Another opportunity to tick two boxes with one blog post. This time two superb novellas for Novellas in November and both SF for Sci Fi Month.
The Employees: A Workplace novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
This is the most unconventionally structured book I’ve read this year, and my first from Lolli Editions, a relatively new publisher of books from Europe and beyond. Many of Lolli’s expanding list are from Scandinavia, and are fitting in nicely with my Nordic reading plans for the New Year.
The Employees is set in the next century in a spaceship which has recently visited a new planet and taken on board some found objects, which are displayed as if in a sculpture gallery on board ship. The crew is a mixture of humans and humanoids – ‘those who were born, and those who were made’.
The novel consists of a series of ‘statements’ made by members of the crew – the employees. The ship’s dynamics have changed since the objects arrived; things have happened. Through reading these vignettes, we gradually start to piece together a portrait of life on board ship, people’s jobs and functions, plus the interactions between humans and humanoid in particular. One humanoid comments in Statement 031:
I like him, this human co-worker of mine, his interface is impressive. I’m stronger than him, and have more endurance, but sometimes he’ll get an idea that means we can do our job in less than the designated time. He’s got an incredible knack for streamlining, from which I gladly learn. I’ve become a lot better myself at seeing how a workflow can be adjusted so that the task at hand can be completed more efficiently. This has surprised me rather a lot, because I’ve never known such improvements in my performance without an updated being involved.
Not all human / humanoid relations are so positive as that one near the novella’s beginning.
There is also the question of everyone’s reactions to the objects. Some like them, some hear them, some are attracted by their colours, some are disturbed by them. We don’t get a full description of any of the objects, just the different impressions in the statements.
This novella is strange, intense and interesting, but also very disquieting as the reader works out more of its hidden story. The Employees was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and to me it well deserved its spot on the shortlist. (9/10)
Source: Own copy. The Employees, Lolli Editions 2021, flapped paperback, 140 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
I think Chambers is my favourite current SF author at the moment. I may not have time to read a large amount of SF, but I would not want to miss a book by Chambers and this is the second this year! The other was the concluding part of her Wayfarer’s quartet, which I reviewed for Shiny here. Her books are characterised by their optimistic outlook, examining how different races from different planets can get along together.
Psalm is the first in a new series – ‘A Monk and Robot Book’. The monk is Sibling Dex, who as the novel starts, is getting itchy feet. They (Dex is non-binary) live and work in Panga’s only city, as a gardener at the Meadow Den Monastery, and it is the thought of hearing crickets chirrup in the wild that seeds the idea of a change in vocation for Sibling Dex. They set out on a new path as a ‘tea monk’, travelling around Panga’s villages offering tea and an ear to those who need a while to relax, de-stress with a healing tea and talk. It takes a while, but Sibling Dex becomes good at their new job. A few years later, they get itchy feet again. Dex sends a message forward to his next stops to say he won’t be able to make it and goes off-road…
You see, the humans on Panga only live in one part of the planet now. Centuries ago, their robots gained sentience and decided to leave the humans, disappearing into the wilds. No-one has seen them since. The humans have since adopted a simpler life, stepping back somewhat from the technology that the AIs gave them.
Dex is minded to find the long-abandoned Hart’s Brow Hermitage in the Antler mountains ‘deep in the cast wilderness that humans had given back to Panga.’ The road less travelled (pun intended!) into the mountains is steep and increasingly rutted. Eventually Dex gets stuck and rips a hole in their water tank, when up pops a robot, who wants to help, and is keen to talk to boot. It’s the first robot they have ever met.
Dex isn’t sure about Splendid Speckle Mosscap, Mosscap for short. They decline his help initially, but reluctantly agree that it would be useful. Mosscap seems intent on accompanying Dex on their quest; again they aren’t sure about this, Mosscap is a bit talkative!
They get into conversation about the robots and what became of them – Mosscap is a seventh generation ‘wild-built’ robot, born of recycled parts by the scattered robot community. Dex is intrigued and a little confused:
“You’re so…flexible. Fluid. You don’t even know how many of you there are, or where you are. You just go with the flow. I figured you’d be all numbers and logic. Structured. Strict, y’know?”
Mosscap looked amused. “What a curious notion.”
“Is it? Like you said, you’re a machine.”
“And machines only work because of numbers and logic.”
“That’s how we function, not how we perceive…”
The relationship between Dex and Mosscap grows as they continue on Dex’s quest to reach the abandoned Hermitage. Mosscap quizzes Dex about humans – his primary question is what do humans need? Dex learns about what the robots do in the wild, and how their community works.
This novel is simply lovely. A story about inclusion and celebrating difference, friendship, about the philosophy of life, the power of talking about things. You can’t help but love both characters, and as always Chambers’ descriptive world-building adds another dimension to what is essentially a simple story. The question is: is this really what humans want? The novella ends just as Mosscap and Dex have become firm friends and I can’t wait to see where their journey will take them next. (9/10)