Review: The Employees

The Employees
Olga Ravn (translated by Martin Aitken), 150 pgs, Book*hug,, $20

“I’m starting to feel disloyal toward the organization and it pains me because there’s no place for me other than inside the organization.” If you’ve ever worked for a company that insists on worming its way into your personal time, you know how difficult it can be to maintain a sense of self that’s independent of your role as a worker. Set aboard a deep space research vessel, Olga Ravn’s The Employees is a parable about what happens when you can never leave the office.

Orbiting the distant planet New Discovery on a mission to harvest fleshy alien “objects” for scientific purposes, the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship know they will not survive the long return voyage to Earth. The narrative unfolds in the form of excerpts from HR interviews with the unnamed workers, a mix of humans and artificial “humanoids” (think Replicants à la Blade Runner). The boundaries between the increasingly conditioned humans and the increasingly emotive humanoids become more porous as the voyage goes on and they are denied any context to define themselves beyond work.

Fittingly, there is something subdued but unsettling about many of their testimonies, as though they’d all be screaming if they weren’t under such heavy situational sedation. It’s only in the presence of the perplexing objects, which exude a queer emotional and physical allure to human and humanoid alike, that the crewmembers encounter something unplanned. Ravn’s background is in poetry, and in these vivid, squelchy sequences, she manages something like turning body horror into body romance.

Toronto’s Book*hug snapped up the Canadian rights to The Employees (a 2021 Booker Prize nominee), and it feels of a piece with their genre-splicing catalogue. While it’s very much a poet’s novel and will reward language fetishists, its brevity, ingenuity and quiet weirdness make The Employees easy to recommend to any openminded reader. (JM Francheteau)