Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lowdown: A high schooler discovers the hard way her father’s day job as a master of spin comes bundled with heavy casualties.
Tracking author’s Paolo Bacigalupi journeys in writing provides interesting insight. There’s a good chance that, like me, you first heard of him around 2010, when his The Windup Girl won the Hugo for best science fiction book. Personally, I did not like the book much, but it is clear its portrayal of a post global warming / bioengineering apocalyptic world is well etched in my brain. Bacigalupi seems to agree with me, because his next two books (Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities) were young adult books set in The Windup Girl’s universe.
If you think Bacigalupi took it upon himself to spread the word to people of all ages, his next book will support the notion: Zombie Baseball Beatdown was another young adult novel discussing heavy social issues closely related to his familiar turf, immigration and the processing of the food that we eat. And now, with The Doubt Factory, Bacigalupi moves to talk politics right at the level that his preferred young adult audience can best relate to: the level of the [rebelling] teenager and the authoritative old-guard parent.
Alix is the model high school girl: she attends a private school that’s a one way ticket to a prestigious university ("ivy league" in American), she’s got the grades, and she’s got the friends to go with the status she has earnt by being the daughter of her father – a highly successful PR guy. But then Alix’ entire perception of the world around her and her role in it is challenged. It starts with this black teenager showing up at her school and punches up the principle, it continues when that same guy turns her school into a huge pyrotechnic show, and it peaks as she learns that the whole affair is very personally related to her. A learning that’s achieved the hard way.
Alix is left with a difficult dilemma. On one hand, she has enjoyed the fruits of her father’s work throughout her life; it’s that work that put her at the privileged position she’s in. On the other hand, how can she live with herself when she knows those benefits were paid for by many people paying with their lives as a direct result of the spin manufactured by her father, the so called doubt factory product that her father sells?
Being an Israeli with a history of collaboratively working  with German companies and German colleagues, I was often exposed to very personal stories of young Germans having to face up to the fact their parents (usually the father) have done some awful things back in the days of Nazism. And really, how can a person cope with such a burden? In effect, that is the same burden that Alix finds herself dealing with. More importantly, it’s a similar burden that each of us has to face on a daily basis, albeit to a much more minute level, when we use smartphones made with minerals bought with blood by slave labours at a Far East country. Or when we contaminate our environment with global warming friendly gases or fill up our seas with plastics. The list goes on, but for each item on that list there are people whose work it is to "help" us forget the problems caused by our way of life. The doubt factory is real; often it is powered by the likes of the Koch brothers, but its employees are otherwise normal people like you and I.
However relevant and confronting to the average young adult The Doubt Factory is, I cannot glorify it by claiming it is a good book. Personally, I have found it to be quite a tedious affair that stretches for way too long and overstays its welcome. If it was up to me, I would have tipped Bacigalupi to trim down on The Doubt Factory to at least a half of its size. There is so much that I can read of the infinite loop of what Alix feels about this and that, repeated again and again. To its credit, the book’s ending did bring some tears to my eyes, even if it is overly Hollywoodian.
Between its style, subject matter, educational value and the fact that this science fiction like tale could take place any day now, The Doubt Factory felt a lot like a Cory Doctorow novel. The difference, I suppose, is with Doctorow never feeling as if he overstayed his welcome.
Overall: Rating The Doubt Factory represents a balance between appreciation for the subject matter and my contempt for the boring (yes, boring) style in which it is delivered. I’d settle on the generous side with 3 out of 5 rather reluctant crabs.

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