The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is a meditation on living, conveyed fragmentally, through a series of numbered statements given by workers—some of whom are human while others are humanoid artificial intelligence—on a space vessel called the Six Thousand Ship. While the ostensible purpose of these fictional interviews is to determine the impact of “objects” collected from a new planet on the titular employees who work in their presence, benign observation soon gives way to poignant consideration of what humans are capable of feeling for those who are made and not born, what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human, a separation this tale is keen to probe.
The story begins with a disclaimer explaining that the statements collected are the result of interviews conducted over an 18-month period. The earliest statements are somewhat opaque, mostly describing certain objects and their immediate effects. Employee statements first focus on the aliveness of the objects (“It was warm. I got the distinct impression that it was looking at me.”); later, workers begin to turn their analytical powers upon themselves. One catalyst for this self-examination is the disparity between what employees are told about the objects versus what they experience of them. One statement begins: “It’s hard for me to understand that the objects in the rooms haven’t got feelings, even though you’ve told me this is the case.” It is therefore only natural that such cognitive dissonance would lead both employees and readers to regard the non-human employees in parallel with the objects from New Discovery, as both are technically categorized as “things” but clearly experience life and all of its trappings, including emotions, even if the experience is distinct from that of a human being. The most interesting aspect of this distinction highlighted in the text, and often mirrored in real life, is that emotions are considered an asset to humans but a detriment to the efficiency of non-human employees. We are encouraged, however, to question this supposed inefficiency, both by the reaction of the AI (“Is this a human problem? If so, I’d like to keep it.”), as well as the lack of textual insight into the tasks that cannot be completed correctly and why this is so.
The language of the statements becomes less abstract as each worker reaches a more profound understanding of themselves and those around them. Most compelling is the growing awareness of the AI workers as their grasp of their own nature strengthens. Partway through, one humanoid makes a statement questioning the influence of its program on its decisions: “Am I supposed to carry on with my job knowing that what I’m doing potentially works against the program? Or am I so pervaded by the program that I’m bound to act in accordance with it, no matter what?” Despite these questions being posed by a non-human being, it is easy to reframe them as very human musings, with or without the added filter of religious belief. When we consider our own actions, it is impossible to know precisely how great or small the influence of our environment is when compared with that of our genetic coding. We are no less slaves to programming than the AI workers aboard the Six Thousand Ship, and no less capable of being haunted by that fact. “Free will” is a very shadowy concept and, The Employees proposes, an illusory barrier between humanity and artificial intelligence.
The borders between each worker’s experience of life continue to dissolve as the months aboard the ship wear on. Before long, concerns that seemed easily categorizable are shared among both types of being. One human makes a statement describing the time they met Dr. Lund, the scientist behind the AI employees’ creation, saying: “Even though I was born and brought up and my documents all said human, there was something about his behavior that made me think he didn’t consider me to be an equal”. This human is made to feel an inadequacy similar to what artificially intelligent beings are often confronted with in literature, film, and television because of the humanity they lack. Dr. Lund clearly values beings with supposedly ordered processes, unburdened of all the mess of humanity, as do the company who employed their use. However, what no one foresaw were the finer evolutionary possibilities, and to what they might lead.
A key factor that does separate the human from the non in this story are the memories held by the former of life on Earth. The humans hold desperately onto what was, at first bolstered, then made miserable by what they have left behind. They share memories of loved ones, smells, textures—things they can no longer access so far from home. Rather than bringing them closer, this shared sense of loss actually begins to tear at the social fabric binding the human employees together. Although New Discovery presents a visual facsimile to Earth, with its bodies of water and grassy fields, the planet’s atmosphere is lethal to humans, requiring them to wear suits whenever they leave the ship. It makes sense then that being cut off from connections with loved ones, as well as from the only natural landscape available to them, forces the humans to restrict their yearnings for kinship to the vessel, and to reckon with growing feelings of attachment to their AI counterparts. One human even begins to question whether or not they are in love with a non-human coworker. Eventually, the emotions that grow and change among crew members swell to a degree that changes things aboard the ship for good.
The dance of separation and connection that happens within and amongst the different groups in The Employees, as well as its resultant fallout, reflects the breakdown of misconception, the muddle of gray resulting from black running steadily into white. The story paints a vivid picture of a near future, while also subtly warning against it. Perhaps certain tragic events can be avoided if we are able to keep an open mind about what it means to be alive. Not to mention, as the story suggests, how constructive it can be to resist the urge to guard the characteristics of humanity like a holy grail that only some may drink from.
The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century
By Olga Ravn
Translated by Martin Aitken
New Directions Publishing Corporation
Published February 1, 2023
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L'Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, Litromagazine.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction, Flowers from the Void, is forthcoming from Clash Books (US) and Serpent's Tail (UK) in Spring 2024.