Disclaimer: I’ve been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing for years, starting with his multi-award winning novel The Windup Girl.
I’ve particularly enjoyed his previous YA novels, Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities. I’ve laughed and whole-heartedly agreed with the smart, funny middle grade novel he wrote last year, Zombie Baseball Beatdown. I’ve interviewed him a number of times and have previously found him to be a writer of solid prose whose books are always on the ball thematically—whether it’s a sociopolitical comment about child soldiers and war, a bio-punk exploration of climate change or a hilarious comic adventure centred around a meat processing plant.
So I went into his new YA novel The Doubt Factory with excitement. What a great title! ‘You Believe What They Want You To Believe’—what a great tag line! Perhaps I was expecting too much, perhaps I was expecting more of what I was familiar with and perhaps that was wrong, but The Doubt Factory left me disappointed.
The prologue to The Doubt Factory has us share the gaze of someone who seems to be a fairly ominous stalker. We stand with an unnamed man as he silently watches a young woman entirely unaware of his existence. ‘He’d been watching her for a long time. Watching how she moved through the still waters of her life. Watching the friends and family that surrounded her. It was like watching a bright tropical fish in an aquarium, bounded on all sides, safe inside the confines. Unaware of the glass walls’. Safe being the key word here—this woman is safe, yet at the end of this prologue, the man – this stalker – imagines himself smashing this aquarium, smashing this safety with a hammer. Because we all know what happens to a fish out of water (it dies—painfully), this entire analogy becomes fairly threatening and though this prologue for the book creates a real sense of danger and menace, there is a strange dissonance with how things actually pan out between these two characters.
The young woman in question is Alix, who lives a privileged and contented life in a wealthy Connecticut town where she attends a private ‘academy’. Her friends are all from backgrounds similar to hers, they drive sporty little cars and lounge by their pools as they ironically call themselves ‘voice mail kids’—teenagers with little connection to their parents. ‘Leave a message and description of your crisis, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we’re done ruling the universe’, jokes one of them. Their mothers are always busy at Pilates classes or book clubs and their fathers are busy running successful private businesses. Alix’ pesky younger brother’s ‘impulse control’ issues are her only real concern in life. She’s a smart girl we’re told, our Alix—not a brat but kind and sweet, though entirely unremarkable in any other way. ‘Smart girl. Sharp girl. And yet completely unaware’, as her stalker notes.
One day in a class like any other, she looks out the window to see a young man punch the school headmaster in the stomach and walk away. Who is he and what does he want? Alix is fascinated by what little information she gleans about him—he’s potentially an activist, part of a gang who go by the name ‘2.0’. She’s still assessing why she finds him interesting (given she’s seen him once from afar, and that too while he’s being violent towards someone for no real reason), when she encounters him again during a prank at her school, when the presumed activists unleash hundreds of rats on campus, frightening a SWAT team. Alix is somehow already caught in the lure of this angry young man who seems to have burst the perfect bubble of her life. It’s all very dramatic and pointed—lab rats pouring out of the school, automated spray guns splattering the school’s windows with the bloody letters ‘2.0’ and in the chaotic madness, Alix runs towards a stranger she last saw punching the school’s headmaster. When she finds him, they have a very odd encounter that includes him grabbing her and her biting him. This struggle somehow ends up with them locked in a tense embrace.
She was suddenly acutely aware of how closely he held her. She could feel the rise and fall of his chest as he panted, the exertion she’d put him through. He was holding her so tightly she could feel his heart beating.
“What’s all this about?” she asked.
“Ask your father.”
“Ask your father. He’s the one who knows all the secrets.” He shoved her abruptly away.
Alix spun to pursue, but he was lost in the smoke. Everything was shadow forms.
By the time the smoke cleared, he was gone, as if he’d blown away in the wind.
What’s all this? We’ve already established that he seems to be stalking her. He’s clearly violent. Alix knows all this. We know Alix is smart. We even know she’s had self-defense training. So why has she chased after him? To fight him? To…get to know him better? It’s all quite uncomfortable. As the story progresses, Alix finds she is unable to get any real information out of her father, who insists that 2.0 have a bone to pick with one of the companies he manages PR for. He hires security to keep Alix and her brother Jonah safe, he does all the things a good father would do, a good father with seemingly unlimited resources who suddenly starts to seem a bit dodgy. But it’s Alix who is the problem here. She’s unable to stay away from her stalker, letting him into their house even as a private security guard (known as ‘Death Barbie) is trying to keep her safe from him. Who is this young man? How is he managing to evade the best security team money can buy? What does he want with Alix and her father? And most importantly, why isn’t she screaming the house down instead of opening the door to him?
