How the novels of Neal Stephenson illuminate the present and the future.
Art and Love Lost in Space
Do we need art to be human? Danish writer Olga Ravn attempts to answer this fundamental philosophical question in her space opera De ansatte, recently translated by Martin Aitken into English as The Employees, for contemporary readers living in the age of Amazon.
Set in a future in which the technocratic paradigm has totally triumphed, Ravn’s book presents almost 200 interviews—listed out of order, miscategorized, and with a significant number missing—between an unseen committee and the blue-collar workers of the Six Thousand Ship. These employees have recently found strange new and possibly living objects erupting out of the ground on the alien planet New Discovery which seem to be inspiring growing unrest between the ship’s human workforce and their humanoid counterparts. All of Ravn’s narrative tools will be familiar to science fiction enthusiasts. Uprisings by artificial intelligence, human-humanoid romance, cosmic and body horror, space madness, human body augmentation, and the concept of mysterious alien objects—many of them associated with eggs—infecting a ship of blue-collar workers who struggle to escape, are all ideas explored with greater depth and originality elsewhere.
What distinguishes Ravn’s collection is how these familiar tropes interact with her observations on art and contemplation. The objects spur humans and humanoids alike to self-reflection. Ravn never explicitly reveals the extent to which the objects cause the strange symptoms which afflict the crew. The committee eventually concludes that a faulty software update, the work program which dictates how manual labor aboard the vessel proceeds, or even the process of the interviews themselves, may have caused or exacerbated the worsening conditions. Instead, Ravn only ascribes one certain effect to the objects: they help the crew to see reality as it really is.
Ravn’s novel has been celebrated for its treatment of transhumanistic themes and its lambasting of the vapidity of post-capitalist workplace culture. Critics have especially gravitated towards Ravn’s sustained meditations on the seemingly pliable nature of what it means to be human. This attention risks misreading the truly dystopic qualities of Ravn’s world. Ravn concludes that assuming human nature’s malleability—stripping away essential parts of humanity like the capacity for parenthood and family, the inherent dignity of the human body, and the yearning to know the truth of reality, or subordinating these qualities to production or other efficient ends—will inevitably lead to our self-destruction.
The World of Work
At the core of the human spirit, incarnated both in human beings and in their artificially intelligent facsimiles, is something that recognizes the gratuity of existence as good. Neither humans nor humanoids can be reduced to utility alone. At the root of being is gift. Coming face-to-face with this truth, Ravn’s employees realize that who they are cannot be dictated by forms or bureaucrats. Instead, they find themselves only when confronted by something completely alien, something that transcends function and pierces the veil between them and what the Thomistic philosopher Joseph Pieper calls “the core of all reality,” something like art.
In his essays on art, Pieper argues that “it is a fiction to declare work, the production of useful things, to be meaningful in itself,” and that “such fiction…brings about precisely that inhuman dimension so typical of the world of absolute work: it accomplishes the final bondage of man within the process of work, it explicitly makes everybody a proletarian.” Pieper contends instead that the Western tradition finds the “most perfect expression of being alive” in the “contemplating awareness of the world’s ultimate and intrinsic foundations.” For Pieper, seeing good art—through eyes that really see—is an action meaningful in itself, helping us to break down the barriers between the workaday and the transcendent. “Nothing less is at stake here,” Pieper declares, “than the ultimate fulfillment of human existence.”
Before their new discovery, the Six Thousand Ship’s employees lived in a world in which it was incoherent to see an action or a person as meaningful in itself. Meaning, instead, was defined by the company. “I feel a…longing to be human, as if somehow I used to be, but then lost the ability,” states one humanoid. “Perhaps all that’s needed is for you to change my status in your documents? Is it a question of name? Could I be a human if you called me one?” The crew live “without earth, in the midst of eternity; without humus and water and rivers, without offspring,” things which would slow efficiency.
For the same reason, neither children nor family are permitted aboard the ship, though the company provides child holograms for parents who left their families behind on Earth. A human employee who uses this service states that “it was hard for me to look at the child hologram initially… but now after a while I can say it’s unburdened me and that has now without a doubt helped stabilize me as an employee here, and I can see it’s been beneficial to my work effort.”
In this system, it is not just one’s internal life that becomes subservient to production, but one’s external, embodied personhood as well. A human worker who has just received an “add-on,” a “new part” of “flesh and not flesh,” to ensure peak productivity revels in this artificial addition. “I’m performing better than everyone,” says the employee. “I’m a very useful tool to the crew. It gives me a certain position.”
