Shortlisted for the International Booker prize, The Employees takes place on an interstellar journey aboard the Six-Thousand Ship, where human and humanoid crew members complain about their daily tasks in a series of staff reports and memos. When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew becomes strangely and deeply attached to them, even as tensions boil toward mutiny.
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?