When Amazon was founded 25 years ago, its aims seemed benevolent – to be the largest bookshop on Earth, but also one that offered touch-of-a-button convenience to shoppers. How things change. Now, with its remit having long since expanded to include virtually every service and item one could wish for, the once-likable company has become a monolithic conglomerate, shutting down its competition mercilessly.
It is surely Amazon that gave Rob Hart the idea for the all-powerful, omniscient company Cloud in his hugely engaging novel, even if one character dismisses it as operating on “a much smaller scale… their interests were too earthbound”.
In this dystopian America, where resources are scarce and climate change has been pitiless, the only company that is thriving is Cloud. Run by the multibillionaire businessman and visionary Gibson Wells, whose imminent death from pancreatic cancer has led him to write a series of blogs that punctuate the narrative, it essentially owns its employees, who are fed, housed, compelled to do tiresome and menial jobs for poor wages and are brainwashed into believing that they are the fortunate ones. One of them, Paxton, is a prison guard-turned-would-be-chief-executive forced to take a demeaning job in security, who gradually becomes indoctrinated into the totalitarian environment in which he serves; the other main character, Zinnia, is a corporate spy hired to discover the secrets of Cloud’s extraordinary success by a business rival. The two develop a friendship, then a romance, but their relationship is always underpinned both by Zinnia’s true motives and by what, exactly, is going on at the company that controls them both.
Hart has worked with James Patterson before and he has inherited something of Patterson’s breathless knack for narrative and suspense; it helps that he is a far better writer. There is a rich vein of social satire throughout (a frighteningly plausible series of events often referred to are the “Black Friday Massacres”)and also a palpable sense of anger at the injustice visited upon the underclass by their oppressors. Hart has surely read James Bloodworth’s excellent exposé Hired, and his keenly detailed descriptions of the indignities visited upon worker drones are horribly compelling. It helps, though, that in Zinnia he has an empowered and charismatic heroine, battling sundry thugs and her own conscience with the same determined sangfroid.
This is a fine and gripping read, a literary blockbuster with brains. Perhaps the anticlimactic ending lets it down slightly, but until then Hart manages to stimulate both the imagination and the viscera alike. Just don’t read it at your favourite burger restaurant – it may put you off your meal.
• The Warehouse is published by Bantam Press (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99