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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Employees

Olga Ravn

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Employees

Title: The Employees
Author: Olga Ravn
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 133 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: The Employees - US
The Employees - UK
The Employees - Canada
Les employés - France
directly from: Lolli Editions (UK)
  • A workplace novel of the 22nd century
  • Danish titles: De ansatte
  • Translated by Martin Aitken

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing take on identity, function, and 'humanity'

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Devoir . 8/2/2020 A-F.Hébert-Dolbec
The Guardian . 12/5/2021 Justine Jordan
Jyllands-Posten . 24/5/2018 Tobias Skiveren
Kristeligt Dagblad A 15/5/2018 M.R.Gregersen
TLS . 25/6/2021 Richard Lea

  From the Reviews:
  • "À première vue, l’intrigue et ses messages, qui ne s’écartent pas en eux-mêmes des sentiers battus, semblent se noyer dans l’exercice stylistique auquel se prête Olga Ravn. En rejetant la narration linéaire classique et la caractérisation psychologique de ses personnages, elle oscille entre minimalisme et fragmentation, s’aventurant sur la pente glissante de l’expérimentation littéraire. Or, c’est l’unicité de la langue qui empêche ici la dégringolade. Avec sa plume intrépide, agitée, tout aussi abrupte que soucieuse, elle s’approprie un récit mille fois remâché, délie ses fils pour mieux les renouer, se distance de l’humanité pour mieux l’éclairer sous un nouveau jour." - Anne-Frédérique Hébert-Dolbec, Le Devoir

  • "(B)rilliantly unusual (.....) The Employees is not only a disconcertingly quotidian space opera; it's also an audacious satire of corporate language and the late-capitalist workplace, and a winningly abstracted investigation into what it means to be human. (...) Despite the sterile setting and often chilly prose, The Employees is a deeply sensory book, suffused with aroma and alert to tactility. (...) It is astonishing how much Ravn achieves in her small canvas of 130-odd pages" - Justine Jordan, The Guardian

  • "Dette greb betyder, at vi heldigvis hverken får en udfoldet fortælling eller opklarende budskaber, men i stedet er overladt til de nogle gange afmålte og distancerede, andre gange poetiske og patosladede efterretninger, som de forskellige ansatte leverer, hvilket også medfører, at det aldrig er helt klart, hvem der taler og fra hvilken situation. Med sin mærkværdige og mystiske protokol-æstetik bliver De ansatte dermed et lige så gådefuldt, frapperende og tiltrækkende objekt som de genstande, der befinder sig i romanens rum. (...) De ansatte er en foruroligende, nydelsesfuld læseoplevelse og et af de bedste bud på en samtidsroman, jeg længe har læst." - Martin Rohr Gregersen, Kristeligt Dagblad

  • "The novel's sense of dislocation is only enhanced by the fact that some statements are missing; the ones that remain appear not quite in order." - Richard Lea, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the title already suggests, The Employees focuses very much on function and role, with practically none of the (many) characters identified by any sort of name, with role or position the defining attribute -- 'Cadet 04', 'Cadet 08'. (A notable exception is a creator-figure from their past they refer to, a Dr Lund; among the few others is: "Janice and Sonia", who isn't even an (or at least doesn't see herself as) individual: "I'm not one, but two".) The sub-title, too, emphasizes the setting, and the characters' function, as workers: A workplace novel of the 22nd century. The locale -- a spaceship called the Six-Thousand Ship, exploring a place far from Earth called New Discovery -- is considerably more than simple workplace for its passengers; indeed, it's not just their habitat but, essentially, their entire world -- but it is presented very much here as, in essence, the hive for these worker bees.
       A brief introductory chapter explains what the bulk of the novel consists of: statements: "collected over a period of 18 months, during which 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 statements are offered without any descriptive or other annotation -- or any questions or prompts by the committee --, and consist solely of the employees' own words. The statements are numbered but not attributed to specific employees by name or other identifier; some do mention their specific roles -- the one who keeps a register of the new arrivals; the local funeral director who gets rid of "terminated workers" and left-over bodies; etc.. The statements are presented in near but, oddly, not entirely numerical order -- which also reveals that not all statements have been included in this final report.
       For all the seeming anonymous sameness of so many of the employees, there seem, in fact, to be fundamental differences between the two groups they are composed of:

