Paxton used to be a man with a promising idea, one that was flourishing in the market — but then The Cloud said “Lower your prices”. The Cloud wasn’t the voice of God, floating in the heavens — but it almost might as well been in the United States, for no merchandiser could hope to find any market whatsoever that The Cloud, Inc didn’t already control. Now he’s a spirit-broken peon, newly employed by The Cloud as a security guard. And….things are about to get a lot worse. One of his fellow new hires, Zinnia, has started work at the Cloud with the sole intent of gathering intelligence on it for her mysterious employers; there has to be a weakness in its systems somewhere they can exploit, and she’s technically savvy and borderline sociopathic, with a gift for manipulating people. Assigned as a warehouse grunt, the frustrated Zinnia sees in lovestruck Paxton the perfect dupe to gain access into the warehouse’s nether regions. This begins this dark look into the very possible future of the United States, where the speculation is solely in the tech used –for the author references abuses already committed by Amazon and Walmart, our friendly neighborhood leviathans.
The Warehouse isn’t just a warehouse: The Cloud operates through massive artificial cities, fully enclosed, which it calls MotherClouds. These massive structures are storage and shipping hubs for the company, but they also have dormitories for their workers, independent power plants, medical facilities, and a promenade that functions rather like a mall. The company town has been resurrected, with all the peonage and debt slavery that that system once entailed. The Cloud enjoys enormous political cloud thanks to its deep pockets and “green initiatives”: its plants, it boasts, are solely run by green power, and thanks to eliminating transportation costs for 30 million people (its peasant-workers, tracked by armband and color-coded by work type so no one can get themselves lost) , it even claims to be on the verge of being carbon-negative. No one is in a position to stop them: most of the world is struggling with flooding coastlines and massive population disruption, so it’s almost nice that someone, somewhere, seems to be so hypercompetent at what they do. Nevermind the fact they’ve built a creepy dystopia where everyone is watched despite a lack of cameras, where human beings are treated like cogs in a factory — interchangeable parts packaging and moving interchangeable parts.
The most chilling part of The Warehouse is that it’s not….entirely fictional. Take the warehouse system, for instance, in which workers are guided to bins by an electronic gadget giving them instructions, where they spend ten hours a day constantly running back and forth, dodging robots that are moving crates, continually judged by their fill quotient. This is literally happening: it was described in Nomadland by Jessica Bruder, when she joined members of Amazon’s “CamperForce” — mobile workers who work for seasons in Amazon’s own warehouse. The monopsonic ways of both Walmart and Amazon — their power to dictate prices to merchandisers, and thus distort market demand just as drug cartels or governments do — and their destruction of small firms that won’t kowtow to them has been documented in books like Cheap: The High Price of Discount Culture. Cheap (or The Walmart Effect, it’s been years) literally mentions a pickle company that was bullied by Walmart, just as another pickle company is bullied here. The only fictional aspects are the characters, very nearly.
As a warning, The Warehouse is creepy and captures the dreary monotony of the daily grind, while at the same time steadily driving forward — the reader wondering who Zinnia is working for, just what is hidden in the underground of the MotherCloud, and when poor Paxton is going to have his heart broken further by his new friend. Although it’s mostly grim, with a possible glimmer of hope at the future, those who enjoy near-future stories or those fascinated by the prospects of tyranny-by-corporation will enjoy it.
The Circle, Dave Eggers