Severance, Severance, and the Importance of Honest Corporate Sci-Fi

Fresh out of college in 2014, I joined a massive corporation. Over the course of my seven-year tenure, I worked various roles and survived numerous high-profile acquisitions, often shifting teams and learning to navigate new intercompany politics along the way. Heading into 2020, my mental health had taken a nose-dive. I hated my work. I hated my role. The poor treatment I received at the hands of suit-wearing sales bros and executives who expected blind deference chipped away at what little self-worth I had left. 

Then, in April 2020, my boss messaged me: “Have a minute to chat at 1?” The writing was on the wall; the company was in decline due to Covid’s rampant spread. Furloughs cascaded through the workforce. I signed onto the call with my manager and he opened with six glorious words: “Listen, mate. We’re eliminating your position.”

That 30-minute call, which soon expanded to include an HR rep, was my single favorite meeting I attended since joining the workforce. I received a generous severance package, giving me three months of wiggle room to determine my next steps, and I was lucky enough to be in a position to use that time to my advantage (while recognizing that other people, with different obligations and responsibilities, would understandably have a very different reaction to this situation). For me, though, I felt a gigantic, crushing burden lifted from my shoulders in an instant. 

In the two years since, I’ve built a thriving freelance business for myself (which includes my work for Tor.com—how meta!). I’ve happily relinquished the corporate torch, savoring the freedom my work allows. Most importantly, my mental health has drastically improved. 

With a fresh mindset, recently freed from the corporate environment, I began turning my sights on fiction that engages with the workplace. I’m not talking The Office or Parks & Rec or other stories that feed on workplace dynamics, mining humor from the setting and colleague relationships. Those types of takes on office culture are fine, and I truly enjoy them. But lately, I’ve started seeking narratives that grapple with the actual truths of corporate employment: burnout, shitty coworkers, and doing work that seems to matter very little or not at all. 

My search for such stories led me first to Severance by Ling Ma, then to Severance on Apple TV. I picked up Ling Ma’s novel thinking the Apple TV show was an adaptation of the book, only to discover I was woefully wrong. In the novel, Ling Ma captures the corporate experience with poignant descriptions of its side effects as she chronicles her protagonist’s growing unease in her role. Tack on the viral outbreak infecting people, making them Fevered, and there’s an overall sense of doom and gloom to the story that feels terrifying and relatable. 

Imagine my surprise when I picked up Ling Ma’s Severance expecting the source material for Apple TV’s Severance series and found that they were two distinct stories that happen to share the same name. But while the two stories are unrelated on the surface, they each offer honest portrayals of corporate culture and its impact on people. 

Both stories deal with the darker sides of corporate work. Sitting in a cubicle day-in, day-out, doing work you don’t value takes its toll on the psyche. Severance (the book) and Severance (the show) explore the implications in equal measure, and in doing so they underscore the importance of honest portrayals of corporate work in the SFF genre. What a refreshing twist, to feel my own experience candidly reflected in not one but two bleak sci-fi tales. That might sound odd, but the joy of reading Ling Ma’s Severance and watching Apple TV’s Severance, for me, was feeling like somebody fully understood the feeling of burnout and uselessness that comes with a job you can’t bring yourself to care about. 

Ling Ma deftly encapsulates the corporate experience in her Severance novel. Protagonist Candace Chen works for a publishing firm, helming the Bibles division—an unfulfilling job where she nevertheless excels, thanks to her problem-solving skills and relationship building. The book intersperses this with tales from after “The End,” showing us a world ravaged by Shen Fever, a pandemic which decimates most of the world’s population. This results in a story told across two timelines: one leading up to “The End” and another shortly after. Candace feels equally directionless in both. 

Candace takes the job with the printing firm expecting it to be a holdover, a stepping stone on the way to a more interesting career and work that she finds engaging and worthwhile. I encountered the same feeling as a bright-eyed intern joining the workforce in 2014. A chance at a steady paycheck and benefits outweighed the desire to discover my passions. By the time I realized I wanted and needed something different, I had spent six years performing tasks I simply didn’t care about. 

When Shen Fever begins its rampant global spread, Candace’s company asks for a few employees to “hold down the fort” and continue coming into the office. The meaninglessness of her work is driven home during that period, as she realizes the world will never be the same and the higher-ups who offered her a lucrative retention package have likely (1) abandoned work entirely or (2) died. Consider the fact that Severance first published in 2018 and it feels darkly and eerily prescient, predicting our current reality to a frightening degree of accuracy. 

I suppose my enjoyment of Ling Ma’s Severance owes much to discovering that other people feel the way I felt. Working for a corporation interested only in profit can be a slog. You can spend months reassuring yourself the gig is temporary, a holdover until something better comes along, then blink and realize years have passed. Then, when the world crumbles and structures ostensibly meant to protect us do nothing of the sort, the uselessness of that daily toil, making rich people richer, presents itself, clear as day. 

