8/12/19

The Warehouse an Imaginable Dystopia


The Warehouse (August 2019)
By Rob Hart
Crown Publishers, 368 pages
★★★★

Remember how we were told the movie The Circle wasn’t about Google, though it was? Rob Hart’s new novel The Warehouse isn’t about Amazon, but of course it is–with a bit of Apple mashed into the batter. Picture a not-so-distant future in which climate change has drowned the coastline, blazing sun has parched much of the land, water and food are in short supply, economic downturn has produced high unemployment rates, and gun violence and marauding gangs plague the cities. (How sad that it takes so little imagination to conjure such scenarios.)

Amidst this bleak landscape stands a beacon, Cloud, a company that’s also a way of life. Those who secure employment at Cloud leave the outside world behind and move onto a Cloud campus where they work, eat, play, and bed in a carbon-neutral climate-controlled environment. Cloud uses its army of drones and driverless trucks to provide its residents and the outside world with all the material goods it demands. Yeah, like I said: Amazon/not Amazon.

To those on the outside and many on the inside, Cloud is Utopia. Its founder, Gibson Wells, appears a benefactor. He’s the star of his own videocasts, which play incessantly inside the campus, even when you’re enjoying a yummy Cloud Burger, touted by all as the best burger ever. Think of Wells as possessing the folksiness of Walmart founder Sam Walton, the omnipresence of 1984’s Big Brother, the business acumen of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and the tech savvy of Apple’s Steve Jobs. Think especially of Jobs, as “Gib” is dying of pancreatic cancer, which not coincidentally is what killed Jobs. You’ll think of Jobs again when you consider that every employee of Cloud wears a CloudBand on their wrist, which monitors work productivity, keeps track of earned credits in this moneyless enclave, reminds each employee of when to wake up, and is the key in and out of cell-like dorm rooms. You need your CloudBand even to use the bathroom. But it’s okay, because Gib assures everyone he’s trying to improve the world through Cloud, and that things are way better there than on the outside. He’s probably right about the latter.

As you might expect, Utopia has some holes in its fabric. It is highly stratified, which one can tell by the color of the shirt one wears: red for the “pickers and placers” that work in the warehouse preparing goods for shipment, green for food and cleaning service personnel, yellow for customer service representatives, brown for tech support, blue for security, and white for managers. The reds are the lowest on the food chain; they are little more than flesh-and-blood robots who rush pell-mell to scale warehouse racks, grab a product, and run it to a conveyor belt to be shipped to customers. Missing quotas is not to be taken lightly, as it could send you back outside.

Oddly, red is the shirt Paxton hoped to secure. He worked as a prison guard on the outside after his invention of the Perfect Egg was stolen by Cloud and wrecked his business. So, of course, he finishes orientation and finds blue security shirts in his room. Another new recruit, Zinnia, hopes for brown shirts, but gets a picker’s red instead. Her official story is that she had been a teacher in Detroit until education went entirely online and a single teacher could serve millions. That’s her cover; she’s actually a corporate spy trying to find Cloud’s vulnerabilities.

The Warehouse is a pas de trois between Gib, Paxton, and Zinnia. The book is a pastiche of various books, movies, and ideas. Cloud’s control over workers owes similarities to efficiency theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor as filtered through Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and a careful reader will find echoes of everything from 1984, Animal Farm, and Lord of the Flies to Soylent Green, Mad Max, and Blade Runner. The Warehouse lacks originality, but it compensates through a clever and compelling rearranging of its various blocks. About the time you think you know where it’s headed, author Rob Hart veers in a slightly different direction. The same can be said of his characters and their motives. Hart keeps us just unbalanced enough to make us doubt whether they will do as we suspect. That’s a good thing because often they don’t!

Let me give Hart another shout out for introducing secondary characters that have just enough depth to advance the plot in feasible ways. There is also moral ambiguity within The Warehouse that lends verisimilitude to the beat-the-clock drama that sets up the conclusion. If you think of the very world Hart constructs, who would be most likely to be correct: those resigned to the status quo, the skeptics, the starry-eyed converts, or the saboteurs? If you guessed “yes,” ask Amazon to ship you a copy of The Warehouse. 

Rob Weir

1 comment:

sulli said...

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