The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi is a novel that’s not afraid to be angry and passionate and more than a touch didactic. At times it feels like an episode of Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight in that it raises an issue that you may have only been vaguely aware of but has you foaming at the mouth in anger once you hear about the social injustices that occur for the sake of corporate greed and power.
In the Doubt Factory Bacigalupi explores the industry of obfuscation that big companies rely on. You have a product that cost you a fortune in R&D, that’s making you a massive profit but, unfortunately, has the tendency to put people into comas? Fear not. There are consultants out there who spend their days drumming up scientific reports from reputable looking sources that will place doubt in the mind of the regulators who are considering either labelling your product with a warning or banning it altogether.
Alix Bank’s father runs one such consultancy, in fact the best in the America – dubbed The Doubt Factory. Alix is only vaguely aware of what her father does, that is until a group of agitators emerge – calling themselves 2.0 – who are specifically targeting Alix’s father with acts of vandalism. When the group kidnaps Alix, her father – Simon – is forced to call in the heavy hitters, a private security firm who see themselves above the law.
We see most of the novel – though importantly not all of it – through Alix’s perspective. As a result, the picture we get of her father, Simon Banks, is of a genuinely loving and doting father, who can be absent-minded and a bit goofy. He’s anything but the evil mastermind that 2.0 and their cool and charismatic leader, Moses, make him out to be. And it’s this contradiction – the master manipulator of facts vs the loving father who would do anything for his family – that accompanies Alix for a great chunk of the novel. While she slowly but surely begins to appreciate why Moses and 2.0 do what they do, and while her research into her father’s work only backs up their claims that Simon Bank’s has a very slippery notion of the truth, she still can’t quite reconcile these two sides with the father she knows and loves.
The threading together of Alix’s own doubts and fears with the activities of her father, illustrates Bacigalupi’s point that it takes very little to hide the truth. Playing on people’s emotions, whether it’s a child’s devotion to their parent, or our need to believe that big corporations and governments aren’t deliberately looking to harm us for the sake of profit, is easy to take advantage of. And so when a group emerges looking to uncover the truth, it’s easier to view them as the crazies.
But while the novel does an excellent job in highlighting how the doubt industry plays on our own insecurities, the last quarter of the novel undermines some of this good work. There’s a terribly clichéd moment on a luxury yacht where Alix deliberately hides in one of the private rooms so she can hear her father, his partner and their very rich client talk about which scientist can be bought to produce reports and studies that will confuse the regulators. And in a final bid to bring down her father’s company, Alix joins with Moses to break into their offices and steal her father’s secrets off his servers. It’s a bold act, one that’s quickly uncovered by Bank’s security firm. Unfortunately, the climax suddenly frames Banks, his partner and the security firm as moustache twirling villains as they talk about getting rid of their problem – in other words killing both Moses and Alix – as quietly as possible. (Simon doesn’t want his daughter murdered, but he’s quite happy for Moses to disappear).
The overwrought and unsubtle ending is a bit of a shame because before that The Doubt Factory had been both an intelligent and nuanced novel about a part of the PR and marketing industry that hides in the shadows and generates profit by making us doubt that the sky is blue, that sun is yellow and that people landed on the moon.