For the reader...time functions like a loose knob, to be rolled and fiddled with desultorily; you can read The Employees according to pagination or statement number, but the ending never changes, a narrative deadlock that Ravn pulls off with grace. Readers can only guess which character is behind which statement, a situation further complicated by the fact that some members of the crew are humanoids rather than 'born' humans ... The Employees feels close to Greek mythology. Like the figures of an epic, the workers seem composed of equal parts fate and randomness, automation and rebellion. The actual business of the Six Thousand Ship is nevertheless wholly modern: resource extraction, as employees make occasional excursions to harvest commodities known only as 'objects.' These soon come to derail—delightfully—both the ship’s functioning and its crew’s philosophizing ... In Ravn’s telling, humanity is sometimes as mute and yielding as objecthood, especially when steered between the trammels of a workday. Objecthood, meanwhile, can be the animating force behind everything.
At first, the statements are chiefly concerned with describing the new objects. Ravn’s imagery in these passages is both beautiful and intensely enigmatic. In many ways, these images drive the plot — the episodic nature of the novel means that much of the plot is relayed retrospectively, and often in abstract or opaque language. While this might feel disorienting at first, Ravn grounds us in rich descriptions of the strange objects and their effects on the workers ... The sharp contrast between passages like this one and the dry, mechanical language used by the board of directors demonstrates that, even as the workers are unable to differentiate 'real' from 'programmed' perceptions, the objects nonetheless prompt them to radically reconsider the nature of their perception and the world around them ... By taking a closer look at the fundamental relationship between artificial intelligence and the corporatization of our world, we might understand that the true threat comes in the form of CEOs and boards of directors, rather than technologically advanced machinery ... can be read as a kind of ekphrastic writing that hinges on the capacity for art to help us critically examine the world in which we live (and work).
Gnomic and elliptical where most science fiction is expository ... The language they use to describe their dreams and memories is compressed and vivid, the language of a poet in Martin Aitken’s crystalline English translation. When their statements escalate into strings of clauses, the result is not numbing but incantatory, an ecstasy of remembrance, mourning, and hope ... There are amusing echoes here of the sort of intergenerational workplace conflicts that newspaper feature reporters like to write about, stories in which managers from an older generation puzzle over the manners and expectations of their younger colleagues while acknowledging that eventually these perplexing people will be running things ... The most striking aspect of this weird, beautiful, and occasionally disgusting novel is not, as its subtitle implies, its portrayal of working life on the spaceship. Most of Ravn’s characters are too obsessively inward-looking to get up to much in the way of office politics or banter. Rather, it’s the objects themselves—impossible to visualize or fully imagine, so unlike any form of known life that not everyone on board the Six Thousand Ship is sure they’re alive at all. They are utterly alien, and yet for most of the crew members the objects are also comforting, even familiar ... The valley on New Discovery where the objects were found is even more entrancing ... what The Employees captures best is humanity’s ambivalence about life itself, its sticky messes and unappealing functions, the goo that connects us to everything that crawls and mindlessly self-propagates, not to mention that obliterating payoff at the end of it all. It is our best beloved and it turns our stomachs. We build antiseptic vessels like the Six Thousand Ship, or for that matter the organization itself, to control its chaos, and then pine for it once we’ve shut it out. 'I’m not sure I still feel pride in my humanity,' one of the crew members confesses. And who can blame him?
... laconic, discomposing ... Ravn’s book has a sickly, anxious energy all its own. Though the crew’s testimony is plainly stated, it’s also quite opaque: we sometimes know who is speaking (the first officer, say, or the ship’s funeral director) and at times can be sure that person is human ... Ravn carefully rations plot details: the stirrings of incipient revolt, a nostalgia for Earth that has overtaken the humans, the disappearing authority of Lund and maybe also of the committee’s inquisitors. The testimonial format has to do most of the labor of characterization, plot, and suggestive imagery—it’s a feat to achieve this in short fragments without too much overt thematic semaphore. In the end, you come away from The Employees with a series of unnerving visual moments in mind, from which something has been excised or obscured, like a migrainous blind spot or scotoma ... The novel is by turns queasily exact about what is seen—skin pitted like pomegranate, an object’s furrows oozing some nameless balm—and willfully obscure.
A story of rising tensions ... The voices of humans and humanoids are almost indistinguishable as they describe the disturbing dreams, imaginary smells, skin complaints and wild thoughts that seem to be provoked by these mysterious things, which hum, or ooze resin, or lay eggs ... Ravn’s technology is an uncanny mixture of 'biomaterial' and machine, and her characters, locations and statements are all numbered. 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 ... There may still be division in Ravn’s twenty-second century, but humans and humanoids alike answer to a distant, faceless corporation. If that’s a fate worth avoiding, there is still plenty of work for us all to do.
Ravn is up to something different in The Employees, exchanging dystopian clichés for something closer to the emotional striving of a coming-of-age narrative: Imagine I, Robot meets Flowers for Algernon with a dash of the office novel. By doing so, Ravn aligns her compact novel with works like Spike Jonze’s Her, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, and Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, in which robots are on the other end of the sympathy spectrum, no longer merely reflections of the dangers of human hubris but characters in their own right. Self-aware enough to recognize their own limitations yet unable to overcome them, Ravn’s humanoids express humanity’s most fundamental desires while remaining forever at a remove from them ... There’s more than a touch of body horror to these descriptions, and the impressions they make linger in the background ... Much like listening to the black box recording from a plane crash, we know that by the time the book has reached us, something has gone terribly wrong ... with all the voices stripped of the exterior signs of individuality, each account is distinct, marked by idiosyncratic memories and rich sensory impressions. No unifying narrative emerges out of this collection of disparate accounts. The more we read, the more we recognize that the 'problem' the committee is trying to solve is that of the individual: of workers whose desires and ambitions cannot be neatly assimilated into a corporate framework ... Ravn has chosen to place us as the silent observer, the extraterrestrial McKinsey consultant, in order to make us understand that the ship must be eliminated for the good of the mission ... The strange origins of the novella are not fully reconciled in its final version—for all the description of the objects at the beginning, they soon disappear almost entirely—but the book also develops an emotional resonance beyond its initial prompt. Picking up on the unsettling, intimate, and playful qualities of Hestelund’s work—which tends to reference bodies and alien life forms and makes use of idiosyncratic smells and soft organic shapes—Ravn creates a world that is complementary to our own and yet far more menacing.
Reproducing the particular babble unique to workplace small talk, Ravn presents the employees as nervous chatterboxes who fill the room with whatever comes to mind: their love of shopping, crushes, cookies. In every statement, Ravn excises the interviewers’ questions and reactions, omissions that make the transcripts feel more like confessions than conversations ... The Employees fails to weave this ambient discontent into compelling storytelling despite its hints at social commentary. The gaze of the ship’s management, though built into the novel’s structure, lacks narrative weight. Management is so amorphous that the workers’ perspectives feel arbitrary and ungrounded. And the hierarchy of the ship is so ill-defined that even when mutiny brews, the stakes of the conflict remain vague. The elliptical writing doesn’t help either. Ravn’s denuded prose, though elegant, is short on world building. The book’s repetitive formatting, in turn, muffles the plot and obscures details as basic as whether workers are paid or if they have bills and debts. Empathizing with their plight is hard when their jobs are pure abstractions.
... the world Ravn has created is familiar enough in its tropes and human(oid) emotions to infect the reader’s imagination. A book that strikes a rare balance between SF philosophy and workaday feeling all while whirling through space.