Imagine a world in which the tasks which once provided gainful employment to millions were increasingly carried out by automated devices animated by a mysterious and invisible force called AI. You may not think that you need to imagine very hard, and indeed that’s largely the point of Aminder Dhaliwal’s speculative satire Dead End Jobs For Ghosts, but in her world ‘AI’ stands for ‘afterlife intelligence’, and the self-driving cars, assembly line robots, robot vacuum cleaners, self-service checkouts, and internet-connected sex toys that are found there are all operated by the dead. Post-mortem many of us apparently have some time to spend loitering on the earth’s surface, and an enterprising ghost has teamed up with a medium to develop and market technologies that allow ghosts to operate various tools and devices, employing those loiterers in return for payments made to their living friends or relatives.
Dhaliwal’s strategy is a classic one in speculative satire, asking ‘what would it be like if…?’ and arranging matters in her imagined world such that the answer is ‘erm…pretty much exactly the same as things are’. This is what some of Jonathan Swift’s satires look like, and I’m sure that if I knew a bit more about the subject I’d be able to cite many more historical examples. I don’t want to drop spoilers by outlining the narrative (which is pretty brief in this forty-four page, small-format book), so I’ll just say that Dhaliwal uses a light touch to lampoon the ways that capital attempts to extract more and more value from labour, and the ways that we often willingly submit to that coercion (‘now I can finally put my hospitality business degree to work’, one ghost says).
Although the main protagonist is a kid of sixteen, and the narrative touches on her truncated relationships with her family, we stay at a fair emotional remove from the characters, with death and loss serving largely as narrative affordances for the humour and politics of the work. Dhaliwal’s drawing style is neat and clean, hovering on the border between a hand-made feel and a more polished effect—the inks look like felt-tip, although it could as easily be finished in soft pencil with the contrast ramped up digitally, and neither of those possibilities gel well with the white-on-black cross-hatching she sometimes uses, so who knows?
She is a clear, dynamic storyteller—although the flow of a couple of her layouts requires a little work from the reader. Formally the book is more comics-y than cartoonish, with neatly ruled gutters, and close attention to the narrative affordances of layout—fragmented panels during an action (car-chase) sequence for example, or a translucent speech bubble when a ghost is addressing a medium. The book is a fun, brief examination of the way we relate to our jobs and incomes, and although it’s hardly groundbreaking in its analysis, it is both thought-provoking and humane. Until I started working in libraries many who know me probably thought I’d die before I got a proper job, and I get the impression that Dhaliwal feels about the same as I do about the hidden costs of punching the clock.