Life in a MotherCloud: On Rob Hart’s “The Warehouse”
By Nathan JeffersonSeptember 27, 2019
The Warehouse by Rob Hart
Cloud started as a ground retail delivery service but evolved into the linchpin of the American economy thanks to the early acquisition of some groundbreaking drone tech. Its employees live on campuses called “MotherClouds,” which contain dormitories, hospitals, schools, and entertainment centers arranged around a massive warehouse. In a world struggling to deal with runaway warming and environmental disaster, they’re oases of cool futurism. Administration is highly automated, run by algorithms that assign color-coded jobs when you’re hired (red for warehouse pickers, blue for security, brown for tech support, et cetera) and keep a workforce the size of a small city running efficiently. The whole thing is Amazon with Apple aesthetics — polished industrial surfaces and slick soft white promotional videos advertise an experience of utopian bliss to consumers and employees alike. The truth, of course, is that life in a MotherCloud is far rougher and more impersonal than that.
The Warehouse follows two main characters, and most of the novel switches back and forth between their points of view. Paxton is a former prison guard who invented a gadget to make the perfect hard-boiled egg. After starting a small company to sell his Perfect Egg, he enjoyed some moderate success before Cloud’s dominance and constant insistence on discounts eventually destroyed his ability to turn a profit and forced his company to go under. Zinnia, the second protagonist, is a battle-tested veteran of the corporate espionage world sent to infiltrate Cloud; a competitor suspects the company is lying about the total reliance on green energy sources that helps it enjoy tax-free status. The book also has sections formatted as blog posts from Gibson Wells, the founder and CEO of Cloud. Wells is terminally ill — pancreatic cancer, which should ring a bell if you know your visionary tech leaders — and spending his last few months visiting MotherCloud complexes across the country. He’s in a reflective mood, as the dying often are, and his self-mythologizing posts are the main way we learn the history of Cloud and Wells’s rise to becoming the richest man in the United States.
Hart’s near-future worldbuilding is all the more effective for what it doesn’t show. There’s a functioning society somewhere out there — somebody has to be ordering all the stuff the drones are delivering — but we never go beyond the arid, nearly abandoned wasteland surrounding MotherCloud. We get a general sense of how Wells has captured political power through posts in which he mentions successfully lobbying for laws that allow Cloud to operate with zero regulatory oversight and pay workers in high-tech company scrip, but all this is secondary to the action in MotherCloud; Hart wants us to experience dystopia through Paxton and Zinnia.
The Warehouse is polished; it’s not hard to see why Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment has already paid an amount reportedly in the high six-figures for the film rights. Hart, previously known for the five-part Ash McKenna mystery series, guides the action with a steady hand, showing an impressive command of pacing and structure that keeps the book moving at a speed between mystery and thriller. We know where Hart stands here — the book is dedicated to Maria Fernandes, a New Jersey resident who accidentally suffocated on gas fumes while sleeping in her car between shifts at three different Dunkin’ Donuts — but he avoids the easy out of painting Wells and the company he started as monstrous caricatures. Wells’s story is familiar: a knack for entrepreneurship evident in childhood, the drive to get Cloud up and running, and the good fortune to be in a position to capitalize when a shooting on Black Friday crippled the big box retail industry. He’s ruthless in his quest for growth but not a monster; with a mantra of “the market decides,” he views himself as just providing the service his customers are asking for. “The price of progress,” as he puts it. “Making Cloud was like making an omelet, just like any business. Some eggs had to be broken along the way. Not that I ever felt good about breaking eggs. It’s never something I took pleasure in. But the end result is the thing that matters.” And maybe he’s not wrong. By any measure Cloud is a marvel of logistics and the reason the US unemployment rate dropped from 28 percent to three percent. Is that a bad thing?
Where Paxton and Zinnia come in is in showing us what Cloud’s 30 million workers go through. They start from very different places: Zinnia is a self-identified “heartless” operative, and Paxton is a little resentful at having to join the company that ran him out of business but happy to finally have a job. Your enjoyment of the book will come down to how much you like the two leads; their voices are similar at times but overall effective. The structure is the true champion here, keeping the workmanlike prose clicking through sheer propulsive thrust. The back-and-forth between the two is used for both dramatic and comedic effect, giving their interactions with the place and each other new levels of meaning and conveying the grind of daily life in MotherCloud. The evolution both leads undergo over the course of the book is effective because it feels natural, informed by the daily stresses of life in an environment that doesn’t care about its workers beyond what it takes to keep them up and running. The 40-hour workweek is a long-gone relic, and Cloud workers are tracked every minute of every day thanks to a CloudBand, a smartwatch that serves as access key, GPS, and personal assistant, constantly exhorting you to work faster and do more.
The concept of a panopticon is namedropped, yet that doesn’t really capture the full despair of the experience. In Jeremy Bentham’s original conception, the guard just watches you in your individual cell, secure in the knowledge that if everyone believes they’re being watched then they’ll cooperate. What makes Cloud sinister is how the controlling algorithms work to keep people apart, physically and emotionally. This goes beyond “union” being a dirty word; any attempt at forming communal ties becomes warped, either a site of danger or something to be destroyed. Some of Hart’s best work comes when describing how even our jaded protagonists start itching for something more in their moments outside of work than the anesthetized individual comforts Cloud offers. Zinnia, for example, is independent by nature and laser-focused on her mission but can’t help but notice how little human contact Cloud permits:
It seemed to be the way of the place anyway. People brushed up against each other but didn’t engage. There were no gatherings, no group activities, other than rushed conversations in break rooms. She had a theory about that, that the more time you spent with people, the more the algorithm responsible for work shifts drove you apart. She and Paxton had started on roughly the same schedule but they’d been creeping apart, so that he was getting off four or five hours earlier than her.
It’s the effort to eradicate all human connection, Hart seems to say, that makes Cloud a horror show and Wells a hypocrite. The big man wants what he withholds from his workers; what matters to him, we soon realize, are the ties he’s formed and the adulation he receives for the empire he’s built. When it comes time for The Warehouse to end, it banks on the ties it has spent the book cultivating. The high points of the novel come when our leads realize just how completely Cloud precludes the possibility of any real connection, and how radically things would have to change to allow for any improvement. Hart’s effective storytelling means the same connection exists between reader and character as well, making The Warehouse an enjoyable journey with a meaningful payoff.
Nathan Jefferson is a writer and graduate student currently living in Chicago.
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