From the mysterious monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the impossible spaceship in Arrival, one of science fiction’s favourite tropes is the alien artefact that defies human comprehension. Danish author Olga Ravn’s brilliantly unusual novel The Employees, which has been shortlisted for the International Booker prize, is an SF epic in miniature, but it takes a prosaic approach to our dreams of extraterrestrial transcendence. “It’s not hard to clean them,” says a crew member of the strange objects found on the faraway planet New Discovery, now housed in the Six-Thousand Ship orbiting above. “I normally use a little brush.”
The Employees is not only a disconcertingly quotidian space opera; it’s also an audacious satire of corporate language and the late-capitalist workplace, and a winningly abstracted investigation into what it means to be human. The book takes the form of a series of statements – some missing, some with material redacted – made by the crew to a bureaucratic committee investigating the effects of the strange objects: not what they might be or reveal, but how they might “precipitate reduction or enhancement of performance, task-related understanding and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills”.
“I’m not sure, but isn’t it female?” asks that same cleaner about one of the objects. The novel is saturated from the outset in ontological uncertainty; the crew is made up of both humans and humanoids, the born and the grown, but it is not always possible to work out from their statements which is which. Where one humanoid cannot imagine any meaningful activity beyond the work they were created for, another insists on their burgeoning selfhood: “I may have been made, but now I’m making myself.” It might merely be a question of bureaucracy. “Am I human? Does it say in your files what I am?” asks one crew member. The statement that reads in its entirety “My body isn’t like yours” is a reminder that humanity may lie in the eye of the beholder.
In the midst of corporate jargon, the novel is haunted by longings, dreams, lyrical fragments of memory from a long-lost Earth. It is haunted too by its genesis as a companion piece to a 2018 art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund exploring “the relationship between different types of presence and body”, both human and not. The alien finds in the novel that draw, repel and provoke the different crew members are recognisably the objects in the exhibition, now archived online. Ravn maps the exhibition room on to the spaceship: the same white walls, sterile spaces, corridors between installations; even the “niches in the walls where you can hang your suit”. Art galleries and spaceships are both playgrounds for the cultural imagination; in another uncanny layer to an eerily rich text, by the end of the novel the ship itself becomes a macabre kind of museum piece.
Despite the sterile setting and often chilly prose, The Employees is a deeply sensory book, suffused with aroma and alert to tactility. The materiality of the objects makes crew members long to put them in their mouth; to discover where the limits of the self end, like babies learning about their new world. The image recurs of a marble or wooden sphere rolling around inside a mouth, person and possession in intimate proximity. The pages crawl, also, with disturbing up-close descriptions of egg clusters, open pores with tiny stones in, flesh specked with dots, pomegranates stuffed with seeds. It is as though Ravn is channeling trypophobia, disgust for clusters of holes or bumps, to evoke fear of the nonhuman. “Repetitive, organic structures are unbearable,” reads one statement. “They cannot be destroyed and will continue to regenerate.” There are affinities here with the unleashed vegetal energies in Jeff VanderMeer’s novels about mutation and nonhuman sentience. As relations break down between human and humanoid, one declares, “I’m a pomegranate ripe with moist seeds, each seed a killing I’m going to carry out.”
It is astonishing how much Ravn achieves in her small canvas of 130-odd pages: she muses on transhumanism, illuminates the dreamlike logic of inner lives, contrasts artistic and religious impulses with the anti-human reductionism of corporate jargon. And she does all this while retaining an elliptical, open-ended mystery and a delicately elegiac tone. Translator Martin Aitken perfectly balances all the different registers and voices (though DIY enthusiasts may be jolted by repeated references to taking the alien objects “back to Homebase”).
Like humans, the humanoids are always chasing their own metaphysical tail. “In the programme, beneath my interface, there’s another interface, which is also me…” This clever, endlessly thought-provoking novel catches something of our recursive search for the nature of consciousness; a question that answers itself, a voice in the darkness, an object moving through space.
• The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century is translated by Martin Aitken and published by Lolli Editions (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.