According to a richly animated Chobani ad from last year, the future of work is agrarian and forward-thinking, folksy and modern — WWOOF meets Wakanda, perhaps. The ad depicts a world in which farming retains a family, down-to-earth vibe despite the existence of robots so gripping they can pick fruit. ‘A business is only as good as its people,’ says a farmer as workers gather around a bizarre slice of bread, tomato soup and a bowl of yogurt, and a drone drops a cardboard box oat milk. The ad may be placed on a future farm and designed to peddle dairy, but its pastoral setting and utopian veneer riff on the grounds of many companies looking to portray a change in working landscape as an improvement in the quality of life.
During the pandemic, predicting “the future of work” has become a cottage industry among economists and marketers. Although the future is likely to bring widespread hardship for many, whether via stagnant wages or reduced quality of work, forecasters enthusiastically tout the ways in which technologies such as “wellness modules” and the metaverse will transform professional (office) life. Two recent dystopian novels offer more sober perspectives on the trajectory of labor. In surreal, tactile and often amusing prose, Olga Ravn The employees and Hiroko Oyamada Factory presenting the workplace as a hall of hallucinogenic mirrors, a melting pot where our sense of self warps and dissolves. Emphasizing mood rather than movement, the books channel the suffocating sluggishness of modern labor, presenting work as disorienting and suffocating.
The employees takes place on the Six Thousand Ship, a 22nd century spacecraft orbiting the planet New Discovery. The ship’s staff consists of unnamed humans and androids whose role centers around the maintenance of “items”, mysterious artifacts found in a valley in New Discovery. When the objects begin to exert a strange power over the crew – altering their attitudes towards each other and their duties – the workers are asked about the change in morale. (The genesis of The employees is a 2018 art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund titled The consummated future vomited as present; Ravn, a Danish poet, was first commissioned to write fictional descriptions of the leather and marble works of Hestelund, but found herself writing related accounts, some of which were about objects that did not exist. .) The resulting statements, numbered and sequenced out of order, form the bulk of the book, which is organized as a fragmentary bureaucratic report.
Ravn uses the statements to sketch working life on the ship and capture the restlessness of the crew after they begin interacting with objects. Replicating the peculiar chatter of small talk in the workplace, Ravn portrays employees as nervous chatterboxes who fill the room with whatever comes to mind: their love of shopping, crushes, cookies. In each statement, Ravn excises investigators’ questions and reactions, omissions that make the transcripts sound more like confessions than conversations. “Do you want to know why I like the incinerator?” asks the ship’s funeral director. “It’s a burning smell, it reminds me of meals at home. The smell of meat, earth and blood. Life on the Six Thousand Ship affects each employee differently, but robots and humans seem both unhinged and detached from their jobs and themselves.
The employees fails to weave this ambient discontent into a compelling narrative despite its hints of social commentary. The gaze of the ship’s direction, although integrated into the structure of the novel, lacks narrative weight. Management is so amorphous that workers’ perspectives seem arbitrary and baseless. And the hierarchy of the ship is so ill-defined that even when the mutiny simmers, the stakes of the conflict remain unclear. Elliptical writing doesn’t help either. Ravn’s bare-bones prose, while elegant, lacks world-building. The repetitive formatting of the book, in turn, stifles the plot and obscures such basic details as whether workers are paid or have bills and debts. It’s hard to empathize with their plight when their jobs are pure abstractions.
Interactions between employees and objects give the clearest information about the state of work on the ship. Excerpt from Statement 042: “As our orbit around the New Discovery brings us into the correct position, the sun hits the viewing room, filling it with warm, shimmering light, like luminous water. The large object then radiates from its place in the middle of the room. The fragrant liquid flows from each groove. The object seems to blur the speaker’s senses even as they speak of it intimately, a microcosm of dissociation running through the entire staff. The workers of the Six Thousand Ship have gainful employment, but their employment leaves them disoriented. Objects offer a light refuge, opening tiny psychedelic portals to unknown places. But every journey seems to end where it began: at work.
Where Ravn conceives of work as a sterile prison, Hiroko Oyamada portrays it as a foaming biome. She presents the huge workplace of the titular factory of her book as a material koan, reconfiguring its dimensions whenever it begins to feel graspable. Absurdly, the factory contains forests, a river, 24-hour bus service, sleeping quarters, and its own wildlife, some of which might be unreal. Even people familiar with its reach seem oblivious to its size. “There are all kinds of other food options in the plant,” a middle manager tells new employees during an orientation hike. “We have close to a hundred cafeterias and a decent number of restaurants as well. If you want, brand your card as you go,” he says. Presenting the most mundane details and interactions of the workplace as abstruse and dreamlike, Oyamada makes work unavoidable.
The plant’s rhizomatic influence is particularly evident in the haphazard way in which it hires. Yoshio Furufue, a foam expert hired on the factory’s green roof, isn’t even interviewed for the job; he shows up to inquire about the job and suddenly he is working on it. His recruitment is so smooth that it feels like he was already an employee. Another worker, Yoshiko Ushiyama, applied for a permanent position but was given a temporary position instead, a position in which she would shred documents for up to seven and a half hours a day. Yoshiko is unable to tell if the offer is better or worse, but she quickly resigns herself to her fate. “A job is a job,” she thinks as she accepts the role. The discussion is absolutely not a negotiation; the factory acts and the world moves. The novel is full of these tiny, tense moments, highlighting how even the fleeting aspects of the job are weighty and exhausting.
As Yoshio, Yoshiko, and her brother, a former factory worker who is rehired as a proofreader, try to get their bearings, the ground continually shifts. Oyamada uses scale wisely, moving from granular descriptions of worker tasks to sweeping views of the seemingly ever-growing factory. In one scene, Yoshiko’s usually nap-prone brother fidgets as he contemplates his employer’s opacity: “Company profiles, user manuals, children’s booklets, texts on everything from science to history… Who wrote this stuff? For which audience? To what end? Why does it need to be proofread? If these are all factory documents, what is factory? The factory is impenetrable but material, its very scale deflates the workers’ sense of worth. Yoshiko’s brother sees no horizon for his work, and, by extension, his life. If nothing he does matters to the company or the customers, why should it matter to him?
Oyamada’s playful, jerky prose and lively plotlines keep the book floating despite its dark air. Where Ravn stifles all activity in a workplace, reducing it to the authoritarian gaze of an employer and the response of workers, Oyamada increases entropy: a renegade, creepy employee known as Forest Pantser stands hiding in the woods; the middle manager who interviews Yoshio and Yoshiko shows up at their workspaces, his duties a mystery to all; a hysterical document meticulously detailing the factory’s fauna appears in a review queue.
Factory was released in the United States shortly before the start of the pandemic, and The employees earlier this year. Both were written before the pandemic and avoid not only the anxieties of the past two years, but also the concerns that many contemporary office novels have with corporate culture or career mobility. Both question the human costs of work, zooming in on the affects – discouragement, alienation, indifference – that companies produce alongside goods and services. Oyamada, in particular, illustrates how multifaceted professional life is often. By grasping the frictions between what jobs claim to be and what they are, Factory offers a layered portrait of work that is attuned to both the power of the employer and the miasmic effect jobs can have on our lives. Oyamada’s ecological interpretation of work – an interdependent web of strangers, siblings, animals and nature – seems particularly suited to a future that will be precarious for workers as well as the environment. In his fantastic and ruthless universe, life is what the factory makes of it.