Review: 'The Warehouse,' By Rob HartRob Hart's new dystopian cyberthriller imagines a near-future America in a state of semi-collapse, where the only jobs available are in company towns built by an enormous conglomerate called Cloud.
Rob Hart's The Warehouse is an entertaining read as a slightly dystopian cyberthriller. But start looking at how plausible it is, notice all the ways in which the things Hart describes — awful healthcare, limited employment opportunities, and global monopolies — are already here, and it becomes a horrific cautionary tale that makes you wonder if we're already too far into a disastrous future, or if there's still some hope for humanity.
Cloud is the biggest company in the world. With more than 30 million employees, it is the place everyone uses to get everything they need. Cloud uses drones for fast delivery, and in an increasingly dangerous world, the ability to shop without leaving the house is something no one passes up. However – surprise, surprise — not everything about it is as amazing as it seems. Cloud has built a series of company towns, and they're places where working hard comes before anything else. Security is lax, racism is as present as it's always been, supervisors can harass employees without consequences, and living conditions are a few steps above those of a prison. Unfortunately, working for Cloud is the only option for most people, and the company takes full advantage of that.
Paxton invented a product, but Cloud managed to run him out of business, and we meet him as he's moving into one of their facilities to work for them. Zinnia earns a living infiltrating companies, and Cloud is her latest assignment, but this ruler of the American economy is threatening to swallow her before she can get the job done. Once the two cross paths, their lives become entwined in interesting ways as both try to navigate the unjust, shady world of Cloud.
The Warehouse is told from different points of view, giving readers different versions of the same truth. Besides Zinnia and Paxton, the most important, and the most interesting, is that of Gibson, the man who created Cloud. His rags-to-riches story is amazing, but his practices are Machiavellian --- even though he presents them as grounded in fair, logical thinking. His employees are stressed, overworked, and underpaid, but he thinks that makes them stronger and helps everyone:
I'm giving my employees the tools they need to be masters of their own destiny. And that train runs two ways. A one-star employee doesn't just bring down the average, they're in a position they're not suited for. You wouldn't take a physicist and as them to blow glass. Or a butcher and ask them to program a website. People have different skill sets and talents. Yes, Cloud is a big employer, but maybe you're not the right fit for us.
Sadly, there are almost no jobs that aren't with Cloud.
Gibson, who resembles Donald Trump in many ways — including his references to "fake news" — is just one of many elements that make The Warehouse an outstanding read. Then there's Hart's attention to detail: Cloud's facilities are like prisons in terms of restrictions on residents, but their aesthetic is that of a large mall. Everything is available, but nothing feels authentic. Hart, who wrote a collection of short crime narratives revolving around food, uses food here to show the effects of homogenization:
The ramen was okay. All the parts were there, but it lacked the alchemy of place. That special touch that came from someone who studied the dish like it was a passion, rather than the reality of it: a small white woman in a hairnet and a green polo scooping out a premeasured portion into a bowl and sticking it in the microwave.
Between violence, abuse, crooked security guards, fights, espionage, and a problem with drug contraband and overdoses, Hart's love for crime fiction is ever-present, but The Warehouse has a level of social critique that goes above and beyond his previous work to take on all of corporate America. Cloud allows racism to occur in its streets, but its official discourse checks every box in terms of getting it right:
Our mission at Cloud is to promote an enriching and supportive atmosphere that allows everyone to thrive and succeed. We provide a comprehensive approach to inclusivity, access, and equality, through collaborative, deliberate efforts within our community.
The Warehouse is a fun, fast-paced read full of well-developed characters and a plot that builds to an explosive finale. It treads known dystopian ground, but the story's so close to our reality that it walks a fine line between a near-future thriller and a smart satire. Comparisons to Amazon are easy to make, and that's precisely what should worry us the most. It's also where things get meta because that's where most readers will buy the book. Nicely played, Mr. Hart.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at@Gabino_Iglesias.