I'm so tired of Amazon. I'm bored of worrying about which business they're going to "disrupt" next. I'm exhausted of waiting for surveillance state they've constructed with their Echo smart speakers and their Ring video doorbells to inevitably blow up in the faces of their customers. I hate thinking about all the ways in which their ugly logo will insinuate itself into my life over the next few weeks and months and years.
But much like it is with Donald Trump, it's pretty much impossible to be alive in 2019 and not encounter Amazon in multiple tiny encounters every day, even if you don't participate in their retail ecosystem. They're ubiquitous and they're not about to silently disappear anytime soon. Odds are good that if you're reading this site, you share at least some of these sentiments.
So I can understand if you're not especially excited by the prospect of reading Rob Hart's sci-fi thriller The Warehouse. It's a dystopian novel set in the near-future, in which an Amazon clone called Cloud has won all-but-total domination over the global economy. Why would you want to read a novel about something happening outside your window, after all?
Well, maybe because fiction allows you to see the world as it really is. I have a particular weakness for sci-fi thrillers set in a world just a day or two in the future — Jurassic Park is a great example, and also Jennifer Government and several other books by Max Barry — because they eschew the politeness of journalism and let readers really dive deeply into an issue. When you're not constrained by the nattering concerns of real life, you can see more clearly.
The Warehouse follows the story of two people. First and foremost is Paxton, an everyman type who, after one of his inventions is patent-trolled by Cloud, goes to work at a Cloud facility while vaguely plotting some kind of revenge. Much to Paxton's dismay, he gets a job in security. In the warehouse, Paxton finds himself enthralled with a woman named Zinnia, who harbors a deep secret. The novel hurtles toward a visit by Cloud founder Gibson Wells, a dying tech genius who vows to spend the last of his days touring the Cloud facilities he has built.
"Cloud is the solution to every need," Wells informs Paxton and Zinnia and dozens of other new recruits in an orientation video they watch on their first day on the job...
...It's a point of relief in a fast-paced world. We aim to assist people and families who can't make it out to a store, or don't have one nearby, or don't want to take the risk...Here at Cloud, we believe in offering a safe, secure work environment where you can be the master of your own destiny.
(That's pretty much all bullshit, of course.)
Hart does excellent work establishing daily life in the Cloud facility. We follow Zinnia as she adapts to a new job as a picker in the facility, running here and there, scooping up products to ship to customers: "Wireless earbuds. Fitness tracker. Book. Sneakers. Shawl. Building blocks. RFID-blocking wallet..." As in real-life Amazon facilities, Zinnia is relentlessly tracked every step of the way and put on warning if she falters even a minute. Bathroom breaks are forbidden, and safety procedures are downplayed in the name of merciless efficiency.
The speculative bit that pushes The Warehouse from the mystery/thriller shelves to the sci-fi shelves, is that all the Cloud employees live and work in the same mammoth facility — a cross between college dorms, prisons, and city living. They're paid in Cloud scrip and they eat at Cloud restaurants. The warehouse pickers order sneakers from Cloud to quiet their protesting feet, and they return to their Cloud homes after a long day working in Cloud facilities to find the sneakers sitting in their tiny apartments.
We're only given a few glimpses at the conditions that set about this sad state of affairs — it involves an economic collapse, a monstrous act of terror, and the repeated loosening of labor laws like the five-day workweek — but none of this seems especially hard to believe. Hart knows not to oversell the how or why of it. We instinctually understand the scenario because we've all seen it in the news.
And it turns out that an Amazon warehouse on steroids is a great place to set a thriller. There's an established social hierarchy, a cruelly efficient monitoring system, a corporate system of control that punishes anything or anyone out of the ordinary, and a clear villain to fight.
The Warehouse does suffer from a few thriller cliches. Paxton, for instance, is a bland protagonist. You've met this dude before in a ton of different thrillers — the aimless guy who's a little too macho for his own good, but who also tends to stand back and observe quietly. From Jack Reacher on down, this quiet but capable guy has haunted the thriller section for far too long. Zinnia, with her mysterious motivations, would have made a far more compelling protagonist, instead of a second lead/love interest.
And for a book that barely tries to hide the conceit that Cloud is Amazon, the character of Gibson Wells lacks an essential Bezos-ness. Rather than the weird human-ish tics of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Wells comes across as something like an aw-shucks Walt Disney type, a warm (but deeply cynical) man who seems to care what people think of him. He's not a character I would believe as someone who could take over the world. Perhaps Hart believed that hewing Wells too close to Bezos would murder the joke, or perhaps legal concerns intervened. Either way, the book is weaker for the lack of Bezos's weirdness, the sense that he's a lizard in a flesh-suit pulling one over on these dumb humans.
But on the macro scale, The Warehouse is a tremendous success. It fearlessly takes on this behemoth that has swallowed the world and forces the reader to pay close attention to what it's becoming. The threat of Amazon is something that can't be ignored, no matter how sick of them you may be.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant