Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Doubt Factory

One of the many doubts raised by The Doubt Factory is whether Paolo Bacigalupi actually wrote this.  I've read Ship Breaker (loved it!) and The Drowned Cities (liked it, with reservations), and both books had excellent prose, well-drawn characters, and a wonderfully seamy, gritty feel that perfectly suited the setting.  I had been hoping he'd write another novel set in that post-apocalyptic world, but instead I got The Doubt Factory.


I went into The Doubt Factory knowing it was a Book with an Agenda (BWAA).  BWAA's are not inherently poor literature; on the contrary!  Pretty much all of Dickens' oeuvre consisted of BWAAs.  Cory Doctorow writes fantastic YA and adult sci-fi that contains a lot of social commentary.  Even thriller writers like Michael Crichton have written BWAAs, but they were still compelling, interesting books.

The Doubt Factory is shoddily written, has completely unbelievable characters, and runs on a plot so thinly stretched it could be a model at New York Fashion Week.  It's evident that Bacigalupi (but my reader's soul refuses to believe that he actually wrote this, and/or he is totally trolling us and it will turn out that this was a massive prank) has a cause that he believes in, and that he wanted to write a book about it.  Unfortunately, the plot and characters just hang limply off of the pressing social issue at the heart of the book, which makes for an excessively unpleasant reading experience.

As noted by other reviewers, the book is Hollywood-blockbuster-esque in its product placement.  I am sure that this is to prove a point--that the lifestyle of the main character is all about brand names, money, and status, without a thought given to the marketing strategies of those companies or how they treat their workers.  The constant name dropping distracts from the narrative flow (what little there is) and smacks of desperation.  I started bookmarking each instance of product placement in my e-ARC: "he typed away on a little Sony laptop;" "[Alix] went and got Diet Cokes out of the fridge;" "Jonah wandered into the living room and fired up his Xbox;" "It looked like the German shepherds had a thing for German automobiles.  Every time they came up on an Audi or Mercedes, they went nuts."  Does anyone else find that last situation laughably ridiculous?  German shepherds, smart as they are, are not aware of their pedigree, nor can they distinguish Das Auto from a plain ol' car.  Unless Bacigalupi is implying that everyone who drives a German-made automobile is a drug runner...

If all of this product naming is intended to be an indictment of consumerism, then there are other ways to go about it.  I would have preferred it had Bacigalupi invented his own product names, because this just feels like advertising.

Anyway, the "plot" of the book goes something like this: Alix is a pretty girl who goes to a prestigious private school called Seitz.  One day, she looks out her classroom window and sees a guy punch the headmaster and take him down, then disappear.  The next day, an elaborate contraption spray-paints a message on the windows of the buildings, and thousands of white rats run around campus (I am not making this up).  As the students watch the SWAT team members flee in terror from itty bitty rats, Punching Boy returns and tells Alix that this is all about her father.  What's a girl to do?  Why, obsess over him, of course!  "He'd been smiliing at her.  And she still couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen him before.  Familiar and frightening at the same time.  Like the smell of an electrical storm looming on the horizon."  Alix thus infers that the boy likes her because he smiled at her after he punched the headmaster.

Right.

But oh, the logic continues to crumble.  When he sneaks up on her in a crowd, she chases after him and is again mesmerized by his epic hotness and Brooding Aura of Mystery.  "She could see herself reflected in his mirrored lenses.  It made her feel small.  More like a little girl than a grown woman ... He's tall, she thought inanely."  "Inane" is exactly the right word for it!  Later, she even lets him in her house.  What is this girl thinking?  She keeps saying that she doesn't know why she's doing what she's doing but she's going to keep doing it because this guy is so darned intruiging.

Wait, what happened to that plot summary I was doing?  Well, the book derails into this morass of Bad Decisions, so I had to follow, unwillingly.  Anyway, when Alix tells her father, who works in PR or something--she doesn't really know--he freaks out and gets some super-secret private security firm to guard the house and the family.  Alix gets her very own bodyguard, whom she nicknames Death Barbie.  From here on out, Alix's sole purpose in life is to escape Death Barbie and maybe see that hot stalker/terrorist again.  Her friend Cynthia, who is THE stereotypical caricature of an Asian-American student--brilliant overachiever with perfect SATs--engineers a ridiculous escape involving wigs and an old Dodge Dart.  All of this so that Cynthia and Alix can go to a rave in a barn in the middle of nowhere and drink and take drugs.  Yay!  Alix is so happy to be "free" that she doesn't realize ... well, that's a spoiler, but most readers will pick up on what's going on.

The band of vigilantes, led by Moses (Alix's hot dude), tries to enlist her and tells her that her father is not an innocent PR guy, but rather the TOTALLY EVIL LEADER of a corporation that manufactures doubt about deadly products.  For example, delaying placement of warning stickers on aspirin about Reyes Disease so that the company can milk a few more billions out of the product.  Yes.  I agree.  This is a Very Bad Thing.  But I honestly don't know how many teens want to read a novel about it.

The second half of the book is a rather standard conspiracy-caper-thriller, with a predictable yet simultaneously implausible ending.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is an enormous practical joke and Bacigalupi will release the real book as a surprise.  If he did that, he would have become a big player in the doubt factory world.

I regret pretty much every minute I spent reading this.

Netgalley provided an ARC of this title.

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