Review: Olga Ravn’s The Employees

Adam Fales

The pilot episode of the U.S. comedy series The Office (2005), set at the paper company Dunder Mifflin, revolves around a decision by corporate managers to consolidate the staffs of two offices. Under the show’s faux-documentary conceit, employee characters give talking-head interviews, in which they variously express fear or delight at the prospect of losing their jobs: fear of losing money necessary to support their lives, delight at finally being able to do something they care about. Others respond with numb resignation. The mockumentary format makes for a structural analogue of the workers’ positions—they are at once atomized in their individual interviews and wholly absorbed into their workplace. (In this episode, at least, the cameras never leave the office, and the same building remains the hub of all plot throughout the show.) They only appear able to express their honest views when isolated by the implied filmmakers, out of earshot of the bosses. This is the position of 21st-century workers, the show unconsciously understands: consumed by their workplace, and all the more alone as a result.

Skip forward a century, to a vision of our future. Olga Ravn’s The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century (New Directions, 2022, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken) is similarly premised on a decision by the managers of a commercial spaceship to shut down the ship’s operations. The novel takes place on this “Six Thousand Ship,” which houses a sort of spacefaring company town: a total economy, a one-dimensional society in which a large crew of mostly undifferentiated employees eat, work, and dream. Ravn frames the narrative with a short preface: “The following statements 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.”

It seems that, while exploring another planet, the crew has discovered some mysterious, valuable objects of an unspecified nature and are currently transporting them to a home base. Like The Office’s documentarians, the interviewing committee recedes from view in The Employees’s short vignettes. Instead, the novel makes clever use of the interview format to focus on the details and experiences that structure the world of its titular employees. As the narrative proceeds through their numbered statements, the commentaries of the individual, disjointed, atomized employees plunge us into their world in medias res.

The Employees opens by sketching a world that is tightly circumscribed by the all-consuming demands of the staff’s labors. In the book’s first interview transcription (004), an unnamed employee describes their work cleaning some of the objects, their design and purpose kept ambiguous: “It’s not hard to clean them. The big one, I think, sends out a kind of hum,” they monologue, “I’m not sure, but isn’t it female?” The employees ascribe gender to this object because it lays eggs, one of which has cracked open while the object was in storage.

Ravn’s world is suffused with (sometimes literal) alienation: the employees’ disaffected experience of their work lacks any guiding meaning. In their statement, the employee tries to understand the object’s reaction to its lost egg—perhaps its lost child—by the sounds it emits, which consist of unintelligible humming tones. While Ravn’s novel features sci-fi staples like spaceships and distant planets, The Employees explores the strangeness of a world entirely suffused by labor. Labor itself, rather than alien bodies or impossible physics, becomes the means by which Ravn estranges and reworks our familiar codes and conventions, whether of gender or basic communication. The employee’s interview concludes with a kind of thesis on the way that work constructs Ravn’s world:

“It’s no problem keeping the place clean. I’ve made it into my own little world. I talk to her while she rests. It might not look like much. There’s only two rooms. You’d probably say it was a small world, but not if you have to clean it.”

Ravn borrows the last sentence from the title of a 1990 piece by artist Barbara Kruger, Untitled (It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it). The artwork and the novel both explore the way that work, cleaning work in particular, can transfigure confined spaces (“two rooms,” “not much”) into someone’s own “small world.” The perspective in Kruger’s détourned image—viewers look directly at the woman who, presumably, cleans this small world—is distorted by the magnifying glass in the foreground. While the demands of work can expand two rooms into a whole world, Kruger’s repurposed image and Ravn’s repurposed performance interviews magnify the employee instead, zooming in on the abstractions of work to examine the texture of a worker’s life. Ravn sets her novel in a world defined by omnipresent work, and it is in this all-pervading context that the narrative seeks out the moments that supersede the boss’s control.

Ravn’s fictitious interviews conscript the tools of management for alternative ends, much like Kruger’s adoption of the pictures that she overlays with sardonic text. Though the performance interviews take place solely for the purposes of management, Ravn uses them to capture emotional experiences that exist in work’s margins, within its mechanisms—affective registers that the bosses are unable to fully stamp out, such as memories of parents and children, erotic desires. One employee simply misses shopping, the chance to be a consumer: “Shopping had a kind of numbing effect on me, and now that it’s no longer something I do, I’ve started having thoughts and feelings that have turned out to be sad.” In losing this empty and stultifying activity, the employee is ironically able to render its absence into a genuine experience of sadness. This is something like the inverse of the interview format’s utility in The Office, where that more gleeful, comedic, and ultimately normative incarnation deploys it to process workplace resentments into cheap laughs.

