REVIEW OF The Warehouse by Rob Hart

A funny thing happened while I was reading this book. I had just bought a new pair of my favorite shoes – Adidas shell toes, just like Run DMC wear – and on a whim, I thought to check the price on Amazon. I have the app on my phone, but I use it more as a reference tool than anything. But holy moly, those sweet kicks were $30.00 less on Amazon than they were in the store I had just bought them from. So, I bought them right from my phone, while standing in my living room. I didn’t have to go outside and drive to another store and talk to another person, didn’t have to do anything. Except click another app on the phone that was already in my hand.

I did have to drive to the previous store to return the other shoes. But hey, $30.00 is $30.00. And the clerk at the counter couldn’t have cared less about my returned item anyway.

Total win, right?

Sure. Until you focus on the events of this true story through the lens of Rob Hart’s speculative thriller THE WAREHOUSE. Then, well… your body runs cold while your palms get sweaty. Because things that happen in a near-future warning tale aren’t supposed to happen in real life, right?

In a nameless deserted dustbowl town, roasting under a blazing hot afternoon sun, a horde of desperate people are descending upon… a job fair. In dire need of employment, they all take the online questionnaire on company provided tablets. Everyone is trying desperately to answer the questions correctly, so that the algorithms work in their favor so that the screens show GREEN instead of RED. Those that are accepted get to ride the company bus in air-conditioned comfort and start their new employment at Cloud, the worldwide retailer that has all but replaced the brick-and-mortar stores. Those that fail are forced back out into the sweltering heat and must wait a preset amount of time before applying again. Those that get chosen weep with happiness. Those that don’t just weep.

Paxton is applying because he is out of options. A former prison guard, Paxton had a great idea and struck out as an inventor. Having found a bit of success, he partnered with Cloud and found even more success. But as Cloud pressured him to reduce cost, his small operation couldn’t absorb any more cuts, and Paxton was forced out of business. Now, Paxton dreams of telling Cloud founder Gibson Wells straight to his face that he’s responsible for the death of Paxton’s dream. Paxton passes his assessment test and is assigned a smart watch and a blue polo shirt.  Cloud has assigned him to Security. Paxton wanted any position but Security, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Zinnia is a corporate spy. No one has ever been able to penetrate Cloud and learn their technological secrets. Their proprietary data. Their satellite codes. How they generate so much energy to run their facilities. But to Zinnia, a job is a job. She would rather keep to herself, but Paxton is clearly looking for a friend, and having a friend at the Cloud complex could be handy. So, she lets him tag along. Passing her test and hoping for the brown shirt of the tech support staff, she gets assigned her smart watch and the red polo shirt of the warehouse picking staff. Again, beggars and choosers.

Working at Cloud means you not only have gainful employment, but you have a safe, clean place to live, too. With access to shopping, stores, restaurants (CloudBurger!), and onsite healthcare. Your smart watch gives you access to the facility, allows you to pay for goods and services, and acts as your guide while you are working. You also aren’t allowed to take it off unless it’s on its charging station. Compared to the rapidly heating world outside of the Cloud HQ, which is one of the many Mother Cloud facilities scattered across the planet, working at Cloud really is the only option for having a safe and fulfilling existence. Or, is it?

The world that Rob Hart has constructed hits incredibly close to home, because it is home. This is a world that exists in the very near NOW. A world where unchecked pollution, overpopulation, and a complete dismantling of government regulations and oversight have allowed big business to become big brother. How does Cloud get their drones to your home so fast, without interrupting regular air travel? They privatized the FAA, of course. Cloud takes care of that. How do they fill the orders so quickly in the warehouses? They got rid of the 40-hour workweek. Going to work ill? Probably. Healthcare isn’t covered by any sort of insurance, and it’s so expensive, even the healthcare providers encourage you not to use it.

Previously, Hart has been known for his exceptional Ash McKenna P.I. series. With WAREHOUSE, Hart seamlessly crosses genres from street level crime to speculative science-fiction. The reader is being fed the necessary exposition throughout the book as the story requires. The science fiction aspects of Cloud and the world outside our window that this story takes place in are fascinating, to be sure. But what really matters are the characters of Paxton and Zinnia. If the reader isn’t invested in their parallel journeys, then the journey doesn’t matter.

What makes the ethical quandary of THE WAREHOUSE so compelling is this: the world Paxton and Zinnia inhabit is a dumpster fire in the truest sense of the word. Finding refuge with employment at Cloud is the best option available. But is it worth becoming a drone? Is it worth giving up any chance of a fulfilling life for the opportunity to live in air conditioning and eat a bland meal before collapsing onto your tiny foam mattress from working forced overtime? Willingly giving up your freedom for convenience still means you’ve given up your freedom.

The sign of a truly great book is how often you think about it after you’ve turned the last page. I’ve been thinking about THE WARHOUSE quite a bit. Especially when I reach for my phone to order a new pair of shoes. After all: there is a picker in a red polo shirt fulling that order. And she’s desperately waiting for her break.