[Lolli Editions; 2020]

Tr. from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Inspired by Janet Malcolm’s title essay Forty-One False Starts that is made up of 41 attempts to begin an essay on David Salle, I review Olga Ravn’s The Employees. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, the crisp novella is a disorienting experience to read. The book comprises of non-linear, non-chronological sets of observations made by the characters. These are not related to each other, so the book can be read arbitrarily from any page. These disparate attempts also bring out Ravn’s obsessive commitment to craft in how with each new testimony, she tries to wrest out a different side of the situation at hand. The humans and humanoids on their journey to the destination “Six-Thousand Ship” engage in conversations that don’t seem tethered to each other immediately, but reveal themselves on closer introspection, such as a second or third reading.

  1. Once the earth has been destroyed and there’s just a handful of us left behind, will we still be grappling with our emotions, or will there linger a post-apocalyptic consciousness, forcing us to look in other directions? Olga Ravn’s The Employees tells us the latter. Through this neatly packed 136-page futuristic science fiction novella, we learn that even after the planet (as we now know it) has ceased to exist, humans and humanoids struggle to make sense of human emotions. Love, tenderness, dissatisfaction, rage. These are bungled up inside them, as they process their fears, loves and strange attractions. They are afraid, strung out in a new place and have lost the vigor they once possessed as inhabitants of the planet earth.
  2. In the era of the Anthropocene, as readers we are curiously veering towards the written form of art to understand what the future will look like. From Amitav Ghosh to Rob Macfarlane, numerous writers give us direct warnings in the form of fictional or non-fictional tales, heralding an era of the end times, paving the way forward for doom. But Olga Ravn’s The Employees shows an emotional journey where humans, humanoids, spaceships, androids, algorithms, can all together no longer fathom the present or the future. Planet earth has been destroyed and the surviving humans have been shipped on the Six-Thousand Ship, along with humanoids who resemble flesh-and-bone humans in a freakish way. They are constantly recorded, observed, and trained to remove all their emotions on a regular basis, yet what they philosophize about the most is just these things.
  3. In mid-2022, as we enter a third year in the pandemic, the memory of the world as we knew it has ebbed away from our consciousness. We have now grown so used to this way of life that when we remember norms from older times, we lose our balance. Similarly, Olga Ravn in her novel The Employees creates an almost mythic version of a life after the crash of our current planet. Earth as we know it has died, only a few humans survived and they are sent off on a ship, floating away with an equal number of humanoids. An Orwellian sense of despondency looms large amid the multiple generations of humans and humanoids who co-exist here. They are unable to realize their full potential; not emotionally, not professionally. Through the novel we see that they have lost touch with their previous versions and are going down an ugly, ruthless road of half self-discovery, losing themselves and their mortalities in the process.
  4. Olga Ravn’s The Employees, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, was also shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021. Dominant themes in the work are longings, dreams, and lyrical fragments of memory from what was once home to thousands of humans. The Booker Prize website describes the science fiction novella as an exploration of “what it really means to be human, while questioning the logic of productivity and a life governed by work.” Pomegranates, seeds, pink pores make frequent appearances in the novel, rendering it a palimpsest. One humanoid declares: “I’m a pomegranate ripe with moist seeds, each seed a killing I’m going to carry out.” Despite the sterile setting and often chilly prose, the characters dotting The Employees are deeply emotional people, trying to remember what it once felt like to be human. The novel, while talking about the end times, a bleakness beyond imagination, is still suffused with the essence and aroma of being alive. The humanoids, humans and their managers are all collectively trying to remember one form or another of their human selves.
  5. Olga Ravn’s The Employees is about the end of the world, a time when the “world” is dominated by soulless humanoids who have no sense of self, and are mutant in their urge to serve whoever it is governs them. One such humanoid says: “My human co-worker sometimes talks about not wanting to work, and then he’ll say something quite odd and . . . silly . . . There’s more to a person than the work they do, or A person is more than just their work.” These humanoids are incapable of imagining a life beyond their service at the ship, New Discovery. In this, Ravn sketches a bleak, compelling portrait of the wider effects of a corporate life. Dull, ruthless, and stringently limiting, this translation by Martin Atiken sketches an impressionistic painting of a time that lies ahead of us. Atiken’s translation renders the novel and the world of its characters beautifully in English. The disquieting environs translate well into English, bringing awareness to the trap the characters are in. His translation provides a steady drip of thoughts and feelings they might be undergoing, helping the reader place themselves in an almost alien world.
