In his “Introduction to Extraterrestrial Literature. Reading and Writing in Space”, Zurich literary scholar Philipp Theisohn explains that the relationship between space and literature is a special one. The novels above the universe, and even more so out from space expand the limitations of the terrestrial perspective and allow us to understand the human being as a galactic being intertwined with multiple relationships. With her unusual science fiction novel “The Employees”, the Danish author Olga Ravn has added an extraordinarily poetic chapter to the multifaceted history of extraterrestrial literature.
In the almost 150 pages of her novel, which was published in Danish in 2018 and has now been confidently translated into German by Alexander Sitzmann, she unfolds a darkly shining cosmos in which thoughtful voices, quiet questions and eerie dreams light up like shooting stars and then fade away again. It is unclear to whom the various statements can be assigned. In the novel, they are marked as “witness testimonies,” which a preceding note says were taken “to gain insight into the relationship between the employees and the objects in the rooms.”
In the course of the novel’s plot, which is less a plot than a poetic reflection on the meaning of life, the reader realizes that we are on a spaceship that employs humans and artificially created humanoids as workers. However, we do not find out who controls the six-thousander ship, how it is operated and what exactly its mission is. The author is not interested in technical details, but rather in the question of what life and work might look like in the 22nd century, and whether we will succeed in shaping this life together and not against each other.
The rediscovered feelings disturb those who rely on the smooth running of the work
It is thanks to the existence of said objects that this possibility arises on the spaceship at all, and that the doctrine of de-subjectivized productivity that had been in force until then was broken. After being found on a planet called “New Discovery” and taken to the six-thousander ship, the atmosphere on board the ship has changed. Instead of working to rule, employees are beginning to look at themselves and the world around them with different eyes. Or rather they learn to perceive in the first place. You feel the vibration of the stone-like, but strangely alive objects, marvel at the earthy smell and their changeable surface structure. Unbeknownst to the employees, they change themselves in the process. One of them explains that the mysterious objects make them “touch them even if I don’t want to”.
The fact that the stones trigger irritation and discomfort, but at the same time create a new feeling of connectedness, obviously has to do with the fact that the stones themselves are not strictly separate entities, but exist as an energetically networked collective: “Two of them are always cold , and then there’s one who’s warm. They take turns in who’s warm. It’s like they’re charging each other or taking turns transferring their energy into one of the others. I could see there was an intimacy between them. That scares me.”
The employees cannot avoid being affected by the stones’ post-human intimacy. They begin to dream and previously unknown or effectively repressed feelings, desires and memories surface. Memories of warm rain on the skin, for example, or the taste of whipped cream on bananas. That many of the memories have to do with a sense of physicality or experiencing nature shows that it is this kind of empathetic sense of self and world that was lost in the 22nd century and is now slowly being restored, through the influence of the stones begins to sprout. Much to the displeasure of those who rely on the smooth running of work processes.
The fact that Olga Ravn does not make this reluctance a direct topic and thus only lets the novel’s anti-capitalism orientation shine through is one of the many charms of the novel. Another stems from the equally subtle way in which Ravn inscribes her text in current theories that have found their way into cultural discourse in recent years under the label of the affective, neo-materialist or post-anthropocentric turn. What may sound like a theory is actually quite simple. It is about the idea that man is not above the diverse materialities of a nature that is thought to be passive, malleable and usable, but that nature has the power to act and as such has an active effect on people, who are always part of it.
In Ravn’s novel, this idea takes shape as a more-than-human solidarity and tenderness develops between the humans employed on the spaceship, their humanoid colleagues, and the mysterious objects. Thinkers like Donna Haraway or Rosi Braidotti would probably speak of trans-species solidarity here, of an emotional connection across the borders of different species.
The recording devices continue to record the non-human voices of the future
In her novel, Ravn expands on the notion of solidarity and care by telling of constellations that are reminiscent of the relationship between parents and child, but go well beyond the conventional pattern of biological closeness. The “love doctrine” programmed into employees, based on the normative dream of a happy family, has collapsed. The spaceship is “pregnant with living things” and humanoids fantasize that from within themselves they create an egg whose rhythmic pulse fascinates them.
Not only do the living things on the spaceship have a rhythmic pulse, but also the language that Ravn uses to talk about these things. Quite a few of the approximately 180 “testimonies”, which are strictly numbered but a little confused, can be read like short prose poems. Others use a strivingly matter-of-fact, but at the same time elegiac high tone. The opinions demanded from outside on the work processes that have gone off the rails mutate into forms of cautious self-questioning. Who am I? who could i be Why aren’t we who or what we could be? “Testimony 165: Am I poured into the program like a rose in glass?”
At the end of the novel, the humans are dead. Only some of the humanoids who piloted the spaceship to the planet “New Discovery” remain. There they lie down in what could be grass. How it feels, they speak into the recording devices, which are still running. Playing back these recordings from the future and listening to the pulsing sound of voices from space could do 21st century people good.