Olga Ravn’s Office Novel in Space

The Final Frontier

Olga Ravn brings the office novel to space.

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There is perhaps no better setting for a workplace novel than outer space. With the exception of time taken for the necessary evils of sleep, nourishment, and hygiene, astronauts are always on the clock. In notable works of sci-fi—Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity—our heroes are marooned on their ships, surveilled either by faceless colleagues in mission control or by an all-seeing operating system. Glimpses of their humanity appear only fleetingly, through flashbacks of children on Earth or a beloved object from home floating in space. As representatives of their country, their planet, and their species, they have an almost military commitment to decorum. This image of a highly efficient and restrained workplace, functioning even under the most distressing conditions, is not just genuinely fictional; it is also a manager’s ideal. It is only when work subsumes life that a person’s labor can be truly optimized.

Such dynamics are hinted at in the subtitle of the Danish novelist and poet Olga Ravn’s first book to be translated into English, The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century. In its imaginative world, the utopian dream of surveillance capitalism has finally come to fruition. Aboard the Six Thousand Ship, where Ravn’s protagonists live, activity and language are carefully shaped around work. The ship’s sizable crew, a mix of humans and humanoids, labor together as they carry out their designated tasks. While the humans struggle with the banalities of this work and the knowledge that they’ll never go home, the humanoids—anthropomorphic creatures who are grown in a lab—gamely do whatever is asked of them. Both are aware of their limited existence, and both are unable to do anything to change their circumstances. While the two groups are physically similar, the division between them drives Ravn’s narrative. Through asides and digressions, we learn that the first generation of humanoids were hatched from pods of biomaterial and then injected with hormones to develop emotional attachments. We learn that it takes two years for one to grow to maturity and be able to work; that they never die and instead are continually “reuploaded,” meaning their memories are erased and minds installed in new bodies. Some are sympathetic toward their human colleagues; some even fall in love. Over time, a gap widens as the humanoids recognize that merely becoming human might not be enough for them.

AI awakening is a classic sci-fi trope dating back to Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which the robots become aware of their subservience to humans and stage a violent revolt. But Ravn is up to something different in The Employees, exchanging dystopian clichés for something closer to the emotional striving of a coming-of-age narrative: Imagine I, Robot meets Flowers for Algernon with a dash of the office novel. By doing so, Ravn aligns her compact novel with works like Spike Jonze’s Her, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, and Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, in which robots are on the other end of the sympathy spectrum, no longer merely reflections of the dangers of human hubris but characters in their own right. Self-aware enough to recognize their own limitations yet unable to overcome them, Ravn’s humanoids express humanity’s most fundamental desires while remaining forever at a remove from them.

A slight 130 pages, The Employees is structured as a series of testimonies from both human and humanoid crew members taken by unnamed distant bureaucrats. It has the air of a classified internal document that an executive might be given during an onboarding. “The following statements,” the book begins, “were collected over a period of 18 months, during which time the committee interviewed the employees with a view to gaining insight into how they related to the objects and the rooms in which they were placed.” These mysterious “objects,” though we never learn what makes them so valuable, are the reason the Six Thousand Ship is stationed near the Earth-like planet New Discovery. There, they grow in the wild, until they are collected and taken on board. Alive and sentient, the objects are described in unnerving organic detail: One has “deep yellow grooves” that ooze a “resin-like substance”; another has a “fibrous,” “pink, cord-like thing” emanating from its abdomen. At one point, it lays an egg. There’s more than a touch of body horror to these descriptions, and the impressions they make linger in the background.

Much like listening to the black box recording from a plane crash, we know that by the time the book has reached us, something has gone terribly wrong. The objects have caused “permanent deviations” in the employees; the interviews are an attempt to understand what has happened. And indeed, for the humanoid crew, interactions with the objects do awaken emotions: empathy and longing, a desire for intimacy and love. In some ways, the humanoids recall the alien replicas in Solaris—painfully aware that they are not human, and left to struggle with that knowledge. Once this is recognized, there is no going back. “They tell me I can’t carry out my work correctly due to functional maladjustments with respect to certain feelings,” reads one humanoid’s statement. And another:

All I want is to be assimilated into a collective, human community where someone braids my hair with flowers and white curtains sway in a warm breeze; where every morning I wake up and drink a chilled glass of iced tea, drive a car across a continent, kick the dirt, fill my nostrils with the air of the desert and move in with someone, get married, bake cookies, push a stroller, learn to play an instrument, dance a waltz. I think I’ve seen all this in your educational material, is that right? What are cookies?

