Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
( New Directions , 2022)
Olga Ravn’s The Employees unpacks like a miraculous gift, alive with changes. Peeling off the first wrap, things look eerie, then at the next mundane, and while the crackle might sound like laughter, it also shivers with terror or poignancy. Short as the novel is, some chapters just a few lines, it’s intense, sumptuous, and utterly distinctive. I’m neither surprised it made the shortlist for the International Booker Prize (the one for fiction in translation) nor that it didn’t win. A text like this, all funhouse angles and polymorphous rewards, feels too weird for prizes—literally off-world.
If you had to categorize The Employees, that is, you’d call it science fiction. Events take place on “the Six Thousand Ship,” staffed by a combination of humans and “humanoids,” AI, in close orbit around “New Discovery.” Whatever their business with this planet, it’s also supplied them with certain “objects,” freestanding pick-ups now on display in a couple of the ship’s rooms. The crew has names for each, like “The Reverse Strap-On,” but no one can fully explain their purpose on board. Indeed, that mystery drives the plot. The text presents a series of “statements,” none longer than two pages, and though there’s an introduction, it offers no more than a scrap of explanation. In gnarly bureaucratese, perhaps the language of “Homebase,” these opening lines tell us the statements are all “unprejudiced recordings,” comprising a sort of database: a way “to investigate the possible impacts of the objects … or perhaps relationships.”
Which means that spelling out the basics of plot and structure, as I have, damages the pleasures of the text. The SF of The Employees is in High European mode, never spelling things out, each brief block of invention adding to the process of discovery. The effect is ticklish, intriguing, and, in this case, kindles a rare warmth. We care for this crew more than for, say, the robots of Stanislaw Lem.
From the first, Ravn proves wizardly at anthropomorphism. The first “statement,” concerning the largest “object,” speculates: “The big one, I think, sends out a kind of hum … I’m not sure, but isn’t it female?” The next crew member feels differently, she finds the things “hostile,” but nonetheless comprehensible. “I’ve seen intimacy between them,” this person claims. “It frightens me.” Indeed, such emotional responses spill over to the planet from which the objects were collected—or should we say harvested? Another early speaker recalls coming across “the smallest,” near “a stream so cold it turned our hands and feet red,” where the object’s hum immediately shook up one of the Away Team; it “brought a change to his face.” Such disturbing familiarity suffuses all the monsters of this Voyager Frankenstein: human, not-quite-human, and even New Discovery itself. Throughout, the language sustains this balance, at once earthly and un-, yet Martin Aitken’s translation remains meticulous, never strained, never lacking in that subtle warmth.
Ravn’s alchemy requires that the statements never give away the speakers’ names, and she knows better than to complicate matters by dreaming up an idiosyncratic voice for each. Their differences reside in their responses to the objects, and don’t prevent their statements from working as an aggregate. They let us know the essentials of the expedition and, more importantly, say something about each speaker’s role. One or two may recur, I’m not sure, but this doesn’t affect what matters, namely, the emerging preponderance of the “humanoids.” The AI often declare themselves in thought-provoking ways, such as the speaker who’s brought up short by their own expression “calf-colored leather.” A moment later, the “cadet” has to ask: “What color is a calf, exactly? I’ve never seen one.”
Clever asides like that abound, but before long they take on a sinister resonance. Another crew member first identifies himself as human—he asks the interlocutor “Why have you made them so human to look at?”⎯ and soon implies a gender as well, trying to make sense of a new assignment. Homebase has asked him to spy on one of “them,” a redheaded “humanoid, fifth-generation, female,” for whom he’s developed “a kind of tenderness.” Working in surveillance, he comes to think, raises the stakes considerably:
On this ship … I carry out my work with complete apathy. … I know we won’t get away from here in my lifetime. [The redhead humanoid] hasn’t got a lifetime, or rather hers spans such a gigantic stretch of time it’s beyond my comprehension. She’s got a future ahead of her. So now you’re saying my job’s changed? That I’m to watch her? I think this might save my life.
Passages like that ratchet up the tension and, in time, establish a plot. Whoever’s asking the questions remains offstage throughout, but nonetheless reveals an agenda less benign, raising doubts about the mission and threatening the crew. “Experimental” as the novel may appear, in other words, it generates suspense and even a cathartic climax. As for that, a reviewer needs to keep mum, but I can point out that Ravn’s success, delivering classic satisfactions from out of left field—far, far out—places her with other potent and freewheeling European women now hitting their career stride, in particular Jenny Erpenbeck and Olga Tokarczuk.
Like them, this author perceives how stories in text constitute their own strange “object,” whether unidentified and flying or rooted and bearing strange fruit. Those on board the Six Thousand suggest a gallery exhibition, and the dedication to The Employees thanks a sculptor and installation artist, but any living art form must outgrow its prototypes, its earlier iterations. In this case, ultimately the crew members don’t know what to make of the display: “a museum, a prison, a brothel … a nursery.” A number of their final gestures touch on timeless embodiments of renewal: Persephone’s pomegranate, Walt Whitman’s grass.