We really might have hit some kind of Singularity, because this novel was published in 2014, and I am having a hard time caring not because it’s bad but just because certain elements of what’s happening right now seem like they’re out of the worst-conceived conspiracy theories ever. The Doubt Factory is an attempt by Paolo Bacigalupi to distill the dangerous, pay-to-play nature of many industries into a thriller for young adults. He examines the role that media and marketing play in sowing doubt (hence the title) about the dangers of things like pharmaceutical drugs. Although this is a topic I’m sympathetic to, and I actually enjoyed the book while I was reading it, The Doubt Factory is much less memorable or moving than it should be.
Alix Banks is the daughter of Simon Banks, a leading PR strategist for companies too rich to be named. She goes to an elite private school, which begins to be the target of increasingly elaborate stunts/pranks by a vandal named 2.0. When 2.0 makes it clear he is interested in Alix, the Banks family goes into protection mode, with a private security company, FBI involvement, etc. Nevertheless, Alix finds herself attracted to this mysterious 2.0, enough to hear him out and eventually contemplate joining forces with him to take down her father. But is that really what she wants? And if it is, could they really have any hope of succeeding?
What begins as a “wake up sheeple” kind of plot escalates gradually. In this respect, Bacigalupi does a great job: his pacing is on point. Rather than drawing out the suspense, he just keeps handing us more and more revelations, raises the stakes, and moves on to the next step in the plot. As a result, even though this is on the longer side for the types of thrillers I will read, he kept me interested.
It’s hard for me to tell what someone less aware of the issues of corruption and misinformation within these kinds of industries might make of the themes herein. None of this is that new to me. And I don’t know how a teenager reading this, whether they are versed in this stuff or not, will react. I think Bacigalupi makes a valiant effort to highlight why this is important, with appeals to all three modes of persuasion. So in a didactic sense, The Doubt Factory might be effective.
Where the book loses my interest is the relationship between Alix and Moses/2.0. It isn’t even the way in which she starts to come around to him (although, ugh, the whole “woman falls for mysterious rebel with a cause” trope, please). I respect how Bacigalupi shows Alix’s gradual awakening from her sheltered position as Simon’s daughter. Yet she never fully graduates to the proactive role of protagonist that I was looking for. She assists Moses, sure. That’s about it, though. And I find these protagonists are the ones I am least interested in following in books like this. I can understand a main character needing to be brought around as part of their character arc … but I want them to seize the day and actually do something.
This exacerbates the other obvious flaw of The Doubt Factory, and the reason I often paint thrillers with an ungenerous genre brush: the other characters here are shallow, stereotypical, and stock. Lisa, aka “Death Barbie” is this cold-hearted merc. Kook is a gothy/punky hacker type who deliberately wants to keep you off balance but has a heart of gold somewhere in there. Even Alix’s dad is basically just a PR Suit Who Had Kids and Thinks He Knows Best. Everyone in this story acts or reacts exactly like they need to in order to keep this plot going, rather than in organic ways that would make sense if they are people. It’s like Bacigalupi watched one too many Jason Bourne movies, then slammed back some Ocean’s Eleven, and said, “Imma make these, but it’s a book.” It’s just … not good.
The Doubt Factory isn’t bad, either. It has its moments. But I think, in general, it relies too much on the idea that the message it contains will be strong enough to sustain interest in a paper-thin plot propelled by cardboard cutouts for characters. I think this is a shame, because this subject deserves much more compelling characterization, and YA novels in general deserve that. I loved the way that Bacigalupi developed his star-crossed characters in Ship Breaker, but it just doesn’t happen here. This is not a book I’m in any hurry to recommend.