Dystopian thrillers often play out in the near future. In Rob Hart’s “The Warehouse” and John Marrs’s “The Passengers,” two deeply disturbing entries in this genre, the near future seems three hours away: Virtually every plot beat seems plausible and imminent.
Consider Hart’s titular warehouse, a vast place called “Cloud.” As workers fill orders, Hart describes items lining the shelves: “Alarm clock. Shower radio. Digital camera. Book. Phone charger.” Remind you of a recent online order?
But Hart envisions a place that goes beyond offering everything you used to find at the mall. Cloud’s founder, Gibson Wells, claiming to be the richest man in America, says the place is “ ‘more than a store. . . . It could provide relief to this great nation.’ ”
And indeed the nation and the world need relief. A financial collapse, no doubt set in motion by Cloud, has come to pass. One small village now consists of a “row of low-slung buildings, old businesses now empty, the signs faded or fallen, the parking lots full of weeds.” Above a superhighway, insects gather in “great black swarms moving back and forth across the sky.” In India, there are mass migrations from areas that have fallen below sea level.
For desperate, displaced Americans, Wells has expanded his warehouses into residences, called MotherClouds; there’s one in every state in the country. In a series of blogs, Wells describes the new society he has created with them. Early on, he struck an agreement with the federal government to take over the FAA. He abolished unions. To keep his residents informed, he created the Cloud News Network. “Anything else,” he insists, “is just fake news.”
In an eerily prescient moment, Wells threatens to assume even more power and “put this lumbering old beast of government out of its misery,” he writes. “I am the one to do it,” he explains, “because I am exceptional.”
Hordes of Americans are desperate to live and work in Cloud’s apartments, even if accommodations are “more like a crowded hallway than an apartment.”At Cloud, residents must wear CloudBands, which monitor and direct their every movement. There are compensations. The CloudBurger, available only on site, is “one of the best and most affordable fast-food burgers in the country.”
Hart, the author of a series of detective novels, spins out his plot at the biggest Cloud complex in the country, a place that looks as if it had been “dropped from the sky by an uncaring hand.” Here a man and a woman infiltrate the hordes shoving their way in: Paxton, a former prison guard, seethes over losing a patent to Cloud and seeks revenge; Zinnia, on assignment from an unrevealed agency, plans to uncover Cloud’s tax dealings. What the pair learns about Cloud and its management may convince readers to forswear online shopping and buy at any independent local stores they can find.
Set in and around London, Marrs’s “The Passengers” plays on other near-future fears. This unsettling thriller begins as eight people head off in their driverless cars. They’re scarcely on the way before their vehicles take unplanned turns. “Alternative destination being programmed,” a “softly spoken female voice” tells them. The doors lock, their windows turn opaque so the drivers can’t motion for help. Then a male voice announces: “From here on in, I am in charge of your destination. . . . The only thing you need to know at this point is that in two hours and thirty minutes from now, it is highly likely you will be dead.”
In Birmingham, meanwhile, jurors arrive to serve on the Vehicle Inquest Jury, a government panel charged with determining fault in fatal accidents involving autonomous vehicles. They scarcely begin deliberating when the same voice that informed the eight drivers of their fates speaks over jury room speakers. Identifying himself as “the Hacker,” the man says he devised the hijackings, and he’s broadcasting scenes of the hostages in their cars on TV and on all the major social media sites.
To bend the jurors to his will, the Hacker reveals he’s amassed myriad details of their private lives: He knows “your credit card numbers, the call girls you hire, password, bank statements . . . the emails you’ve sent.” In other words, he has your data and plans to broadcast it.
The Hacker then reveals he’s guiding the cars to a head-on crash; but he makes a deal with the jurors and his worldwide audience: He’ll spare one life, but the jury must pick the survivor. The debate begins.
This setup suggests a reality TV show with deadly stakes. But Marrs laces his fast-paced tale with delectably mordant satire. The event, a man exclaims, has turned into “the most hashtagged global event since social media began.” At hijacking sites, onlookers take selfies with the imprisoned drivers.
In this dark world, though, Marrs finds light. Awaiting their fates, the hostages reflect on their lives. The prisoners respond from their hearts, revealing thoughts and feelings that far surpass anything the Internet has collected about them. We see that technology amasses facts but cannot plumb souls. In the downbeat, despairing worlds of both these thrillers, this upbeat, inspiring theme shines.
Gerald Bartell is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.