Consumerism and the American Dream are in the firing line in Rob Hart’s debut novel The Warehouse. David Eggers mashed Google, Microsoft and Apple in The Circle. Hart does something similar for Amazon and other online shops with more success. And it is not a huge leap for readers to imagine a single provider taking over delivery of everything, giving people the option to never have to leave their homes.
Here, Cloud is the drone delivery corporation that has taken over not only bricks-and-mortar stores but also the home delivery niche carved out by Amazon. Following a coordinated series of violent attacks on shoppers, Cloud came in behind a delivery solution in which a fleet of drones delivers everything to customers’ front doors.
Paxton and Zinnia are prospective employees of Cloud, but neither is what they seem to be. Paxton is using the job as part of an unformed plan to get back at the company that swallowed up his small start-up. And Zinnia is a corporate spy, recruited to get inside Cloud and dig into its secrets.
Paxton and Zinnia find themselves in a Cloud fulfilment campus – a self-contained world in which they live, work, eat and play. At Cloud everyone wears a coloured polo shirt denoting where they work. Every employee is also required to wear a Cloudband that gives them access to their allocated areas, allows them to make purchases with the in-house currency, and keeps track of where they are at all times. As the Cloudbands only give restricted access to the site, doing anything nefarious is not that easy, which cramps the plans of corporate spy Zinnia. So while initially she does not want anything to do with Paxton, when he ends up being assigned to security, Zinnia reluctantly starts a relationship with him.
On intake, Zinnia is given a red shirt. This puts her in the fulfilment centre, a giant warehouse full of multi-storey shelves and conveyor belts. Her Cloudband supports her work by directing her to where she needs to be, what items she needs to collect and where she needs to take them. But it also measures her efficiency. If she is running on time the band shows a green line; if she drops behind the band turns yellow. Unsurprisingly, the band is mostly yellow. The Cloudband also monitors an employees ‘star rating’ (from 1 to 5). Stars can be won or lost for a range of reasons. Four times a year, on ‘cut day’, employees whose star ratings have dropped to oneare forcibly evicted from the campus:
As Zinnia moved through the warehouse, she came across more people on their knees, or standing still, staring off at the newfound wreckage of their lives.
Cloud can do this as there are always more people willing to work there.
Zinnia’s work is portrayed as a living hell, a constant dash to keep the Cloudband green and a blur of consumer goods:
Alarm clock. Shower radio. Book. Digital camera. Book. Phone charger. Snow boots. Sunglasses. Medicine ball. Designer messenger bag. Tablet. Book. Salt scrub. Infinity scarf. Pliers. Curling iron. Vacuum sealer. Christmas lights. Package of pens. Set of three silicon whisks …
Not much of this is fiction. There are plenty of real-life reports about the working conditions of Amazon’s warehouse employees including in journalist James Bloodworth’s book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.. Amazon denies the allegations that writers like Bloodworth make, and there is fierce competition between cities in the US to host new Amazon fulfilment centres.
Meanwhile, Paxton finds himself in security, part of an unofficial campus police force, tasked initially with tracking down how a new illegal drug is finding its way into the facility. Despite his deep-seated mistrust of Cloud, Paxton finds himself being drawn into the community. He finds a sense of belonging and purpose and actively seeks to keep his star rating high:
‘I spent years working in a job I hated so I could own a business. And you know what happened? The market made its choice. It chose Cloud. I can kick my feet and scream all I want. What good will it do? I can either buck up and do my work, or go live in squalor and starve to death. I choose a roof over my head and food in my stomach.’
The story of the formation and success of Cloud is told in a series of homespun blog posts by company founder Gibson Wells. Wells is dying and is doing a final tour of his facilities. It is clear that his posts are more fiction than fact, cover for a corporate takeover of society dressed up as the American Dream. And this cynicism runs through a series of revelations towards the end of the book that are more disheartening than unexpected.
The Cloud campus, theoretically set up with good intentions, itself has become a microcosm of petty corruption and power imbalance. Zinnia has to deal with a manager taking advantage of female employees. Paxton finds that the law is whatever his boss the sheriff wants it to be for his own comfort.
Rob Hart gives readers plenty to chew on in The Warehouse. But aside from a couple of lengthy speeches, he never makes it feel polemical. He anchors his story on two flawed characters who somehow start a relationship that has a core of something real despite the lies between them. Paxton and Zinnia do unexpected things, they make bad decisions but they are the human heart in a machine that is designed to use them until they have no more usefulness. As one character puts it:
‘Let me tell you about Cloud. They are a choice we made … We were told it would mean better prices, because Cloud only cared about the customer. That the customer was family. But we’re not family. We are the food that big businesses eat to grow bigger.’
The Warehouse is a cautionary tale. But it seems the warning might be coming too late. We are already victims of the capitalist, consumerist dream in which ‘we buy things because we are falling apart and the newness makes us feel whole’, where we ignore the consequences for our fellow citizens in a quest for ever-lower prices, not quite realising that we will also suffer those consequences in time. Given the strength with which he makes his point, Hart does not need to reference Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 or the Handmaid’s Tale, but he does. And while The Warehouse may not reach the literary heights of some of these dystopian classics, it makes a solid pitch to be the most possible, and therefore the scariest.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.