But the disruptions set in motion by the alien objects aren’t limited to the humanoids. Their effects are similarly jarring among the human crew. It’s as if they “came from our dreams, some distant past we carry deep inside us, like a recollection without language,” reads Statement 040. One administrator, who describes their job as ensuring that “the human section of the crew doesn’t…become catatonic,” notes that for humans, the objects have the unexpected effect of alleviating nostalgia. “To us,” one statement reads, “the objects are like an artificial postcard from Earth. To [the humanoids] they’re a postcard from the future.” At one point, the human crew members begin to suffer from “epidermal eruptions”—outbreaks of warts over patches of skin “specked with green and black dots.” The objects have something to do with this, though no one can say exactly what. Eventually the humans withdraw into their quarters, where memories of Earth color their dreams. “Being unable to leave here in our lifetimes,” reads one statement, “we have all of us long since come to terms with the prospect of facing our deaths here on board the ship, and of never returning home.”

When the humanoids are called in to talk with HR about the objects, they are unable to provide adequate accounts in the corporate-speak they have been programmed with. Asked to describe the aspirations and feelings that the objects have prompted, they find themselves lacking. Some become lonely. Some try to square their newfound sense of self with their loyalty to “the program”—the code that had hitherto given them life and continues to give them a sense of purpose. Others do not. “You made me, you gave me language, and now I see your failings and deficiencies,” declares one in a statement. “I see your inadequate plans.”

This is a social ecosystem on the brink of collapse, and we are invited to watch things unravel. Confusing things further, somebody seems to have mixed up the files—the statements are loosely chronological but out of order, jumping from 004 to 012 to 006, and so on. Eventually we gather that the humanoids are planning a rebellion. But information is disclosed sparingly. We are never told what the mission of the Six Thousand Ship is. Plot isn’t the point, though. We know from the beginning how the story will end.

There are no heroes in The Employees. In fact, it’s difficult to differentiate between characters within the chorus of voices reporting feelings of anger, self-discovery, resignation, or grief. None of the statements are attributed, and only context reveals whether the speaker is a humanoid (“I’ve never not been employed. I was made for work”) or a human (“I carry the certainty of my future death with honor”). Sometimes even the speaker isn’t sure which one they are. To add to the confusion, the statements we are reading are carefully crafted with the authorities in mind, and the expressions of longing and doubt are framed in terms of furthering the mission. But with all the voices stripped of the exterior signs of individuality, each account is distinct, marked by idiosyncratic memories and rich sensory impressions. No unifying narrative emerges out of this collection of disparate accounts. The more we read, the more we recognize that the “problem” the committee is trying to solve is that of the individual: of workers whose desires and ambitions cannot be neatly assimilated into a corporate framework.

It’s revealing that Ravn chose to describe The Employees as a “workplace” novel rather than a novel about work. Indeed, the employees rarely discuss their tasks so much as stolen moments of freedom in the working day—an encounter with a colleague in the canteen, gazing at the valleys on New Discovery, holding one of the objects. While the book can be read as a critique of capitalism or perhaps even a parable for unionizing, Ravn is also interested in the incompatibility between our private selves and the “whole self” the workplace demands while we’re on the job. The more the employees are asked to talk, to represent themselves and be present, the more these unnamed characters find themselves struggling with the artificial circumstances in which they are trapped, in search of any way out. Watching this unfold from the perspective of the overseers, we learn of events only after they’ve happened: after a small rebellion has been quashed, after a worker has asked to be placed in dormancy mode, and after others have isolated themselves within their quarters. Eventually, without any single crescendo, these small acts of resistance overwhelm the bosses’ ability to manage the situation, and a decision is made.