Gone too are most differences between the sexes, with the interviews rarely revealing whether the person speaking is male or female. Humanoids, despite looking externally like human beings, have no reproductive organs, which the company “found ethically unjustifiable to duplicate.” Humanoids themselves are the result of an efficiency-oriented contraceptive mentality. One scientist reflects on “the huge risk that the human mother will fail to bring up…correctly” a child intended for the workforce.
This world of work seeps into all aspects of the employees’ lives. It seems to leave no conceivable alternative for those who have been made for it, like the humanoid worker who is baffled by his human partner’s strange statements: “What is it he says now? There’s more to a person than the work they do, or A person is more than just their work? … But what else could a person be? … Would you be left standing in a cupboard?”
A Shared Reality
The objects shatter this worldview with a revelatory power. Reality as it truly is—gratuitous and free, not defined by functional ends—starts to break in. A human cadet begins to lose track of time watching the objects, “standing there staring at them for minutes at a time without doing anything. As if the objects only existed so as to awaken particular feelings in me by way of their form and material. As if that were their actual purpose.” Another worker confesses that the objects seem like “they came from our dreams, or some distant past we carry deep inside us, like a recollection without language.”
After a rebellious cadet is “transferred,” a co-worker, grieving the loss, ponders how one object “looks like someone wrote on the stone while it was still in creation, but then after it came into being, when gradually it hardened and set, the words were obliterated in the process, becoming a pattern instead in the shiny stone, a shadow language.” One humanoid observes that frequent exposure to the objects has caused “problems with my emotional reaction pattern. They tell me I can’t carry out my work correctly due to functional maladjustments with respect to certain feelings… Is this a human problem? If so, I’d like to keep it.” Another humanoid, also experiencing strange outbursts, states that “according to the program I’ve developed disproportionate strategies in dealing with emotional and relational challenges, but I know that I’m living. I live… the way any object lives, in communion with others. I’m like one of those objects… I see your inadequate plans.”
The strange communion that the objects share between themselves and the crew is not the forced equality of the corporation, which states that “all employees are equal” while dividing them into efficient categories, but the equality that comes from their shared capacity to apprehend and take joy in the beauty of reality as an end in itself. It is wonder that makes them equal. Crew members enjoy being with each other in the ship’s panorama room, where “you can clearly see the valley where we found the objects… when we stand there looking down on the valley together, human or humanoid, it doesn’t matter, the categories no longer exist then, or at least the categories don’t apply as we stand there together, looking down on the valley.”
Tensions between born and artificial workers only begin to mount when the company pushes through an update for the humanoids which makes the objects “feel alien… as if the infinity in them is plainer now.” Confronted by this further forced foreshortening of their cosmological field-of-view, the humanoids begin to see how little of the infinite permeates their lives. “I’ve seen several of the child holograms my coworkers have been allocated,” a humanoid admits. “Whenever I see a child hologram it makes me feel sad, because it reminds me that I’m never going to have a child myself… you can say what you want, but I know you don’t want us to become too, well, what? Too human? Too living? But I like being alive… I know without a doubt I’m real.”
Reality continues to erupt through the company’s reductive mindset, pushing to the surface like the objects in the valley emerging from New Discovery’s soil. “I may have been made,” concludes the humanoid, “but now I’m making myself.” We are not far here from Pope John Paul II’s observations that human nature “includes the power of self-determination based on reflection,” a “nontransferability or incommunicability of the person… most closely linked with his interiority.” As the pope’s account of human sexuality argues, this trait, essential to human dignity, precludes totally the reduction of all personal relations to use and utility. The objects reveal rather than cause the wounds that tear the ship apart just as all good art, per Pieper, uncovers the “uncorrupted primordial forms beneath the obvious surface of that still discernible common reality.”
Ravn’s connection between the objects and art is not accidental. The novel originated as a companion piece for Lea Guldditte Hestelund’s 2018 exhibition in Copenhagen, “Consumed Future Spewed Up as Present.” As Ravn described in a recent interview, “these objects suddenly awaken love, nostalgia, dreams and maybe also a longing to connect with the world around them, in a way that only art can make you connect.” But Ravn’s ruminations on art and human personhood give way to another question, one that strikes at the heart of modernity’s failings: as one of the ship’s human workers puts it, what does it mean “to love an object as a human being, a human being as an object?”
This question is purposefully ambiguous. On the one hand, to love a person simply as an object or vice-versa is to do what the company does, to reduce people to tools of mere material, denying them the transcendent ends they seek. On the other, to love a person as a New Discovery object—to love a person as a work of art—is to see the other as reflecting and pointing towards the deepest and most fundamental truth of reality, the Love which, as one of literature’s earliest space travelers observed, “moves the sun and other stars.” Ravn’s novel suggests that in a space without this Love that dictates how we relate to the universe, to others, and to ourselves, we will inevitably self-destruct, and no one will hear us scream.