  6. Olga Ravn’s The Employees packs a compelling science fiction tale about a new place called “New Discovery” after the end of the world. Arousing the readers’ olfactory senses, the book creates a sense of despair and unease that is tough to get rid of. We see the wondrous functioning of sense memories in these humans and humanoids, especially that of smell, in helping them recall whatever is left of their pasts in their physically, digitally altered existences. “The first smell,” a humanoid says, “was the smell of outside, of the weather . . .  Of fresh air . . . the smell of gravity. The last smell that disappeared was the smell of vanilla. That and the fragrance of my child when I would bend over the pram to pick him up.” These powerful vignettes immediately transport the reader, helping them access their own personal library of memories and by extension, imagine a time when none of those exist. Deeply empathetic, and equally despondent, the novel is an elegy for human attachments.
  7. Reading Olga Ravn’s The Employees I was reminded of our first few, dire months in the 2020 lockdowns. Hopeless, directionless, and utterly scared, many of us had then taken to various online spaces to document our thoughts. Tweets abound, blogs proliferated, essays sprung out about how these were, in fact, the end times. Similarly, the novel is packed in the form of “statements . . . collected . . . over 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”. Like these humanoids on the Six-Thousand Ship, we too were divided into “those who will die and those who won’t”. One of the humanoids pertinently wonders, “And what would it mean if one could move only between two rooms . . .  that contained every space we ever occupied, every morning, every day and every night”, reminding me of my tiny two-bedroom flat where I spent the first six months of the pandemic. The book evokes a sense that doom is already a thing of the past, and that how the people in the book’s world now live is possibly beyond even their worst imaginations. A human in the “Statement 037” says, “I’ve got nothing against death. Nothing against rotting away. What frightens me is what doesn’t die and never changes form. That’s why I’m proud of being a human, and I carry the certainty of my future death with honour. It’s what sets me apart from certain others here.”
  8. 2021’s last big English language Netflix release, Don’t Look Up was a parable about looming climate crisis and how authorities fail to take it seriously enough. A “serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy,” it  fleetingly mirrored the plot of Olga Ravn’s The Employees. The book, much like the movie, highlights the importance of clear communication. With the passage of time as it is becoming increasingly clear that the end of the world won’t be a 24-hour affair with ships toppling, earthquakes crushing the planet, and large-scale tsunamis wiping island nations off the face of the earth. We now know that just like the pandemic, the climate crisis will have deadly but gradual and long-lasting consequences. These will be for one and all, and simply describing the peril in clear terms through incontrovertible facts will no longer be sufficient. Ravn tells the story of what happens after the great end. The last batch of surviving folks in Don’t Look Up end up floating in space inside a ship, much like those in Ravn’s The Employees, showing us how slow, potent, and imminent the end will be. In both, the last batch of people who manage to flee are able to escape the destruction only for a while longer and are later met with an even more frightening end. Statement 153 in the book reads: “I got the strong feeling that we have failed, and that our time is over”, while Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dr Randall Mindy’s last words are: “we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”
  9. There are technical updates and hallucinations galore in Olga Ravn’s The Employees, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Through the book Ravn creates a painterly image of dystopia, nothing like anything we have every across before. Both humans and humanoids look identical and paper over their own fears and inhibitions in much the same ways, but what sets them apart is the paperwork. The humanoid implores their interviewer to “change my status in your documents.” They wonder if it’s a “question of name” and if they could “be a human if you called me so?” Children in the shape of “half digital animal, half child hologram” haunt the humans as humanoids find strangely attracted towards objects. “All I want is to sit near them and rock my head so I can be embraced by their smell,” says one humanoid. Another human enlists the benefits of a digital offspring, stating: “the child hologram has without doubt helped stabilise me as an employee here, and I can see that it’s been beneficial to my work effort.” On the Six-Thousand Ship, having human relatives and relationships is an imagined concept as this cluster of humans and humanoids deal with the last batch of treacly emotions, leftover from their previous lives. They try to converse in a “shadow language” that seems to be “holding inside a disaster retold”.
  10. In Olga Ravn’s The Employees humans and humanoids show a way forward for a calamitous earth. The novel is crisp, pushing the reader to finish reading it in a single sitting, but also packs within a myriad of thoughts. An endless stream of nervousness about the future is its animating spirit, igniting notions about the past, present and future alike in the reader’s mind. In that, the novel becomes a cipher for our times, as we ail through one calamity after another, seldom missing a beat. After evoking questions about the present, the novel encourages readers in the direction of consciousness, wrenching away any hope. In its ability to consider itself and to share with the larger world a sense of being, the reflective nature of the book takes a philosophizing turn which, for better or worse, is something we all need at the moment.

Anandi Mishra is an essayist and critic. She has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. One of her essays has been translated to Italian and published in the Internazionale magazine. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Public Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, Popula, Electric Literature, The Brooklyn Rail, Al Jazeera, among others. She tweets at @anandi010.

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