There’s an obvious visual difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Where Kirk’s Enterprise looked like a sterile battleship, Picard’s looks like an office. Soothingly beige, carpeted, with comfy chairs and the occasional potted plant. (Most of the waiting rooms I’ve known in my life have felt very Enterprise D-ish, which is fine by me; who’d want to wait for their dental appointment in a battleship?).
It’s not just an office, of course. The Federation is meant to be a utopia, so the Enterprise is also a home and community. Everybody hangs out in the lounge, attends concerts and amateur drama, gets plenty of free time for hobbies. Everybody on Star Trek: The Next Generation has a great work-life balance.
The Six Thousand Ship, the setting of Olga Ravn’s The Employees, is something else. Among the themes of The Employees is an approach to space travel I haven’t often seen: if a starship is a workplace, its crew has nothing but their workplace, floating in an empty void. It’s implied the Six Thousand Ship’s crew signed up for a one-way journey—it won’t return to Earth in the crew’s lifetimes. Much of the novel is an exploration of the psychological effects, the damage done when there’s literally nothing outside of “productivity.”
Space is the corporate dream: the one place your employees can’t walk off the job. Not if they want to keep breathing.
The Employees is structured as a series of statements to managers holding listening sessions to “gain knowledge of the local workflows.” The statements are anonymous. We rarely hear a name. The protagonist is the whole crew. Given SFF’s emphasis on worldbuilding, it’s weird it doesn’t do fictional mass observation more often. Adventure stories or bildungsromans starring singular heroes are the default, to the point the average SFF fan might think The Employees is more experimental than it really is. SFF tells stories about different worlds, but defaults to focusing on how those differences affect a singular, special, hero as they chase self-actualization. Even SFF novels with multiple POV characters (i.e., A Game of Thrones) often feel less like social novels than like multiple hero stories broken up and braided together. The Employees is instead a portrait of a society.
Toiling alongside the human employees are “humanoids,” artificial workers indistinguishable from humans. (We often don’t know whether a statement is made by a human or a humanoid.) Humanoids were built to work. They don’t know Earth, they have no experience of anything but employment. One is baffled to hear a human colleague say there’s more to a person than their work: “what else could a person be?”
The human employees find themselves nostalgic for everything they had on Earth—family, nature, shopping. They sound surprised. These weren’t feelings they’d expected to have. Some employees keep simulated holographic children as substitute family. Eggs are a recurring image. One employee dreams about tiny spheres like fish eggs breaking out of their skin. In the real world human employees come down with cases of warts, like the dream is trying incompetently to come true. The humans disappear into their roles, becoming interchangeable parts: “As long as you’re in the suit and pass through the corridor to be cleansed, you’re the first officer.” Later there’s a mutiny and the ship’s funeral director doesn’t know how to respond as anything but a funeral director: “I haven’t always felt that my capabilities were being utilized to the full.”
In this environment employees’ full potential as people goes unused and unusable—humans and humanoids both.
As I write this internet junkies have gathered to morbidly gawk at the train wreck that is Elon Musk’s Twitter, which he is running like the world’s drunkest railway signalman. Paid verifications let pranksters pose as his advertisers! People can’t log in because he turned off the two-factor authentication server! He’s getting dangerously close to violating the GDPR!
Most relevantly, as soon as Musk bought Twitter he laid off half the work force, on the theory that anybody left could just work harder. Many have. One proudly posted a photo of herself sleeping at the office, which provoked horror but also some cheering from Musk fans, one declaring “This is how great new things are built.” Which… they’re built badly, but, yeah, this is how a lot of the tech industry works. It’s a standard part of the stereotype: clownish startups filling their headquarters with cereal bars and foosball tables in a vainly half-assed effort to take the edge off long days in the office. Video games are built on “crunch.” Musk demanded his ever-shrinking pool of workers sign a loyalty oath declaring their willingness to be “extremely hardcore” which means working “long hours at high intensity.” The workplace comes first. (Nothing outside of productivity.) In a development that surprised Musk and absolutely no one else, most of the remaining employees took severance instead. That’s where space comes in!
The humanoids suspect something is missing. The humans who identify with their jobs are suffering cognitive dissonance over a bad and irrevocable career choice. Having no past to look back on gives the humanoids time to look at their present, and they’re not sure they want to be tools. At the same time they’re growing their curiosity and optimism as fast as the humans lose it. The company can upload and redownload the humanoids’ minds; they’re likely to survive after the humans are gone. Maybe they’ll someday see Earth. Maybe they can survive on the alien planet the Six Thousand Ship has been studying. “I may have been made,” says one, “but now I’m making myself.”
The statements keep circling back to “the objects,” artifacts from the planet, which hold a strange fascination for the crew. They’re called “the objects” because nobody knows what else they could be. They look like eggs, or tubes, or stones. Sometimes they feel alive. “It’s a dangerous thing for an organization not to be sure which of the objects in its custody may be considered to be living,” says one person. They could be talking about the objects, or the humanoids, or the whole crew.
The objects are the reason The Employees was written in the first place—if you want to get metafictional, you might say they were there at the creation of the crew’s universe. The objects are based on the work of a sculptor named Lea Guldditte Hestelund who asked Olga Ravn to write a text for an exhibition, which became The Employees. The novel mentions the Six Thousand Ship has white walls and orange and gray floors. So does the museum space in the photos at the site I just linked. We’re probably meant to visualize the ship as resembling the real-world museum.
The crew doesn’t understand their own feelings towards the objects; they’re both attracted and disquieted. (A quietly throbbing egg is not as straightforward as a foosball table.) Maybe the objects, in their sheer inscrutability, are envoys from outside the bounds of the crew’s imagination. If these objects are beyond understanding or conception, what other possibilities are they missing? The crew who’ve experienced life outside of work, who know what they’ve lost in moving to a world of pure productivity, are making their imaginations smaller to adjust. It’s that or stop breathing.
“I think you need to imagine a future and then live in it,” says one crew member.
Have I mentioned Elon Musk is the guy who wants to run a Mars colony? I think he’d get takers. Americans are carving away at their imaginations as you read this.