Candace’s story in Severance mirrored my own corporate journey, and I’m certain others will feel the same. The book’s clear-eyed, visceral take on dull day-to-day work feels remarkable and relatable in a way that a lighthearted workplace fiction simply cannot (and this is coming from me, a guy who had a years-long will-they-won’t-they Jim/Pam office romance with a coworker who eventually became my wife). 

Next, I ventured into the world of Apple TV’s Severance. Same name, a totally different story; the series shares some key thematic elements with Ling Ma’s book, though it takes them to the sci-fi extreme. The show follows Adam Scott’s character Mark and his “severed” work for Lumen Industries. When he enters the workplace, all Mark’s memories of his personal life disappear. When he clocks out, Mark’s “innie,” or work persona, exits his cranium and he can’t remember any details of his workday. Mark and his coworkers soon start to wonder what Lumen is actually doing, suspecting something nefarious below the company’s veneer of polished corporate branding. 

Countless days during my corporate tenure were filled with tasks of all sorts: tasks assigned by my boss, tasks handed down by executives on teams I work with frequently, tasks I drummed up by myself in order to improve a process. Every time I completed one task, two or three more would pop up. As my workload evolved over the years, I started asking myself: what’s the point? So many of my responsibilities did little to change anything for the better or even make the company money. One executive would assign me a project, then two days later a second executive would deem it unnecessary. 

A few years removed from such tedium, I watched Severance, and I guffawed when I saw what Mark and his Macrodata Refinement coworkers were doing. The characters sit at their computers sifting through grids of numbers, seeking out combinations that don’t feel right. When they encounter one, they delete it, moving their progress percentage marker closer to 100% on the file they’ve been assigned. 

In Severance, the characters haven’t the slightest idea what their work means, and their confusion can only exist during the workday. When they leave, their personal lives take over, and they remember nothing of their time at Lumen.

During Severance’s nine-episode first season, things start to get weird, and the goings-on at Lumen begin to unravel. Mark and his colleagues Irving, Dylan, and Helli meet other department’s workers, discover hidden rooms in the underground maze comprising their office, and begin to suspect something sinister lurks beneath Lumen’s curated corporate “changing the world” sheen. 

Have you ever wondered what your purpose at work is? Have you ever asked yourself what you’re actually doing? That question lies at the heart of Severance. The show’s frank portrayal of menial, useless work under incandescent lighting in a windowless room feels utterly real. The questioning that results from said work feels true to the real-world corporate experience. What am I doing? What will this accomplish? To an employee of a massive corporation that prioritizes nothing but money, these questions can feel like daily mantras. 

Severance plunges its characters into a deep and tangled mystery. In reality, of course, we don’t have the benefit of a sinister plot to uncover as we go about the daily grind. Corporate interests are laid bare, clear for everyone to see. When you see a machine turning its gears from afar only to realize you are one of the gears making it churn out oodles of money for the person who could afford to buy it, it’s hard not to feel disillusioned. Apple TV’s breakout corporate sci-fi thriller captures this feeling and packages it in a riveting mystery, driven forward by marvelous characters both inside and outside the fictional confines of Lumen Industries. 

As a cohesive story (despite its cliffhanger ending), Severance highlights the stark reality of working for a business that doesn’t care about its employees. Sure, they get paid and have subsidized housing and presumably get benefits. But at the end of the day, Severance’s severed employees are guinea pigs in an experiment they know nothing about, pawns to be used by more powerful pieces on the board. 

Like the novel that shares its name but not its story, Apple TV’s Severance engages with concepts and experiences we live with on a daily basis. It takes an honest look at the true nature of corporate work and hyper-analyzes it through a sci-fi lens. 

Both iterations of Severance offer biting commentary on corporate life. Just as in real life, these stories feature characters who show up to the office, put their skills to work against some ill-defined or completely inscrutable demand, and leave any semblance of who they truly are at the door. Coming out of a crushing corporate experience, these stories rang true. I left the office feeling like someone else, a different person—someone with ambitions, passions, and interests that didn’t matter at all for eight hours a day, five days a week. When you’re stuck in a job that values skills that have nothing to do with your personal fulfillment, you become a cog. You become a shell of yourself, a real-life “innie,” whose work persona inevitably bleeds into your personal life and strips away at the identity and aspirations locked somewhere within your psyche. 

Books and stories can mimic truth, mock it, or warp it to reveal unexpected, even shocking insights into our day-to-day reality. The trend of emerging narratives like Ling Ma’s Severance and Apple TV’s show of the same name tells us that creators and storytellers are taking notice and using the tools of sci-fi and fantasy to ask important questions about the nature of work. There’s absolutely still a place for comedic takes on our work lives and relationships—but now more than ever, there’s a need for truthful, honest explorations of the darker realities of corporate life, and that need is only growing stronger.

Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.

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