Bureacracy in deep space

If you want to understand the state of the art in space-age capitalism you must visit the HR department

A view along a dimly-lit corridor from the film Alien
HR is at the end of the corridor on the right

It’s now well-known that it’s in Human Resources that you’ll find the absolute apogee of the capture and incorporation of the liberal orthodoxy by corporate capitalism. The grim, dead-eyed, value-maximising culture of compliance that anyone who works for a big firm will recognise. The smiling face of the machine. A disciplinary function that thinks it’s a wellbeing project.

A space-faring future HR department is at the centre of Olga Ravn’s ‘The Employees’, a 2020 novel subtitled ‘a workplace novel of the 22nd century’. It’s literary science fiction, written during the pandemic (published in November 2020). The bleak, suffocating setting – a spaceship, very far from earth, in orbit around a planet that’s been named ‘New Discovery’, carefully conjures up the weird dynamic of the lockdown as vividly as it does all those other spaceships of your memory.

The book’s thesis is clever: a spaceship – no matter how advanced its technology, no matter how far into the future or distant from earth it is, no matter how difficult and unsettling its mission – is still a place of work, right? And, when things go wrong, when a discovery on the planet’s surface causes a kind of crisis of self-awareness in the crew and the hierarchy of human and humanoid on board collapses, there’ll still need to be some kind of formal investigation, right? Management will need to get involved, send a team, kick off some kind of process?

So the book is a sequence of reports, memos from crew members, gathered by a team sent from earth. And they start kind of bland, empty of tension, cleverly suggesting the complicated economic and social context the crew occupies without describing it (this is not a Kim Stanley-Robinson novel). The memos hint at the drama to come and – without spoilers – the tension does build and things do get bad.

The book’s full of ideas, it has an unexpected emotional charge that builds and there’s real beauty and strangeness in the places we visit, especially in the tantalising glimpse of the surface of New Discovery that we get. It’s translated from Danish so I’m definitely not equipped to tell you if it’s been done well – but the language is authentically that of a workplace in crisis and the bloodless, rules-bound culture of human resources and people management described is chilling.

The story is told only by the workers, by the actors in the workplace drama. It’s a one-sided interrogation. We don’t hear the voices of the HR team sent to investigate, the managers who decide how to resolve things (there are no union reps present). The language of the staff interviewed betrays the strangled effort to comply with rules you only vaguely comprehend. And the outcome, the resolution to the problems on-board, is chilling, authentically bureaucratic, brutal – and there’s no right of appeal.

  • I review the books I read on Goodreads – mainly so I don’t forget them.