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Work (far too) hard. Have (not much) fun. Make (alternate future) history. - ‘The Warehouse’

August 21, 2019
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Some of the best speculative fiction comes when a writer is able to extrapolate forward in a manner that is both engaging and plausible. And when that speculation leans toward the dystopian? Well – go ahead and sign me up.

That’s what Rob Hart has done with his new novel “The Warehouse” (Crown, $27); it’s an exploration of a near-future that reads like nothing so much as a darkest timeline look at the future of our society as it relates to the corporate monoliths that consume all that lies before them in their quest for ever-increasing growth.

By spinning out the trends toward ubiquity among some of our larger corporations, Hart takes us deep into the shadows cast by the cheerful bright lights of “progress.” His tale of those tangled in that all-encompassing web – those at the top and at the bottom alike – offers a satiric, chilling and bleakly funny perspective on the potential endpoint of our cultural fascination with the biggest of big business.

The MotherCloud is meant to be everything to the employees within it. Their jobs are there, including the massive warehouse featuring scores of pickers devoting their every working moment to fulfilling the vast and varied orders for items all over the retail spectrum. But their homes are there as well – small, efficient apartments. Their leisure time, too – recreation centers and malls and restaurants (including the ubiquitous CloudBurger, considered to be the best burger in the world despite its low price). All of it – work performance, pay, home entry, you name it – tied to the wrist-worn sensor that must be on at all times and that keeps track of everything you do. You’re rated by stars, and if you fall too low – you’re out.

Paxton swore he’d never stoop to working for Cloud, the all-encompassing corporation dominating the American business landscape. And he certainly would never wind up at a MotherCloud, one of the massive live-work centers that have become both the workplace and home of a significant percentage of the world’s workers. He has his reasons to bear resentment toward Cloud and its founder Gibson Wells – reasons that torpedoed his own dreams – but in the end, he needs to work.

Zinnia is looking to land a gig at a MotherCloud as well, but for very different reasons. She is a spy, a practitioner of the art of industrial espionage. And she has been hired for a job – the biggest one of her career – to find out the truth behind some of Cloud’s seemingly impossible claims and retrieve proof. Finding out something that the world’s largest tech company doesn’t want people to know is a daunting task, but it’s one that Zinnia is ready to take on.

Paxton and Zinnia cross paths right at the beginning of their tenures. Paxton, despite his best efforts, winds up in a blue polo: security. It befits his work experience – he was a prison guard for years – but that was part of a past he hoped to leave behind. Despite her best efforts to land in tech support, Zinnia gets a red polo. She’s a picker, working the warehouse. Quickly and clumsily, the two of them connect – and Zinnia sees a possibility, a path to her goal. All she has to do is use Paxton.

But it might not be that easy.

Throughout, we get excerpts from the online musings of Gibson Wells, the founder and owner of Cloud and the richest man in the world. He’s slowly dying of cancer, rambling and whitewashing his way through the company history as the world waits to find out who will succeed him at the top.

“The Warehouse” brings a keen satiric edge to its rendition of a corporate dystopia. The ubiquitous Cloud is so blatantly, obviously inspired by a specific company that I’m not going to insult your intelligence by naming it. That specificity allows for a wonderful gallows-humor undercurrent to the entire thing, giving the narrative that sense of timeliness that marks the very best of near-future speculative fiction.

The dynamic between Paxton and Zinnia is compelling not just because of their different motivations, both for being at Cloud and for being with each other, but because of the sheer gravitational force of the setting in which that dynamic plays out. The idea of any kind of relationship developing in a place like this – a place where your every move is monitored and filmed, a place where you go weeks without ever seeing the sky, a place that is both massive and claustrophobic – is fascinating. When the only culture available is corporate culture, things get skewed fast.

The combination of monolithic ruthlessness and disingenuous positivity is a beautiful distillation of the vaguely sinister nature of today’s corporate ethos. This world is a very plausible endgame, a 21st century magnification of the company towns of yesteryear. It’s not so much that the 1% of the 1% are exploiting the people beneath them … it’s that they’ve found a way to make those who are being exploited somehow grateful for the opportunity.

THAT’S the real power in something like “The Warehouse.” It illustrates that greed knows no boundaries, and that even those with the best of intentions can eventually wind up making the most reprehensible of choices so long as they can talk themselves into believing that it is for some nebulous greater good. That’s the perspective we get from Gibson Wells, and it is vital to the novel’s success.

“The Warehouse” is funny and bleak, putting forth an exaggerated but nevertheless still plausible take on the direction our world seems to be traveling. It is a sharp takedown of 21st century corporate culture that serves as something of a warning – our seemingly small individual choices can eventually have much larger consequences than we ever could have known.

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