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Book review: The Employees by Olga Ravn

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By Simon Demetriou

 We all know that HR people tend to be treated with suspicion in the workplace. (Apologies to any HR people reading this. You may, of course, be the exception, so feel free to believe that.) Olga Ravn’s book is subtitled ‘A workplace novel of the 22nd century’ and her satire of late-stage Western capitalism takes a terrifying view of where we might all end up if the treatment of humans as resources doesn’t change.

The Six-Thousand ship is in orbit around the planet of New Discovery, and is staffed by both human and humanoid employees, who are the subject of a human resources survey being carried out by a mysterious ‘committee’. Even more mysterious than the committee are the ‘objects’ that have recently been found on New Discovery and brought on board to be kept in what are called the ship’s ‘recreation rooms’.

It is the employees’ responses to the objects and their rooms that form the initial subject of the survey, but why these responses should arise and why they should be of any importance is never clarified. Nor is what the objects actually are. They are only ever referred to as objects (though the employees do assign slang terms for some of them – for example, ‘the Reverse Strap-on’) and never fully described, but somehow they elicit intense and revealing responses.

Employees variously yearn to touch them, to hold them in their mouths, to speak to them, to possess them. They believe them to have language, a language beyond comprehension but which can still reveal startling insights, with one employee stating, ‘I know you say I’m not a prisoner here, but the objects have told me otherwise.’

Issues of identity form the thematic crux of this novel, with the presence of the objects sparking the questioning and blurring of boundaries between human and humanoid, made and unmade. Human employees crave intimacy with humanoid co-workers; both sides question how and why they might be termed living; a humanoid asks, ‘Is it a question of name? Could I be a human if you called me so?’; another declares, ‘I may have been made, but now I’m making myself.’

Ultimately, the ontological uncertainty brought about by unresolved identities, subordination and hierarchy within the workplace leads to conflict and a resolution that is harrowing in its callous dismissal of violence and loss. Worst of all, is the casually self-satisfied way in which the committee deems the whole affair a success, since it ‘provides a satisfactory basis on which to introduce the changes necessary to secure further increases in production levels’, before offering ways in which to monetise their findings. Science fiction this may be, but it rings far too true to be dismissed as fantasy.

 

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