The Warehouse by Rob Hart

Oh gosh, this was one of those deeply affecting cautionary tales that you finish and need to put down and just sort of sit and recover from for a while. Set in a near-future where the trajectory of global (but especially American) capitalism has come to its merciless inevitability, the largest employer in the country is Cloud, an Amazon on steroids which has conquered the market in pretty much everything. Cloud has set up gigantic complexes called MotherClouds that are essentially cities where their employees live and work, and this story is told through the viewpoints of three people drawn to a MotherCloud for vastly differing reasons.

The first, and my favorite, is Zinnia, a corporate spy hired to find out how Cloud could possibly be fulfilling its mandate to use clean energy to power its complexes. Tho she tried to get hired as a tech person (in a work society stratified by the different colored shirts you wear,) she finds herself working as a warehouse picker, constantly running to fulfill on-line orders. The second is Paxton, the former CEO of a company that was essentially driven out of business by Cloud. Fueled by an unformed urge to stick it to Cloud while also getting back on his feet, he accepts a job in security, and is probably the most psychologically affected of the three by the events of this book. The final person is the founder of Cloud himself, Gibson, who is dying and going on a farewell tour of his corporate facilities. His viewpoint chapters are primarily in the form of folksy blog posts that serve as a chillingly seductive form of propaganda, in large part because he’s not always wrong.

And that’s the genius of this book, in the fact that it is riddled with the same sort of moral ambiguity that even the average person, the average good person, finds themselves dealing with on a day to day basis. Whether resisting the blandishments of politicians/business people who present their own self-interest as the public interest, or dealing with the fact that cheap goods inevitably mean depressed labor costs, this is a highly moral tale that hearkens back to the very stories it cites, and is fully worthy of joining their hallowed ranks. I especially admired Rob Hart’s self-restraint, which lends a greater believability to this book. A lot of dystopian fiction occasionally borders on the hysterical — a not incorrect response to the totalitarian rule their settings labor under — but given that Mr Hart’s target is late-stage capitalism hidden in the guise of benevolent paternalism, this books feels more prescient than unlikely, and that’s really hard to digest.

But what to do when you don’t want to give up the convenience of Amazon Prime? Default to no-rush shipping, for a start, and support legislation that allows, if not outright encourages, both unionization of labor and anti-monopolistic business practices. And it’s not just one company that’s being scrutinized here, despite the fact that Cloud is clearly based on Amazon (with a meta joke in the text about how much better the fictional company is than its “former” rival,) it’s all capitalist labor practices as well as 21st century consumer culture. The ultimate goal of The Warehouse is to remind us readers that labor is not disposable, that these are real people who deserve respect and proper compensation for their work, that these people could be us. And it does so in a wildly entertaining, ultimately bittersweet manner.

I really hope Zinnia is okay.

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