A few years ago (I say a few years ago; it was in 2009), Toby Litt wrote an excellent (and to my mind under-rated) sci-fi novel called Journey Through Space. Quite possibly – given that Toby Litt isn’t celebrated as a sci-fi writer, and hasn’t written much (to my knowledge) in the way of sci-fi since then – it was the kind of sci-fi written for people who don’t generally read sci-fi (as a rule). A kind of experiment, you might say (Toby Litt being a writer like Rupert Thomson, in that, book to book, he changes things up). It’s also fair to say (and this is me just hazarding a guess), it’s quite possible that people who do read a lot of sci-fi might see Journey Through Space for what it is (a literary experiment) and end up haranguing me with lots of “you think that’s good sci-fi? I’ll show you what good sci-fi is – you should read… x and y and z.”
I mention this because both Journey Through Space and the entanglements of “is this sci-fi / would it be approved of by genuine sci-fi readers / am I the right person to judge whether this is a good sci-fi novel / does it even matter whether this is sci-fi at all, can it not just be judged by itself on its own merits” have all been whirling as I’ve read Olga Ravn’s International Booker-nominated novel, The Employees (subtitled ‘A workplace novel of the 22nd century’). Like Ben Paster’s recent collection of short stories, Am I In The Right Place?, this is a piece of fiction that uses ostensibly familiar language (that slightly strained corporate language used by Human Resources departments the world over) and ostensibly familiar environments (the workplace, even if that workplace is a huge spaceship composed of largely white surfaces) to beguile and wrongfoot us.
What we have here is a collection of statements from (in the vast majority of cases) unnamed individuals, some of whom we hear from more than once (and some of whom we may hear from more than once, there doesn’t seem to always be a way to tell) – some of whom are human and some of whom are manufactured, humanoid; some of whom know they are either human or humanoid and some of whom appear to have forgotten or be struggling to remember. The Six-Thousand Ship on which they work have picked up objects from a planet called New Discovery, objects that hum or change colour, objects some members of the crew name, objects that appear to exert a kind of influence – objects that, in time, may play a part in what then follows – with crew members experiencing medical issues (like a kind of alien eczema), dreaming of Earth, dreaming of children, dreaming of shopping. This, in turn, gives rise to a burgeoning sense of dissatisfaction:
“Why do I have these thoughts if the reason I’m here is primarily to increase production? From what perspective are these thoughts productive? Was there an error in the update? If there was, I’d like to be rebooted.”
Sometimes the statements are themselves somewhat oblique. Sometimes events are alluded to that we can only glimpse via the scant detail shared with us. We know that things are going on. In the background. That the collection of statements is being driven by something, some urgent impetus. We sense that things are spiralling.
All told, it’s a short and interesting novel, full of ideas, brimming with provocation, enticing in what it presents and what it doesn’t. Yelena Moskovich describes the book as “compact, crystalline and unnerving” and those three words certainly help to define the experience of reading The Employees.
Any Cop?: Having dipped out toes in the Olga Ravn waters, here’s hoping that her UK publisher Lolli hop to it and published her debut, Celestine, soon.