The Warehouse by Rob Hart
Publisher: Crown | Release Date: August 20, 2019 | Pages: 368
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The nice part about living in a present-day America that edges closer and closer to becoming a full-blown dystopia rife with all kinds of political and capitalism-driven horrors is that it gives authors plenty of raw material to work with. Whether it’s Chuck Wendig’s recent, Wanderers, which used the ascent of a Trump-like president, climate change, and artificial technology to tell of an epic 800-page apocalypse, or Rob Hart’s The Warehouse, it’s hard not to recognize the modern realities that forecast the various states of ruination at the core of these stories.
At an unspecified point in the near future, a massive online retailer has taken over. Economically, commercially, and, to a degree, governmentally, everything belongs to Cloud and its dying, insanely wealthy CEO Gibson Well. Situated on the outskirts of one of America’s many ghost cities lies a MotherCloud facility, a futuristic analog to the company towns where employees live, work, and shop. Among its latest batch of new entry-level hires are Paxton, a former CEO whose company was bought out by Cloud, and Zinnia, an industrial spy whose been tasked with infiltrating Cloud and stealing its secrets.
Presented as a successor to Amazon, Gibson was able to get one over on Bezos with his company, Cloud, by cracking the code to aerial drone delivery and lightweight packaging, a task prodded along by his governmental lobbying and pockets deep enough to allow him to privatize the FAA. Gibson himself is a rather complicated character, which makes him feel all the more real. As he tells of his successes and failures, his dreams and ambitions, Hart paints a fully realized portrait of a man grappling with his legacy as his final days approach. Gibson Wells has changed the world, perhaps even permanently, and what he’s left behind will forever mark mankind with his legacy. As we learn more about him, and the impact his life’s work has made, it becomes quite clear Gibson is hardly the perfect hero he believes himself to be. It’s hard, however, to paint him as a clear-cut, James Bond-type villain, twirling his mustache and rooting for the world to end. He does want to do good, but gives little thought to the consequences of his actions, firmly rooted in an “ends justify the means” mindset. His right-wing libertarian ego prevents him from seeing the harm he’s wrought, but his earnest idealism make him a fairly sympathetic antagonist to humanity.
Like Gibson, Paxton and Zinnia are equally complicated, morally conflicted protagonists. Hart does a wonderful job crafting complex characters and shifting reader’s expectation on how to view them. That a love story develops between these two should be of little surprise if you’ve ever read a thriller before, but the nature of that story and the multiple dimensions it exists within are a beautiful exhibit of the author’s skill as a storyteller. You’re never quite sure how things are going to shake out, who to root for, or when the jig will finally be up. It’s through their eyes that we get the ground-level view of life inside the MotherCloud facility, the sad and hard state of life outside it, and the various shades of grey that permeate their lives and the world around them.
Workers live and breath Cloud. Their homes are onsite, within this gargantuan facility where they work. Each worker is required at all times to wear a smart device, kind of like a FitBit, that tracks their work performance, monitors their location within the facility, provides them with job duties, and allows them access to and from their dormitory, shopping centers, and the community restroom and showers. The MotherCloud is, for all intents and purposes, a prison facility in the panopticon mold, its laborers a willing slave force. They’re paid in company credits, rather than the US Dollar, but if they are fired during a monthly Cut Day they can transfer whatever credits they’ve made to a non-Cloud bank for a nominal service fee and whatever the current exchange rate might be. Employee performance is algorithm-based, so workers on the stock floor are forced to hustle, constantly running from one end of the warehouse to the other to fulfill orders and keep their ranking in the green lest they be hauled off the premises by the blue-shirted security guards. Everything within the Cloud runs on the almighty algorithm. Unions are anathema, workers rights nonexistent, and there are no weekends, no vacations, no sick leave, unless you want to lose a star ranking and risk losing everything. Outside the facility is nothing but the remains of an American town that used to be, its businesses long since shuttered and foreclosed as customers grew to rely on Cloud to fulfill their every whim.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Cloud is, of course, a thinly veiled critique on Amazon business practices with a polished 1984 veneer, but also American capitalism and greed run amok. While Amazon enjoys a -1% tax rate on hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, us working class schmucks are only a few possible, terrible steps removed form the bleak future Hart’s envisioned. Every underwater mortgage, golden parachute, bankrupted competitor, government lobbyist, unchecked monopoly and unfettered monopsony, and cut to education and public welfare programs gets us that much closer to having to choose between our personal freedom and being a wage slave for life without any reasonable alternatives in between. One of the recurring themes in The Warehouse is the issue of choosing the lesser evil. Is it better to have personal freedom and possess nothing, or to have everything provided for you and be nothing?
They say the more things change, the more they stay the same…but it’s also true that a society that forgets its past is doomed to repeat old mistakes. It’s possible that advancements in technology and corporate business ethics could carry us forward into a new epoch, but it’s just as likely they’ll all too easily return us to a messy and difficult past of hardships and human capital in a future where we’ll owe our soul to the company store.