      There's humans, and then there's humanoids. Those who were born and those who were made. Those who are going to die and those who aren't. Those who are going to decay and those who aren't going to decay.
       The humanoids are remarkably human-like (among the few small differences: they have no reproductive and sexual organs (as these could serve no purpose)), and there's a distinct blurring of identity here, many on the ship having difficulty in dealing with their differences, even as the powers that be try to maintain the distinction with separate sections on the ship for the two categories. As one respondent observes: "You tell me: this is not a human, but a co-worker", as the powers that be would prefer them to focus on their function, as cogs in the machine, and simply accept (rather than concern themselves with) the human/humanoid distinction, but their different -- yet oh so similar -- natures complicate matters.
       Another respondent points out:
I know I'm only humanoid and that it's not the same. But I look like a human, and feel the way humans do. I consist of the same parts. Perhaps all that's need is for you to change my status in your documents ? Is it a question of name ? Could I be human if you called me so ?
       The confusion goes both ways: another employee reports having met Dr Lund before the ship departed -- and:
Even though I was born and brought up and my documents all said human, there was something about his behaviour that made me think he didn't consider me an equal, and for a few brief and terrifying seconds I felt I was artificial, made, nothing but a humanoid machine of flesh and blood. My maker's screen. Fabricated, conducted.
       Another tells the committee:
I don't know if I'm human anymore. Am I human ? Does it say in your files what I am ?
       Part of the problem is that the humanoids, in particular, seem, in their thinking, to be becoming almost too human. Some struggle with that, understanding that it's not what was originally intended; one humanoid explains: "I want to be a good employee, I want to make good choices. But how can I tell if I'm following the programme correctly ?" The humanoid is disturbed by what its mind(-equivalent) is coming up with:
Why do I have these thoughts if the reason I'm here is primarily to increase production ? From what perspective are these thoughts productive ? Was there an error in the update ? If there was, I'd like to be rebooted.
       It is this blurring of lines, of what makes humans human -- of the idea of humanity -- that increasingly is challenged here, as it becomes clear where these interrogations, and the fates of those of those aboard the ship, are headed. This eventually includes efforts to "dismantle the humanoid employees" -- a committee is set up to do that, but fails -- and then a more comprehensive ... workplace closure that is put into effect; creepily, that, too, is a somewhat drawn-out procedure, with a few last statements still trickling in very late in the process.
       The exact nature of the work is a bit murky, but basically involves the collection of objects which are then stored on the ship, in dedicated rooms. The characters also relate to the objects -- seeing them not merely as some sort of specimens, but rather finding themselves with, for example, "a sense of attachment" to them. This appears to be another of the problems in the workplace: that the employees can not behave simply like cogs and go through their motions, but become emotionally involved in their work.
       On the one hand, this has some advantages. The humans on the crew apparently often have difficulty with what they've left behind on Earth, missing much in this environment -- down to something as simple as being able to go out shopping:
Shopping had a kind of numbing effect on me, and now that it's something I no longer do, I've started having thoughts and feelings that have turned out to be sad.
       (Yes, both humans and humanoids find a considerable downside to simple introspection and awareness of their condition .....)
       One crew member's responsibility was to see that the humans: "don't buckle under to nostalgia and become catatonic" -- as:
We saw a lot of that to begin with. To everyone's surprise, the objects in the rooms have shown to alleviate the discomfort of these nostalgia attacks, and the human employees whose functions allow them to get out into the valley on New Discovery quickly show signs of improvement and lifted spirits.
       The Employees is a darkish vision -- and, of course, not merely one of a possible future but rather of the contemporary workplace. Even in its deliberate vagueness, the work itself seems far removed from most one might imagine people engaging in in our day and age, and yet in many ways its only a(n intensely) heightened variation of the contemporary-familiar. The conditions are extreme in many ways, including in the isolation and anonymity they work in, and yet not that far removed from familiar experience. The inclusion of artificial intelligences that are practically but still not entirely human adds another interesting dimension.
       Ravn's approach -- the narrative is fragmentary, with limited description of many of the goings-on (or, for example, explanations of the purpose and goals of the mission, or who controls it) -- makes for a story that leaves much up to the reader, as it is easy to be tempted in to filling in some of the seeming blanks. Obviously, this isn't the kind of science fiction for those that like theirs to provide a fully-created world, but there's a lot to be said for Ravn's very open presentation, and how she presents the various issues she raises for readers to consider.
       A creative take; certainly of interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 December 2020

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The Employees: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Olga Ravn was born in 1986.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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