories in which managers from an older generation puzzle over the manners and expectations of their younger colleagues while acknowledging that eventually these perplexing people will be running things. In what must be the most alarming development for their corporate masters, the humanoids exhibit inklings of collective bargaining. “You wouldn’t like to know what’s going on in our wing,” a humanoid tells the committee. “No, that’s not a threat. We’re negotiating, that’s all.”
What are the humanoids? At first they appear to be robots or cyborgs, but despite the uploads and updates, it turns out they’re not machines. Instead, according to one speaker, they were “hatched from a series of violet pods of biomaterial” in a lab back in Denmark. The speaker recounts tending to the ripening pods, talking to them and injecting them with “the good hormones” so that they would become attached to their human makers. But their origins link them to plants, insects, fungi—all the nonhuman life-forms whose procreative methods give the human crew members the creeps. Humans have programmed them with a limited set of emotions, some of which are as dysfunctional as the acculturation of human beings. (Ravn has written in the past about how ill-fitting she finds the received model of womanhood, which leads, as she told one interviewer, “to having a feeling of being synthetic or false.”) “All of us here are condemned to a dream of romantic love,” a humanoid complains, “even though no one I know loves in that way, or lives that kind of a life. Yet these are the dreams you’ve given us.”
The rebellion happens in the canteen, a violent event whose details are only alluded to. It results in one human death, and the humanoid who commits this murder tells the committee that it felt good to do it. “I’m a pomegranate ripe with moist seeds,” the humanoid continues, demonstrating an alignment with creatures that cluster and teem, “each seed a killing I’m going to carry out at some future time.” The infestation of the Six Thousand Ship is complete. Like any property owner confronted with a termite’s nest or rat droppings, the organization does what has to be done.
The most striking aspect of this weird, beautiful, and occasionally disgusting novel is not, as its subtitle implies, its portrayal of working life on the spaceship. Most of Ravn’s characters are too obsessively inward-looking to get up to much in the way of office politics or banter. Rather, it’s the objects themselves—impossible to visualize or fully imagine, so unlike any form of known life that not everyone on board the Six Thousand Ship is sure they’re alive at all. They are utterly alien, and yet for most of the crew members the objects are also comforting, even familiar. The organization has cataloged them with numbers, but the crew has given each one a name: peculiar names, like “the Reverse Strap-On” and “the Half-Naked Bean,” but also human ones, like Rachel, Ida, and Benny.
The valley on New Discovery where the objects were found is even more entrancing. As the ship orbits the planet, the crew gathers to watch the valley come into sight from a viewing deck, “humans and humanoids,” as one statement describes it, “one big bunch of us together, all of us uplifted by the sight of the valley, it’s the same every time. It looks quite like what we know from home.” It’s a pleasure in which “the categories don’t apply.”
That humanity should travel to the ends of the universe only to find a place that feels like home and creatures that, however strange, seem to welcome us—this ought to be a blessing. So why does it all go so wrong? Perhaps the objects are not what they seem, are a kind of booby trap, but I’m inclined instead to agree with one of the humans, who points out, “It’s a dangerous thing for an organization not to be sure which of the objects in its custody may be considered to be living. It raises questions.”
Some of those questions have to do with the status of the humanoids, several of whom insist, in response to apparent disbelief, that they, too, are alive. But what The Employees captures best is humanity’s ambivalence about life itself, its sticky messes and unappealing functions, the goo that connects us to everything that crawls and mindlessly self-propagates, not to mention that obliterating payoff at the end of it all. It is our best beloved and it turns our stomachs. We build antiseptic vessels like the Six Thousand Ship, or for that matter the organization itself, to control its chaos, and then pine for it once we’ve shut it out. “I’m not sure I still feel pride in my humanity,” one of the crew members confesses. And who can blame him?