The Doubt Factory, by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Publication date – October 14, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Everything Alix knows about her life is a lie. At least that’s what a mysterious young man who’s “stalking”her keeps saying. But then she begins investigating the disturbing claims he makes against her father. Could her dad really be at the helm of a firm that distorts the truth and covers up wrongdoing by hugely profitable corporations that have allowed innocent victims to die? Is it possible that her father is the bad guy, and that the undeniably alluring criminal who calls himself Moses–and his radical band of teen activists–is right? Alix has to make a choice, and time is running out, but can she truly risk everything and blow the whistle on the man who loves her and raised her?

Thoughts: I think I was expecting something different when I started reading The Doubt Factory. For a large percentage of the book, I kept waiting for some odd supernatural or futuretech element to be revealed. Hazards of mostly reading SFF, I think. But despite that particular mistaken expectation not being met, I can’t deny that The Doubt Factory was a good YA thriller, an intelligent look at conspiracy theories, which side of the coin they apply to, and how the truth is so easy to obfuscate.

The story is told from the perspective of Alix, daughter of an affluent family whose fortunes are made thanks to her fathers work in PR. As Alix put it, when lawsuits happen, he works to allow both sides to be able to tell their stories, so that everyone gets a fair shot. But as a series of pranks escalate to a kidnapping, Alex slowly comes to understand that her father’s work is far from fair, that what he does ends up hiding evidence, suppressing unbiased research, and preventing wronged parties from being able to get reparation and justice. And she has been living off the profits of such enterprise for most of her life, going to an elite private school, making connections with other rich and influential families, living in a great house. It’s the kind of novel that’s practically custom-made for the socially conscious disenfranchised teen who wants to make a splash in the world but who may lack the motivation or resources to disseminate truth from lie.

And that’s largely what this book is about. An awakening and understanding that lies can look like truth and vice versa, depending on what information one is being fed. Conspiracy theorists say a lot of things, from the idea that nobody ever landed on the moon, to the idea that corporations can and do buy political favour to influence laws, to the idea that George Bush Jr is a lizard alien. One of these things is actually true. But sometimes it’s hard to decide which one when all of the sound crazy or all of them sound like there could be a grain of truth there. Conspiracy theorists are rarely taken seriously by anyone but other conspiracy theorists, which harms efforts when the conspiracy is actually true.

It also raises questions about cost versus gain. Using an example from the book, if a new medication is developed that improved the lives of 95% of users but causes fatal heart attacks in the remaining 5%, should that medication be pulled from the market? What counts as acceptable risk? What’s the percentage of people who have to risk suffering so that others can have an improved life? Is any percentage acceptable when you’re standing face-to-face with someone who lost family because they were in that 5% group? These are difficult questions to answer, and while it’s clear that The Doubt Factory is firmly on the side of those who have suffered rather than those who profited, it also takes pains to say that there are no clear answers, that the world doesn’t exist in black and white and there’s always more information if you dig deep enough.

(You know a book’s good and thought-provoking when I spend most of my review commenting on the subject matter and its application to the real world…)

I haven’t read many of Bacigalupi’s works, but what I have read leads me to believe that he knows how to write an interesting character, and how to make the cast diverse and real. They’re not just archetypes, they’re people with depth and layers, and nobody is entirely right or entirely wrong. Even Alix’s father, a man whose profession involves twisting the truth and organizing biased research and suppressing unbiased research, is a loving father who cares deeply about his children and wants the best for them, even if his ideas of ‘best’ differ from his daughter’s. Her brother was a rebellious teen with impulse control issues who nevertheless was still loyal to his sister. Kook, the caffeine-and-marijuana-fueled computer hacker was abrasive and rude and very much devoted to her cause. Cynthia spent months hiding her identity to get close to Alix in order to get info from her and make her see what her father was doing, and her mission didn’t stop her from genuinely feeling friendship for her target. Adam is a DJ and activist with a fondness for adorable rats. (And he was my favourite secondary character in the whole novel, to boot!) Every character is nuanced, every one real and able to make their appeals in a way that didn’t feel like you were drowning in either activism or anti-activism. It was a beautiful presentation.

This is the kind of book that will encourage readers not to charge forward without a plan, but to do the research and to really understand what it is that they’re fighting for and what the costs can be. It presents activism and truth in shades of grey, and gives the reader an all-to-plausible scenario in which the truth can destroy lives, literally and figuratively. It hits you right in the heart and mind and leaves an imprint long after you’ve finished reading. I highly recommend this book, not just to teens who want to make a difference, but to adults who want to do the same, and all who want to learn more about what drives people to do what they do.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)