What a Way to Make a Living
By Olga Ravn
Olga Ravn’s 2018 The Employees: A Workplace Novel of The Twenty-second Century is (unsurprisingly) a workplace novel of the twenty-second Century. The 2020 translation is by Martin Aitken.
The Six-Thousand Ship has arrived at the planet New Discovery and fallen into orbit around it. This is a commercial venture. The crew, a mix of humans and artificial humanoids, labor endlessly to please their superiors back at the head office.
How does the crew feel about their experiences? A committee carries out an eighteen-month series of interviews to find out.
The employee statements paint a vivid picture. New Discovery appears to be earthlike, although many features remain enigmatic. Objects discovered on the surface of the world, each provided with a different nickname by the crew — the Reverse Strap-On, the Gift, the Dog, the Half-Naked Bean, Rachel, Benny, and Ida — become the subject of intense fascination. Some might say the objects speak to the crew, even though the crew doesn’t seem to benefit in any way from this communication. This has become a concern for the owners of the ship. Hence the fact-finding interviews.
We are given nearly two hundred crew statements, many quite elliptical. They paint a picture of a crew divided along many axes. However, male or female, born or mass-produced, the crew is united by near-universal anxiety and misery.
It seems impossible to deliver contentment to the crew, were that even a goal. However, other means exist that can, if not comfort the crew, at least put an end to their incessant complaining.
This book is very short (less than one hundred and fifty pages). It’s also not a conventional novel. There’s no coherent plot and the reader is left to guess at many of the events that have led up the current situation. Each interviewee is concerned only with their immediate circumstances. Detailed backstory is largely a matter of suggestion and hints.
Humans and humanoids are seemingly supposed to be of comparable status, but the humanoids are clearly further down the pecking order, despite being more durable and of more immediate utility than their human crewmates. Not that this seems to make the humans any happier with their lot. Not that human unhappiness would matter at all to the head office if it weren’t that misery is affecting efficiency.
It’s pure coincidence that I read this immediately after Earthchild but there is a parallel here, in that both the Piserchia and the Ravn novels reject conventional plot for a stroboscopic depiction of the future. At the risk of angering Piserchia fans, Ravn’s approach is the more effective. The interviews add up to a coherent whole in a way that Earthchild did not. This book is an effective experiment1.
The Employees is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: Presumably, given the span of time elapsed since the New Wave’s heyday, and the fact that Ravn was writing in a different language and in a different nation, similarities with New Wave SF of the 1960s would seem to be the result of parallel but causally unrelated experiments arising from a desire to get away from conventional narrative.