The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

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.

The Girl with All the Gifts: a review

For all her albeit short life, Melanie’s days begin the exact same way. She wakes up in her cell and waits for the Sergeant to bark “TRANSFER.” She then gets up, sits in her chair while Sergeant and his men strap her in, legs, arms and head. He wheels her down the hallways so she can attend classes with her fellow children, all also in their respective chairs, learning about a range of subjects from Greek mythology to the population growth of local English cities. She must never be touched. Every sunday she and the children receive intense chemical baths and sit in the dark, waiting. Occasionally the head of the compound, Dr. Caldwell, requests to see some of the children.

They never come back.

Melanie yearns to know more of the outside world, but her only friendly confidante, her teacher Ms. Justineau, has been getting more and more depressed, and Dr. Caldwell’s requests have been becoming more frequent.

If this summary at all sounds interesting to you, and you enjoy sci-fi/dystopian/horror-esque novels you should read this book. I would love to say more, in fact will say more, but here I have to put up a spoiler warning. Normally I don’t consider plot points to be spoilers if they happen in the first quarter of the book, but normally also those plot points are mentioned somewhere in the book summary and don’t change your worldview on what’s happening. About a quarter of the way through this book, a reveal is made about the world we’re in and why the children are being treated the way they are. I loved this book. It was an excellent exploration of the price humanity pays in order to protect itself and the moral quandaries that comes with that price. Butttt…….. to talk at all about why I loved it so much, I have to let you know about that one reveal. So if you will be bothered by that or want to go into the book blind like I did, stop now, know that I loved the book, and come back if you want AFTER you’ve finished it.

Continue reading

Falls the Shadow by Stefanie Gaither, a review

Everyone has those moments where you go down the internet rabbit hole and you’ll start off searching for who directed Captain America Winter Soldier and suddenly 30 minutes have past and you’re looking at a wikipedia entry of a list of every guest appearance on SNL ever. Somehow I went down one of those rabbit holes and ended up in the backlog of a website interviewing illustrators of book covers and 5 more books magically appeared on my TBR. Falls the Shadows was one of those books because oh my goodness, that cover. I love this cover so much I wrote an analysis of the design work because every time I tried to write this review I started gushing about typography. Also because there wasn’t a lot I felt I needed to say about this book.

Cate is only 12 or so, her sister Violet dies. Before the week is out, however, Violet is back with the Benson family, as if nothing had happened. When they were both born, Cate and Violet’s parents had them cloned and a chip was implanted in the original daughters, wirelessly transmitting each of their memories to the lab where the backup of the children remained in stasis. Violet’s clone is a perfect copy. She behaves the same way, remembers everything Violet did, and to the Benson family, it’s like she never died. But one day Violet never shows up to school and Cate learns that a girl in her grade has been murdered and suspicion turns towards the Benson family and their returned daughter.

I’ve never felt that I was particularly skilled at writing plot summaries but this book specifically is putting up a struggle. There’s just so much happening! It starts off with Cate and Violet’s classmate Samantha being murdered and Violet is under suspicion, but it’s not really a murder mystery because then more plot happens and underlying machinations happening with the cloning facility and there’s an anti-cloning quasi resistance group and also Cate’s parents are politicians so there’s that familial struggle element and there’s a boy she likes so romance subplot… so much happening. I found it hard to follow sometimes. Multiple double-crosses happen, we have a briefly mentioned chemical warfare backstory that comes into play later on and peppered throughout all of this is Cate swooning over her crush, Jaxson.

Surprisingly, I didn’t hate the book. I for the most part enjoyed it, although in a very shallow way. The more I think about it, the more I feel I should have hated it, but it never amassed enough effort for me to care one way or the other. I’m a master at the backhanded compliment, I know. The part of the book that I felt worked the least for me was the relationship between Cate and clone Violet.

The phrase “in late out early” is often times referenced for writing introductions. You want to start your book as far into the “action” as you can with it still making sense, and end the scene early enough that your readers are left wanting more. This book started a little too late and left a little too early. We start off in the drive after Violet’s funeral to pick up clone Violet. From there we meet her and then there’s a time jump of 5 years and Cate and clone Violet are in high school the day Samantha is pronounced murdered. The relationship between Cate and Violet and then the relationship between Cate and clone Violet is what drives this book. Cate will make decisions based off of her feelings towards her dead sister’s clone or her sister proper. But we never get to see Cate and Violet interact, don’t get to see the awkwardness immediately following clone Violet being brought into the house, the angry fights that must have ensued for a grieving and confused not yet teenaged Cate being told to pretend that her sister didn’t die. Cate tells us these things happened, sure, but we never get to see them. So when all I have to go off of for Cate and clone Violet’s relationship is how I see them interacting after Violet’s under suspicion of murder? I don’t really understand where Cate is coming from in her decision making.

