Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Doubt Factory - Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is an author whose work I've been keeping an eye out for ever since I read his debut collection Pump Six and Other Stories (2008). He is probably best known of his first novel, The Windup Girl, which won a shelf-full of awards in 2010. Since then, he has mostly produced work for younger readers. The Doubt Factory (2014) is the third novel that is marketed as Young Adult. He wrote a fourth for an even younger market. Bacigalupi will be retuning to adult fiction later this year however, with the release of his novel The Water Knife. I very much look forward to reading that one. The Doubt Factory is a novel unrelated to any of his other works and clearly aimed at teenagers. It is fast-paced, written in clear language and with an equally clear message. I might have liked it more as a teen but reading it now, I think Bacigalupi is on his soapbox a bit too much.

Alix Banks has a bright future ahead of her. Her father runs his own public relations firm and has made a lot of money doing so. Their family moves in the circles of the powerful and her father's money has bought Alix an excellent education. She is headed for an Ivy League university and a bright career. Until, that is, a group of activists called 2.0 upsets her comfortable life. In a series of bizarre actions, they manage to open Alix' eyes to what her father's company is really doing. It disturbs Alix deeply and she is faced with a choice that could radically alter the path of her life.

The Doubt Factory is essentially about corporate greed. What Bacigalupi describes in his novel is a method to cast doubt on scientific findings that can delay regulation or bans on the use of certain substances found to have serious health or environmental effects and allow the company involved to squeeze a few more years of profit out of their product. There is no question about whether or not companies use these kinds of strategies. It is the only reason why tobacco is still widely available in most parts of the world, decades after the conclusive scientific evidence surfaced that it is both addictive and linked to a huge list of life-threatening medical conditions. The same thing is happening in the climate change debate, where an oil money funded tiny group of researchers have managed to convince enough politicians there is doubt about climate change to keep any real action from being taken. These are just the most eye catching cases, the  list of examples is huge, as Alix finds out in the novel.

Bacigalupi provides a playbook in this novel about how the process works:

Chapter 25
You can see this strategy in just about any discussion where science, economics and politics overlap. In fact, when I was in college studying environmental science, tactics like these were repeatedly pointed out to the students to make them aware of the danger. One strategy to deal with this is to follow the money. Asking yourself the question who pays for what research and what are their motives. Bacigalupi even points out ways to obscure the money trail in the novel. It is pretty scary to think that apparently making more money than you'll ever need is so important to some people that they'd be willing to engage in such profoundly unethical and at time outright criminal types of behaviour. Just reading about it makes one feel dirty. It also makes one wonder if we, as a species, are actually capable of facing up to the challenge of keeping the planet inhabitable.

In our ever more complex world we are using literally hundreds of thousands chemical substances of which, beyond the chemical structure, virtually nothing is known. Even if we wanted to, we could not research the impacts on human health or the environment of all of them. New substances are subject to testing of course but we will keep running into situations were the use of a chemical will have unforeseen consequences even if a company follows all the regulations and procedures perfectly. The whole culture of suppressing the knowledge that might result in a product having to be withdrawn or companies having to compensate victims is disturbing.

While I approve of Bacigalupi's message, I'm not sure that he has turned it into a good novel. Bacigalupi lays out his ideas in a very direct manner in the novel, with long monologues of 2.0 mastermind Moses in particular. He lays it out in detail and, not surprisingly, Alix refuses to swallow it whole. She is a bit naive in some ways but even so, Moses makes it sound like a conspiracy theory. Which is, I suspect, how many readers not familiar with the topic will see it. Moses tries too hard to sell it.

Despite his lecturing, Moses does manage to plant the seeds of doubt in Alix mind (no pun intended) and that is one of the aspects I do like. Alix has trouble slipping back into her old life and ignoring the signs that Moses may have a point. Bacigalupi very convincingly portrays a young woman being torn by doubt, feeling the very foundations of her comfortable life starting to crumble. The part of the novel where Alix tries to pretend nothing is wrong is the strongest part of the story in my opinion.

The entire novel is something of a thriller and the novel ends in an action packed sequence that would do very well on the big screen. Alix' decision as to which side she should choose will not come as a surprise to the reader. The way the argument is presented in this novel only allows for one conclusion. It is here that we can really see what this novel lacks to make it into a great work of fiction. The novel polarizes. It clearly defines two sides of the argument and pictures one as being absolute evil that must be fought by bringing their true motives to the light. It's the kind of polarization that currently grips American politics and simply blocks any kind of progress on issues such as business ethics, distribution of wealth, environmental protection and climate change mitigation. It is a complete deadlock, and while Moses has a pretty good handle on the problem, he does not have a solution. He changes one person's mind, or rather makes her think about something she has taken for granted and by doing so, removes her from a position where she might actually be able to influence matters. He moves her from one camp and puts her in the other. It is a sign of personal growth for Alix but doesn't change the big picture. If Moses had had an answer on how to change that, it would have been revolutionary.

What we are left with is a suspenseful novel with occasionally very good characterization. It's a novel with an important message, one that, despite the mechanism being clear for anyone willing to connect the dots, doesn't get nearly enough attention. I enjoyed reading it but after finishing The Doubt Factory it still left me with the feeling that the novel made it too easy to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. It's unfair to expect a work of fiction to come up with the answer to one of the major challenges facing American democracy but I would have liked to see it reach out a bit more, rather than just condemning shameful corporate behaviour. If simply exposing it would be the answer, we'd have solved a lot of problems by now. Still, it is a message that needs to be spread, and as such the novel is very much worth reading. Just be aware that you will never see a political statement or an article in the news quite the same way after you finish this book. The pattern Bacigalupi describes is everywhere.

Book Details
Title: The Doubt Factory
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 484
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-22075-0
First published: 2014


  1. Great review! You could have skipped the ideological content and kept to the thriller plot, but didn't. A service, I think. :)

    1. It is why I read Bacigalupi. He may not have incorporated it in the story as well as he does in other novels but the ideological content *is* interesting.

  2. Oh, and nice to see you reviewing again!!

    1. Moving is not good for the blog, I think I'll stay in this house for a while ;)