In the world it depicts, The Employees is a thoroughly dystopian novel. But it instrumentalizes its representation of dystopia to explore the shifting nature of work in our own also-rather-dystopian present. It’s important to note that its subtitle, (“A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century”) makes “workplace” adjectival—the site of labor being the narrative’s key determinative framework. Reading The Employees brings to mind some recent work in labor studies by Sarah Jaffe and Gabriel Winant. Both have written thorough examinations of contemporary labor, drawing on interviews with workers to understand the work that intimately structures their life, without reifying its logic. In a methodological aside in his book The Next Shift, Winant writes, “Labor may be imbued with feeling, even love, while still being exploitative or coercive.”

This tradition of workplace exegesis can be traced back at least as far as the work of Henry Mayhew and Friedrich Engels, and Winant also includes an endnote pointing to a number of classic feminist labor studies: Hochschild, Weeks, and Federici, among others. Winant studies how the worker’s life transforms in relation to processes of deindustrialization, declines in union density, and sector shifts away from industry and into healthcare (in Pittsburgh, for example). At times he can only describe these processes with recourse to science-fiction terminology: blocs of workers “warping the fabric of time around themselves.” Amidst our present post-industrial crisis, driven by austerity, disinvestment, and capital flight, the affective experience of the worker delineates this time warp, as social dislocation becomes felt most forcefully in ordinary life. 

Fiction such as The Employees offers a vital imaginative tool, not only for empathetic identification, but also for modeling the more ineffable ways that work has so deeply inscribed all of our lives. One of the many contradictions of contemporary capitalism is that as labor becomes ever more totalizing, the place of the worker becomes more isolated—while at the same time, it is forced back to service and care work that demands that worker’s emotional presence. As Jaffe puts it in Work Won’t Love You Back, “the process of outsourcing or automating these jobs out of expensive locations like the United States and Western Europe has shifted the nature of work in those rich countries and resulted, strangely enough, in employers seeking out the very human traits that industrial capitalism had tried so hard to strip away.” In these post-industrial economies, interpersonal and service jobs, where the employee “must show up with a smile” or “be tossed out,” become increasingly prevalent. Ravn projects a future version of our neoliberal hellscape, in which all of life has been subsumed into labor in a kind of hyper-Fordist fantasy, without the benefit of the postwar welfare state that once undergirded consumerism and mass production.

In Ravn’s world, it’s labor that organizes—or extirpates—all meaning. In one statement, an employee overseeing funerals narrates a kind of burlesque of privatization. They attribute their choice of job to a kind of market logic, after their father’s advice: “‘Humans will always have need of three things: food, transport and funerals.’ And so I became a funeral director, and now it’s my job to dispose of terminated workers.” We might presume that a complete identification with a job and the collapse of life into work would at least provide security, a purpose, some sort of reason for being. But conversely, in the totalizing administered world of Ravn’s future, life and death are vacated of meaning:

“We’ve developed our own little ritual here, in view of cremation being the only option and the bereaved have nowhere to go. Or perhaps bereaved isn’t the right word. I don’t know if you grieve over a coworker,  but we perform the ritual anyway, out of respect.”

In another world, rituals provide a space for genuine emotion, but on the Six Thousand Ship, they merely underscore its alienation and vacuousness. Even a funeral cannot offer reprieve from workplace demands. Against their demeaning present labor, the employee’s past sentimental attachment to their father, which led their choice of job, seems to haunt them: “My job here means everything to me. I was the best in my year, that’s why I’m here today. My father’s been dead for years now. I’m not sure why he came to mind. He belongs to another world.” On board the spaceship, the employee’s original reason for becoming a funeral director is obviated by the total economy. The interviews have a ranging, free-associative tenor, allowing Ravn to compose surprising and ironic connections in the employees’ world. The funeral director’s statement (037) becomes a meditation on parenting and death that depicts capitalism’s bitter inversion of workers’ attempts to derive meaning from work.

Death drives the novel’s plot, becoming the source of division between the Six Thousand Ship’s two types of workers. “There’s humans, and then there’s humanoids,” one employee explains, “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 experiences of both human and humanoid employees make up the majority of The Employees, as they attempt to make sense of their differences and the feelings elicited by their coexistence. One statement (053) reads, in its entirety: “My body isn’t like yours.”

The strength of Ravn’s novel comes from the way she subtly weaves a plot with these individual observations. The interviews build a narrative out of oblique references that tell a remarkably different story than the boss’s official accounts, which bookend the novel. Tension mounts as the employees become obsessed with what is only referred to as “the objects,” which the ship’s crew has found on a planet called New Discovery. Ravn’s descriptions of these objects derive from the work of the sculptor Lea Guldditte Hestelund; The Employees was originally written as a companion text to one of her gallery exhibitions.

In the self-contained world of the novel, Ravn repurposes these art objects to evoke the worker’s experience. Perhaps as a response to their own dehumanization, the employees insist on attributing meaning and feeling to the objects, and it is through the objects that the employees begin to break out of their docility. One admits:

“It feels like they’re ours, and at the same time like we belong to them. As if they in fact are us. The Six Thousand Ship can’t function without our work. No, I don’t want to say anything else to you now. Impending violence is by no means inconceivable. We’re only just beginning to understand what we’re capable of.”

