In today's mediascape, right and wrong don't matter: It's how you spin your story. In The Doubt Factory, Paolo Bacigalupi takes aim at the spin used by major companies and turns it into a compelling tale of a young woman who confronts the truth about her life.
In this young-adult novel, Alix is a student in a good private school, in an affluent neighborhood. She drives her Mini to school, looks after her younger, ADHD-afflicted brother and hangs out with her friends. Her idyllic teenage life is shaken when she catches a glimpse of a boy in the school's courtyard, assaulting their headmaster. Shortly thereafter, she comes face to face with the assailant as a massive prank is undertaken, involving tons of rats, a SWAT team and lots of paint, revealing the presence of an anonymous group called 2.0. Things get difficult when Alix when learns that the pranktivists have a specific target: her father.
Throughout her life, Alix had never quite questioned what her father does: only knowing that he helps out big companies with their messaging when they run into problems. When Alix is kidnapped by the group, they reveal their motives: her father is responsible for more than just helping out. When a major pharmaceutical company releases a drug that is responsible for quite a few deaths, he's the one they turn to in order to cause enough doubt to keep the drug on the market for a couple of more years while they continue to sell it. He's also the one who creates strategy for wide-scale disinformation campaigns, ranging from fake internet commentators to paid, friendly studies to aid his clients.
The 2.0 gang, led by the aptly-named Moses, have all suffered losses at the hands of these companies, and soon, Alix is forced to question everything that's supported her life to that point. Bacigalupi plays out the story quickly and efficiently through some fairly typical YA tropes, but with enough turns to shake up some of the predictability. It also feels like one of his angriest novels to date.
Bacigalupi is known for taking on major interests in his novels. His first, 2009's The Windup Girl, takes some considerable shots at agribusiness run amok in his destroyed world, something he revisits thematically in Ship Breakers and Drowned Cities. The Doubt Factory is science fiction in the style of William Gibson's Bigend trilogy: five minutes into the future, using all of the elements of our technologically driven world as science fictional. It works well, because the arguments which Bacigalupi presents are crystal clear, especially if you turn on the news.
There are a few topical issues, in particular, which Bacigalupi takes on in this book. The first is the tendency of major corporations to act immorally in their own interest. Major pharma companies churn out drugs that they know will have an adverse reaction in some small percentage of their users; major websites tinker with their algorithms to see how this affects people; not to mention the actions of private security companies at home and abroad. These are all elements that you can take from the headlines of the past year alone.
Secondly, Bacigalupi takes a shot at the people who disseminate information. The people who spin stories, and who have influence on how people receive their information, are powerful individuals. Alix's father is perfectly positioned to drive public opinion, and thus influence policy to the best interest of his clients — and in doing so, he's created the environment that's responsible for people losing their lives. Specifically, each member of the 2.0 gang, and they're out for revenge.
The Doubt Factory has some ruminations (and spin) on the level of culpability someone such as Alix's father might have, but cleanly comes down on the side of the pranktavists: he's had a hand in their parents' deaths, and any settlements they might have received aren't enough. This is an important argument to pull apart, because it's something that's critical to understand: the difference between immediate blame and systematic blame is a complex question, that's at the heart of a lot of hot-button debates right now. Bacigalpi lays out a compelling argument that it's not the people on the front lines who are completely responsible: its the ones who create the environment that share some of the blame for the major issues.
As he does this, Bacigalupi never abandons his characters. Alix is a wonderful character, thrust into the center of the storm, and is given enough agency to work her way out through her now-problematic life. She moves from someone completely (blissfully) unaware of the nature of her life, to someone who's actively working to change it. We see that this isn't an easy change, but that ultimately, the society we live in has some level of culpability that we've allowed for. Moses opens Alix's eyes to the world around her, and once she looks around, she realizes she can't go back.
The Doubt Factory feels as though it's the perfect book to help you rage at the year we've just had — but also to dig into some of how we've gotten to this point. Reading it, I feel like we've somehow fallen into the darkest timeline without realizing it, and it's by taking a science-fictional look at things that we realize that the world we have is one that is here largely by our own choosing. The Doubt Factory is Bacigalupi's most politically charged novel yet, and for that, I'm happy that he's so angry at the world around us.