Books & Dopamine

'The Employees' Asks What Makes You Human

Cover of the book The Employees by Olga Ravn

The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn is an interesting (and weird) book to review. It's formatted as a series of statements given by those who work on a ship called the Six-Thousand Ship. There are humans and humanoids who work on the ship, as well as objects that they care for and interact with. (The author has said in interviews that the objects in the book were inspired by the art pieces at a solo exhibition show Overgaden by artist Lea Guldditte Hestelund).

What makes a human a human

The story is vague and requires the reader to fill in the blanks. In some of the statements the reader isn't able to determine if it's a human or humanoid giving the statement. Through the statements the reader is asked what it means to be human and what consciousness actually means.

Is it a question of a name? Could I be a human if you called me one?

A humanoid looks human, sounds human, and acts like a human. They may have been created rather than born in the traditional sense, but does that matter? Is the only difference separating a human from a humanoid permanent death and temporary death? And in that case, what does it mean to be alive?

How do you know there's nothing happening inside me when I'm switched off? OFF is a concept you invented as a kind of death for my kind.

Throughout the statements in The Employees made by humans, they are often talking about the humanoids. It is interesting to see how the humans project the human condition onto the humanoids, thus making the humanoids human to the humans. (How many times can I say 'human' in this review?)

Humanoids are more valuable than humans

The Employees gave me some Severance (the TV series) vibes which I love. The author does a wonderful job prodding the fragility of the human condition. It points at how humans can be made to feel like animate objects, much like a humanoid. There's one point where a humanoid reports that one of their human co-workers said that there's more to a person than work. The humanoid reflects, "How would you get by without work and without your co-workers? Would you be left standing in a cupboard?"
Drawing of a faceless human sitting inside of a tall cupboard with the door open.

Capitalism (without calling it capitalism) is poked at and we see how one's value is tied to their productivity. The workforce values humanoids over humans because they are efficiently created to work and don't require rights or freedom. Humanoid causing disruptions? No problem; erase them and re-upload.

I may have been made, but now I'm making myself.

The fact that no names are given in the statements speaks loudly to how they are all cogs in the workforce machine. Within the eyes of the workforce, we're all disposable.

My review from StoryGraph Mood: dark, mysterious, reflective
Pace: fast
Plot- or character-driven: N/A
Strong character development: It's complicated
Loveable characters: No
Diverse cast of characters: It's complicated
Flaws of characters a main focus: It's complicated

Overall Rating 4.25 / 5 stars