We get some answers when the young man (we now know him as Moses) reveals his version of the story to Alix after kidnapping her—her father’s company is a ‘doubt factory’, he explains, a PR firm that may have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, having helped large pharmaceuticals fog the truth about their drugs in order to profit financially. This includes doing things like keeping warning labels off Aspirin for years, allowing an asthma drug that causes comas to be on the market when it shouldn’t, as well as allowing the common usage of medication that caused the deaths of Moses’ parents. At first, Alix thinks what we’re all thinking—she’s being manipulated—but she soon starts to doubt everything she’s previously believed, no thanks to her feelings for Moses, which deepen fairly fast. She finds herself attracted to him and affectionate towards the rag-tag crew of kids who make up 2.0.
Here’s what’s interesting—Bacigalupi seems to know he’s playing with certain standard YA tropes that have now become cliché. The moment the reader thinks, oh no, another good little rich girl girl infatuated by the rebel from across the tracks, Alix’ best friend Cynthia voices our fears: ‘I’m serious, Alix. Don’t do some kind of bad-boy romance thing on me, girl. Stalker crushes are so last year’. The moment the reader thinks, oh no, another kid who wants to be a secret saviour-vigilante avenging his parents death, Alix herself says to Moses, ‘I was just thinking you’re like some kind of weird black Batman’. The moment the reader thinks, oh no, another teen protagonist believing in the story of the young man who has abducted her, Alix’ younger brother Jonah asks the question for us: ‘This is that Stockholm syndrome thing, right?’ When Alix tries to refute this, Jonah takes it far enough to foreshadow certain aspects of the story: ‘It kind of is. Seriously, Sis. Don’t go all Patty Hearst on me. I’ve read up on her. She totally joined up with the people who kidnapped her. Went all crazypants, robbing banks and shit.’ A reader could spend much time wondering how much of all this in tongue in cheek—surely Bacigalupi is playing us?
Alix does seem crazypants. So much so that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief at the ease with which she begins to develop feelings for Moses, though she clearly knows there’s something very wrong with this, admitting that ‘it was kind of romantic, in a hot stalker kind of way.’ ‘You are one fucked-up bitch,’ she thinks to herself.
Am I reading too much into this? I hope not, because Bacigalupi is a much, much better writer than one who genuinely believes that using these tropes earnestly is at all effective anymore. The narrative often feels a little preachy too, even when wrapped up in plot—again something that I don’t expect of Bacigalupi, who (though his own views have always been perfectly clear in all his work), has never needed to be this blasé about what he’s wanted to say. There are some cool aspects to The Doubt Factory too—there is an even racial mix in the cast, a female protagonist who (with all her Stockholm Syndrome) is often proactive and has agency, some fun plot twists that come along the way and a bunch of great action scenes leading up to a grand heist that doesn’t at all go the way you’d expect.
But it genuinely took me a while to accept that this was a book by the same writer who had me so caught up in Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities, who won all those awards for the fascinating The Windup Girl. Of course, this is unfair of me—there will probably be plenty of people who will read The Doubt Factory and find it a perfectly satisfactory YA thriller with a social conscience. The book expects it’s reader to keep up with what it lays out as the questionable actions of Big Pharma companies—there is a lot of research that went into this: it is admirable and clear enough to make many readers question what they know—exactly what you’d want from a book called The Doubt Factory, in fact.
It is also unfair of me to expect a writer to do the same sort of thing all the time—this is an entirely new direction for Bacigalupi, a departure from the YA he’s previously written and a book that hasn’t required the extensive world building he’s been lauded for, for example. What he’s done here is take a familiar world and persistently tear away at its veneer so as to remind you how fragile it all is. It’s just that I can see him doing the tearing and this takes away from the art of the story, which is disappointing. Luckily, what it doesn’t take away from, though, is my looking forward to his next book.
The Doubt Factory is available October 14th from Little, Brown Books.