Falls the Shadow is a perfectly acceptable YA book. It is a fairly standard near future quasi dystopian complete with teenage love interests and emotions. I don’t have anything against the book or think it’s a waste of time to read it, but it also didn’t do anything I hadn’t seen before. I appreciate the cause of Cate’s “stand up against the establishment” actions is based off of her relationship with her sister and her sister’s clone, but wish we could have seen more of that actual relationship instead of being told about it. Sometimes a book is unremarkable but that’s okay.

Review: Ariel by Steven R Boyett

The elevator pitch I’ve been giving for this book is “it’s a tale about a boy and his unicorn taking place in post-apocalyptic America” which, upon hearing that summary, hits major interest buttons for me. So I can get the setting of Fallout but there’s also magical creatures and more importantly a unicorn?? Yes please, sign me up, I am so ready for this.

So I’m rather at a loss as to how “a tale about a boy and his unicorn in post-apocalyptic America” can end up so generic and boring. By the time I reached the climatic battle that we had spent so much of the book building up, the book felt more like a standard campaign conclusion in Dungeons and Dragons rather than the unique merging of genres that got me interested in the book. How did we get here?

It is the early to mid 80s and the world or at least America has undergone “The Change.” Technology ceases to work. Cars stop in the middle of the road, refusing to ever turn on again. Firearms will not discharge. Phone don’t work. Lighting must be relegated to that of candles. But with the change also comes magic. The environment returns to its once non polluted state. All fresh water is safe for drinking, regardless of what toxins and chemicals were previously dumped in it. And most importantly, magical creatures now roam the American landscape.

Our hero is Pete Garey, a 20 something year old boy who several years ago stumbled across an injured unicorn. Nursing her back to health the two bond in a way beyond friendship, eventually having her become his magical familiar. Her name is Ariel. But the more they travel together, the more danger Ariel brings, as people ranging from jealous thugs to an all powerful Necromancer covet her horn and the power it brings.

Regardless of my lackluster emotions towards the latter half of the book, the book does a lot of things well. The world building is quite well done, somehow combining the concept of post-apocalyptic salvaging for goods and trying to live without technology with the magical wonderment of a fantasy setting, along with all the dangers it brings. Dragons are now roaming the hills of Tennessee, there is a Gryphon rider reeking havoc on settlements outside Washington DC, and of course, the aforementioned necromancer living atop the Empire State building.

However, as the story progresses and the threats to Ariel and Pete become more fleshed out, the book starts taking on a very familiar literary landscape. We might be in post-apocalyptic America, but Ariel is first and foremost a standard fantasy novel where there is one powerful wizard that is the nemesis with sword fights and slaying of dragons happening along the way. There’s even a damsel in distress narrative later on. And all of this gets very boring.

The book certainly isn’t bad, but the ending feels haphazard at best. The climatic conclusion to the necromancer plot (which is the main driving force throughout the latter half of the book) ends so abruptly, I didn’t realize that there wasn’t anything else to it. It wasn’t until later that I realized, “no, that was literally all there was to the necromancer main plot.” Villains that appear throughout the book and were once menacing threats are now reduced to snappy one liners, saying things like “But I wasn’t playing your game… I was playing MINE!! AND IN MY GAME THERE AREN’T ANY RULES.” and “My sword hasn’t had fresh blood in some time…” It’s tedious and I stopped caring about any of the stakes we had built. And to make matters worse, the main plot between Pete and Ariel gets wrapped up with zero explanation or understanding of WHY.

Without going into spoilers, throughout the book there is a subplot of Pete’s internal struggles with his relationship with Ariel. Because you see, as per most of unicorn mythology, only virgins can touch a unicorn. Pete, being in his early 20s is finding that his virginity status is becoming a struggle for him, being constantly distracted and aroused by female counterparts. Now, I actually find this exploration of virginity in the eyes of men to be very interesting. But after spending large portions of the book dealing with this, we resolve the conflict without any explanation to Pete’s feelings about his decision or why he chose to make the decision that he did.

Ariel is apparently a cult classic, getting a reprint in 2009, over 25 years after the initial print run in 1983. And while I in the end was let down and not impressed by the book, I can understand why it gained a following, certainly if you were in high school upon first reading it. If the fantasy genre is new to you and you haven’t grown accustomed to the tropes frequented by the genre, maybe the plot would be more engaging and new to experience. But as it stands, I went into this book hoping for a beautiful merging of a dystopian apocalypse story with the magic of unicorns and was left with a 20 something year old boy whining a lot about how he wants to have sex and running into the same fantasy tropes I’ve been reading throughout my life.