When the book came out, Ravn was already something of a star on Copenhagen’s literary scene. The daughter of a well-known Danish pop singer, she had released two books of poetry and a novel, wrote regularly for the country’s leading papers, and had founded a writing school focused on the work of female and queer writers. She had also helped resuscitate the poet and writer Tove Ditlevsen’s reputation in Denmark by editing a collection of her selected works for Gyldendal, the country’s oldest book publisher and Ravn’s then-employer. It was navigating the emotional landscape of that job that informed her writing of The Employees: Ravn was struck by the affective demands of the workplace, the way it altered one’s speech and behavior. In an interview with the Belgian media outlet Bruzz, she described the experience as akin to being lost in space before a sudden crash landing:

There was just something about coming from this very soft world, where there is no night and day, no eight-hour structure, and where everything is soft and deep and small. The clash going from caring for an infant to office-work really triggered me, and made me want to examine how to remain soft in a hard environment.

In science fiction, Ravn found a way of framing her protagonists as both recognizable and fundamentally alien—and doing the same with the world she created. This precipitated a clash not only of characters but of genres. Science fiction has always sought to expand the horizons of the possible, whereas workplace fiction tends to do the opposite. After all, one goal of the office—as with its novelistic representations—is to craft a vocabulary that allows its user to maximize ambiguity while creating the appearance of action. (See: “deliverables,” “synergy,” “touching base,” “futureproofing.”) The combination of these categories produces a novel at once totally new and intimately revealing, personal and foreign. As Ravn remarked in a recent talk, sci-fi is a genre about how we make tools out of things, and what, in turn, that tells us about ourselves.

In The Employees, her tool of choice is language. While the humans on the Six Thousand Ship are paralyzed by memories, incapable of communicating about anything other than the past or the weather, the humanoids begin to blossom awkwardly. “My body wants to live, and my skin is lustrous,” remarks one. “Whenever I see a child hologram it makes me feel sad, because it reminds me that I’m never going to have a child myself,” notes another. The objects have triggered a glitch in their code, and like a virus seeking to replicate itself, they have suddenly discovered the will to survive. As the tensions between the humans and the humanoids grow starker, the differences between them seem to disappear. Death, once the primary divider, takes on a new meaning, as the humanoids come to value life not as a bug but as a singular way of experiencing the present. “We are but craft, fleeting carriers of the program,” one laments. “Shortly we will be gone, to regenerate in some other form.” Humans, in turn, have rendered themselves robotic.

Once these feelings have been awakened, things deteriorate quickly. As the humanoids begin to segregate themselves from the humans, two officers are removed from the ship and the missions to New Discovery are discontinued. A humanoid kills a human. Several humanoids are dismantled, and one human locks herself in her room with a hologram of her child back on Earth. Finally, a choice is made by the nameless corporate authorities back home to dismantle all the humanoid employees. When this fails, another decision is made: to “terminate the Six Thousand Ship,” with “all biomaterials to be disintegrated while preserving the ship itself.” Eight humanoid crew members leave the ship and descend onto New Discovery. “We wish to spend our final time in the valley,” one says into a recorder, days after the rest of the crew have died. “We’ve talked about the risk that in committing ourselves to this decision we might not be reuploaded, and this we accept.”

We read these dispatches as found material, knowing the end is coming but not knowing exactly how. The novella plays with many of the classic themes of sci-fi revolution and the elusive question of what it “means” to be human—yet refuses to commit to a single definition. However much their selves may shine through in unguarded moments, our protagonists are nameless, parts of a greater machine. Simply through this framing, we have more insight into mission control, whose motivations are the same as those of bosses on any planet: to extract the most work from their employees, to maximize profit and reduce internal friction. Ravn has chosen to place us as the silent observer, the extraterrestrial McKinsey consultant, in order to make us understand that the ship must be eliminated for the good of the mission.

The Employees grew out of a collaboration between Ravn and the Danish artist Lea Guldditte Hestelund. The latter was preparing an installation and sculpture show at the time and approached Ravn about writing an accompanying fictional text. What was initially intended to be a booklet expanded into a novella, with Ravn first writing short dispatches about the works in the exhibition (the “objects” of the text) and eventually imagining her own works, some of which Hestelund went on to produce.

The strange origins of the novella are not fully reconciled in its final version—for all the description of the objects at the beginning, they soon disappear almost entirely—but the book also develops an emotional resonance beyond its initial prompt. Picking up on the unsettling, intimate, and playful qualities of Hestelund’s work—which tends to reference bodies and alien life forms and makes use of idiosyncratic smells and soft organic shapes—Ravn creates a world that is complementary to our own and yet far more menacing.

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