It’s always disheartening for me when I pick up a book by an author whose previous work I love and the book just… isn’t that good. A sense of guilt overwhelms me as I trudge on and on, continuing to dislike the book and wishing it wasn’t the case. Such has happened with Paolo Bacigalupi and The Doubt Factory as I really kinda hated this book. In fact, I’m very thankful that I read Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities before I read this novel, because there’s a good chance I’d have not continued on with any of Bacigalupi’s other works, which really are quite good. But as it stands, very little about The Doubt Factory landed for me, and reading it left me only tired and frustrated at the characters and the plot. (Sidebar: I will attempt to not spoil major plot points but in order to detail what about this book annoyed me so much, I’m going to have to explain certain character actions in vague generalities. Please be warned if you wish to remain completely spoiler free).
The Doubt Factory follows 17 year old Alix Banks, daughter of a fairly affluent and powerful PR executive. Living in her sheltered and privileged world, Alix doesn’t particularly bother herself with worries over how most other people live. Not out of a calloused and uncaring worldview, mind you, she just hasn’t had anyone challenge her view of the world. She’s a child living in a pristine house where the reality of life hasn’t broken in and soiled up the place yet. But when an underground protest group called 2.0 start threatening her and her family, Alix is forced to confront what exactly her father does and how it affects those less fortunate than her.
Paolo Bacigalupi tends to write message fiction. I’ve recommended him to my father many times due to his heartfelt passion for environmental problems and fixing climate change. His books tend to be set in the not too distant future where Earth as we know it is gone, ravaged by floods or a lack of water or a mass shortage of food where everything is genetically modified. The books are close enough to recognize our society and culture but far enough to allow for elements of the fantastical/dystopian to drive home the point of “we need to fix this NOW.” And similarly, The Doubt Factory also has a message Bacigalupi wants to impress upon his readers: that of how much power lobby groups and PR companies have over organizations like the FDA. That the general health and safety of the public is compromised by greedy capitalistic corporations who are well aware that their drug has serious and/or deadly side effects, but hire PR companies to bury the evidence in order to squeeze out more years of sales before they are forced to put warning labels on their products. An easy example of this would be the amount of marketing work done for cigarette companies in the 50s and 60s when science was coming out about how dangerous smoking actually was.
Now the message, although somewhat heavy handedly driven home, is not the reason I hated The Doubt Factory. I fully believe and understand that government is controlled by lobby groups and PR firms are masters of spin and influence and trick the consuming public every day. No, my problem was that every single one of our characters seemed to be as intelligent as a bag of bricks and only half of them operated in the real world.
The main issue I have is with our main character Alix, and not just because of her incredibly millennial spelled name. I do not understand any of Alix’s decision making. When 2.0’s leader starts enacting “pranks” (more on whether or not I consider these instances pranks later) at her school and essentially begins stalking her, she is drawn to him, entranced. Time and time again she defends 2.0 and his actions, balking at the harsh labels her father and his security company use to describe him (terms like, say, terrorist). She feels a sense of teenage allure to him as he’s a slightly older handsome black man and she a VERY sheltered rich white girl. He’s the dangerous bad boy she’s never experienced. That part is fine… up until he starts assaulting people and continually threatens her and her family. About then is where she logically should stop sympathizing with him and start fearing him.
The reader might feel sympathy for 2.0 because we’re getting POV from him and understand some of the pain he’s gone through to lead to this point, but Alix knows none of this. All she knows is that a scary and clearly physically strong black man is threatening her and her family and appears to want to kidnap her to get at her father (I’d like to clarify that I’m not bringing up the stereotype because I believe it true, but because in the book, Alix makes it clear how incredibly sheltered and white her upbringing has been. There are only a very VERY small amount of black people at her school, and she’s barely interacted with them. In this context along with the context of the world we’re operating in (our own), that stereotype and prejudice would be in the forefront of her mind). Throughout the book Alix routinely withholds information from her father and the security people set to protect her and her family for no good reason, other than she doesn’t want to get 2.0 in trouble. Screw getting him in trouble, he’s threatened your family and assaulted a person! Why are you behaving like this?
Earlier I described 2.0 as an “underground protest group” but that’s… not entirely accurate. It’s just that I don’t know how else to classify them without either sugarcoating the ramifications of their actions or using extremely harsh language (like, say, terrorist). The book too seems to struggle with how dangerous 2.0 is, or should be perceived. Alix refers to all of their actions as “pranks.” Except that the actions include things like: assaulting a person, calling in a bomb threat at a high school that isn’t entirely untrue, causing a literal explosion when security enforcement attempts to protect Alix and apprehend 2.0, and, of course, kidnapping. The reader gets POV of the group and understands their motivations and they truly do not seem to understand the seriousness of what they are doing and brush off any terrorist-esque label as PR spin meant to make them the bad guys. But…. they kinda are. Their actions are very serious. They assaulted a SWAT team called in to protect the school. They are implicated in multiple kidnappings and keep one person locked up in a cage for periods of time. They are doing things specifically meant to cause fear and, well, terror, in Alix’s household. They are trying to punish Alix’s father for things they believe he has done. They are a serious threat and rightfully are treated like one by the security team and Alix’s parents. It’s just that the book seems to have missed that memo because time and time again I’m meant to feel sympathy that they’re being treated this seriously.
I think this all could have been resolved with a few changes. If, for example, Alix had an established difficult relationship with her father when the book began, we might believe her withholding information from him. If she already was suspicious of his job and what he does for a living, it’d make sense why she’s so sympathetic with 2.0. But as it stands, she and her father have a good relationship, if a little strained by how busy he is. But when Alix’s life is threatened, he immediately comes home and calls in as many favors as he has to to keep her safe. He worries and cares for her and goes to great lengths to protect her. 2.0 even comments on how good of a father he is.
Another solution would be to do what so many other Bacigalupi books do and set this in the not too near but not far off future. Make this a world that isn’t present day. Because it’s set in 2014 America, all of its actions are painted by how 2014 America would behave. A very rich, very privileged white girl with little to no interaction with people who aren’t her race or financial bracket WOULD be scared of a threatening black man. The actions of 2.0 WOULD be labeled as terroristic and threatening acts. A 17 year old girl WOULD NOT be able to enact any real change on how her father or the world operates in regards to PR spin. But every time Alix behaves strangely or reacts not in our reality, I get confused because we’ve gone out of our way to establish this as present day America. If this was the year 2050 or something and PR spin has gone amok, endangering the lives of Americans nationwide on an exaggerated scale, I’d have a much easier time sympathizing with 2.0’s actions, or believing Alix’s behavior, because it wouldn’t have to make sense in our current world.
This book was the biggest disappointment I’ve encountered this year. I loved Paolo Bacigalupi’s previous works but there’s very little about this book that I enjoyed. Pretty much the only part that worked for me was near the middle where Bacigalupi went on a rant about PR firms covering up the dangers of aspirin. When in full blown message mode, the book works. I understand and agree with the point Bacigalupi is trying to make. It’s just the plot that continually falls apart at every turn.