LitStack Review: The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

by Sharon Browning
The Doubt FactoryDoubt Factory
Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown and Company
Release Date:  October 14, 2014
ISBN 978-0-316-22075-0

Paolo Bacigalupi has written, among other things, a gritty, dystopian award winning adult novel about the fallout from dangers of genetic manipulation of crops (The Wind-up Girl), a somewhat silly but also very smart middle grade novel (Zombie Baseball Beatdown) and a couple of YA novels that have gotten both buzz and accolades (Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities).  So what happens when he sets a new YA novel not in the future, not in some fantasy world, nor in some fantastical iteration of the here and now, but in our everyday, ordinary world?  You get a taunt, imaginative thriller called The Doubt Factory.

(Note:  this review goes into detail about factors supporting the plot of The Doubt Factory, so even though there are no real surprises given away, there are spoilers to follow.  While they shouldn’t detract from a reading of the book,  it’s only fair to give warning to those who prefer a pristine reading experience.)

The Doubt Factory centers around Alix Banks, honors student at preppy Sietz Academy and scion of a pretty darned well off (if not jet setting) family.  She lives with her loving, workaholic father (who owns his own high powered PR firm), her distracted, stay at home mother and a precocious brat of a younger brother, Jonah.  She’s well adjusted, well loved, and it seems like her future is not only bright, but promises to be smooth sailing.

What Alix doesn’t know is that she is a target for a group of activists, known as “2.0” (as in “updated version” or “something new”) who believes that her father’s public relations company, which specializes in product defense and crisis communications (focusing on scientific litigation strategy and legislative outreach) are the lynchpin in their clients’ abilities to circumvent government and industry regulations so as to put on the market (or keep on the market) products that are not fully vetted or are downright dangerous.  The activists have anointed Alix’s father’s company, Banks Strategy Partners, as “the Doubt Factory”, because one of their major strategies is to cast doubt on studies and expert testimony in order to delay removal of questionable products from the marketplace.

But 2.0 is not your typical activist organization.  They are few in number – only five members – young, and each of them have a vested interest in seeing the Doubt Factory and its clients brought to justice.  Every member of 2.0 has lost loved ones, or even been compromised themselves due to a lack of control over dangerous products whose defense was coordinated by Banks Strategy Partners.  Yet 2.0 is not looking for blood or money.  They are looking to expose the Doubt Factory, to make the public aware of the methods used to make profit regardless of public safety, and they believe Alix may be the leverage they need in achieving their goal.

Charismatic Moses is the leader of the closely knit group, and he feels deeply responsible for their safety.  Moses is a chameleon, able to slip into the guise of any number of roles as needed.  He’s also learned the con game from an uncle, the only relative who could take the boy in when his parents died after being given a compromised cholesterol drug kept on the market by PR strategies employed by Banks Strategic Partners.  Moses has turned all that he learned from his uncle towards exposing the Doubt Factory and giving closure to his loss, and to the losses that his crew has endured.  But now something has come up that Moses hadn’t planned on – he hadn’t factored in being attracted to the main target in their plans to unmask the Doubt Factory.  He hadn’t planned on developing feelings for Alix.

The Doubt Factory is an intelligent, incredibly well researched book aimed at young adults, that delves deep into shady market practices that really are being utilized by big businesses in this day and age.  Author Bacigalupi has done his homework, and is not afraid to name industries and real world corporations that have openly utilized the Confusion = Delay = $$$$ tactic in the Doubt Factory’s playbook.  When Moses is preaching to Alix, trying to enlighten her as to the effects that her father’s firm has had on real people, he’s really preaching to us.  While we might not be in Alix’s shoes, per se, we still go through our lives blissfully unaware of the machinations occurring behind the scenes and buried under the headlines of industry, until and unless we are unfortunate enough to become one of the statistics that the Doubt Factory is hired to cover up, discredit or blur.

Yet the real success of the book is not the hard sell that Moses and his team tries to pitch, but Alix’s reaction to it.  While she can’t deny the compelling stories held by 2.0, she also cannot believe that her father – the man who has been a loving anchor in her life – is really the monster they are making him out to be.  Even though her heart feels there might be truth to what she is being told, the fact is that she herself has been singled out as a target by the same people spinning their tales of woe – who, then, is she supposed to trust?  Who’s ends justify what means?  It doesn’t help that she also feels attracted to Moses, despite and possibly because of the threat he embodies to her formerly placid and expected life.  Can she trust her own feelings, even?

For the most part, Mr. Bacigalupi admirably does not go for the pat answers.  Alix is a young woman, not well versed in life’s cynicism and manipulations (any more than any high school student feels they are), and when she has to confront major decisions, her response doesn’t automatically default to the “plucky heroine” trope – instead, Mr. Bacigalupi has her responding like a real person:  confused, conflicted, impulsive.  It can be frustrating for readers that expect tried and true responses, but far less so for those who realize that “doing the right thing” is not as easy to determine when it’s not viewed from afar.

I did struggle with a few aspects of the book, specifically, the sudden escalation of Moses and Alix’s relationship, which felt far too superficial for their ages and experiences, and the rather convenient turn of events towards the end which were a little wobbly given the tightly woven storyline up to that point.  But those were minor disenchantments when held up against the compelling nature of the narrative as a whole.

If you are a fan of Cory Doctorow’s YA novels Little Brother, FTW, or Homeland, if you like stories where the little guys go up against the machine, if you like your fiction delving into social morality, or if you’re intrigued by a different take on the “us versus them” mentality, you will really enjoy reading The Doubt Factory, regardless of your age.  Does it have a happy or sad ending?  Honestly, that will be up to you to decide.

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