The novel attributes a semi-mystical influence to the objects: through them, the employees parse the injustice of their exploitation. The objects’ presence leads the humanoid employees to express unnervingly human emotional attributes. Here, the narrative echoes the way that our affective experiences are informed and transmuted by social forces: race, gender, work. Affect and emotion are far from superficial; rather they are a potent encapsulation of knowledge, encoded with the world’s structures,  including but not limited to exploitation.

The employees’ discontent, and their mounting threats of impending violence, serve to ratchet up tensions. Plot developments on the Six Thousand Ship proceed in fits and starts as the employees gradually become aware of the way that the human/humanoid divide shapes their labor. In the hermetic society of the spaceship, you can’t quit your job and find something better; collective bargaining is forestalled. For the human employees, death is the only escape from work. This convolution of life and labor creates perverse desires, as one employee muses, “I want to be stabbed with a knife by a humanoid coworker… I want to perish at someone else’s wish. I want to feel ecstasy, if only once, on the Six Thousand Ship.”

Jaffe notes that “it is a short step from the affirmation trap”—Joshua Clover’s phrase for the way that workers must affirm their exploitation in order to survive—“to the labor of love.” Ravn takes this logic a step further, as the employees’ labor of love contorts into an eroticized labor of death: the affirmation of exploitation at the expense of their survival. A workforce of humanoids, who can be upgraded with enhanced capabilities, are the technological harbinger of this death. Not only are they deathless, but their consciousness can be incorporated in a new body if, say, an individual worker’s behavior needs adjustment. This is the ultimate fantasy for the employer: a labor force that never expires, never suffers for lack of human needs, endlessly programmable, replaceable, and optimizable.

The novel ends, perhaps inevitably, with the deaths of the workers. The immortal humanoid employees allow the management to overcome the inconvenient needs of the humans, upon whom they’d previously relied. At the end of the committee’s interview process, the ship’s board of directors decides “in favor of a biological termination of the Six Thousand Ship,” out of  “a wish to preserve the ship and its cargo”—the “objects” and other commodities—and do away with the workforce, human and humanoid employees alike. It’s revealed that the committee conducting the interviews is composed of humanoids; as they can be digitally preserved and replicated, their loss is of little consequence. However, in the end, the decision to terminate the workforce will not go as neatly as the board of directors had hoped. At the novel’s close, we learn that the equipment on which the interviews are stored remains online after the termination. It broadcasts the aftermath of the eradication, a record of life after work.

“All the humans are dead now. And you’re dead too,” one surviving humanoid narrates. The less advanced humanoids are the last to be terminated—they are more artificial than biological, and therefore less susceptible to the destruction. It is only in the wake of this destruction that the humanoids find an escape from work. “I’ve come to tell you that those of us who are left have decided to leave the ship and go out into the valley,” another humanoid tells the recording equipment, a vestige of management’s abandonment. “We’ve talked about the risk that in committing ourselves to this decision we might not be reuploaded, and this we accept. These words are the last you’ll hear from us.” In the novel’s final words, Ravn stages its central contradiction: by forfeiting their workplace, these employees risk losing their life; but only by doing so can they begin to live.

The workplace novel is always a dystopia. The tragedy of The Employees is that the workers discover the means of collective freedom too late. We 21st-century employees are not yet in this imperiled position, but neither is our position an enviable one. Work is already bounded by death, as we’ve been reminded by the unceasing toll of the pandemic and the bosses’ insatiable drive for profit, for the continuation of a murderous “normal.” Corporations seem eager to upload us into a work-centric “metaverse,” as we’ve learned recently—to say nothing of the numerous other architectures of technological control under which we live and labor. Ravn’s futuristic imaginary impels action in our present so that we might prevent the boss’s fictions from becoming fact.

In The Office, the employees keep their jobs. But is that really a happy ending? They all hate their workplace, yet they remain there, suffering (along with the viewers) through nine increasingly cloying seasons. As the show achieved pop culture supremacy, its success relied on its transformation from a satire of the indignities of work into a mawkish caricature of management-labor relationships. The Employees poses the contradictions far more starkly: capitalist exploitation or death.

As a result, the novel is, despite its future setting, perhaps more comparable to our own world of billionaires and scarcity. Both involve the effort to survive and stave off disaster, which will depend on a contestation with murderous, barely human elites. The solution arrived at by the employees of the 22nd century is the same option that now lies before us. We have the choice to leave capital’s world of work behind before we are condemned to total eradication by the designs of an unfeeling system. The valley is waiting outside the spaceship, and we might go out there now, together.♦

Adam Fales is a writer and grad worker who lives in Chicago, where he is also co-editor of Chicago Review. You can find him on Twitter @damfales.

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