‘The Doubt Factory’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

‘The Doubt Factory’ is a thriller with the soul of an uncompromising investigative journalist, leavened by youthful optimism and presented with the dash and flair of a Vegas magic show.

It tells the story of a diverse group of talented young people who take on the ‘Product Defense’ firm that has helped to obscure the actions of big companies whose sometimes lethal products have broken their lives.

The hook into the story is the trap that they set for Alex, the daughter Simon Banks, the man who founded and runs the Product Defense firm. She is young, bright, privileged and thinks her father makes his living helping big companies tell their side of the story.

I liked the imagery at the start of the book when the young man leading the group has Alex under observation as she attends her posh school and hangs out with her friends by the pool at her expensive house. He imagines her as fish swimming in a tank, unaware of the hammer that is about the shatter the glass it doesn’t know defines its world.

A little later, after the hammer has fallen, Alex has her father’s work explained to her. She’s told that Simon Banks’ clients call his firm ‘The Doubt Factory’

‘It’s a good name, right? Because, really, that’s what your dad produces. He doesn’t make products, he makes doubt.

If you want everyone to ignore those FDA studies that say you’re killing people with your drug, you go to Simon Banks and buy a little doubt. You sprinkle it all over the issue. You spread it around. Pretty soon, the Doubt Factory has everyone so confused that you can go on selling whatever the hell it is for just a little longer.”

If you’re as old and cynical as I am, then there’s nothing new here except the outrage that it keeps happening and the focus on the enablers and not just on the big companies they enable. If you’re the young adult audience this book is aimed at then there’s a lot here that may make you look again at how you think the world works.

I liked that the people doing the Product Defense work aren’t painted as evil. They’re nice people, who love their kids and go to Little League games and support charities. They’re just doing their job. But their job gets people killed.

I also like the idea of a ‘gold standard for the truth’. Documented facts on which decisions can be taken. In the six years since this novel was written, Doubt Factories have become mainstream. Divisive doubt has been weaponised. Truth has been turned into a unicorn only fantasists believe in. Science has been relegated to crazy-cult status and experts have been either silenced or marginalised in the name of a better narrative. ‘The Doubt Factory’ at least provides some hope that we might not need to accept this. That it can be challenged.

‘The Doubt Factory’ was the fourth piece of fiction I’ve read by Paolo Bacigalupi. ‘The Windup Girl’, ‘The Water Knife’ and ‘Shooting The Apocalypse’ are all vivid, hard-edged, uncompromising visions of the brutal realities of a near future in which climate change has started to bite. Knowing that ‘The Doubt Factory’ was targetted at the Young Adult reader, I was intrigued to see how his style would change.

Obviously, the brutal violence had to go. The bleak do-what-you-need-to-to-survive-but-don’t-expect-anything-but-trouble tone of those apocalypse-in-slow-motion-progress books is also absent here. But then, ‘The Doubt Factory’ is set in the present day when, perhaps, there is still room to hope.

It turned out that the biggest difference in style was that this is a real page-turner thriller with at least three I-didn’t-see-that-coming twists that propel the story forward.

What ‘The Doubt Factory’ has in common with Paolo Bacigalupi’s previous books is that the story is founded on a well-researched understanding of how the powerful protect themselves at the expense of the rest of us and how that lets us continue to slide towards avoidable disaster.

I listened to the audiobook version of ‘The Doubt Factory’, narrated by Emma Galvin. Normally, I like Emma Galvin’s style but I had difficulty settling into her narration at the start of the book. She reads in a very emphatic way that works well once the action of the story starts but which I found jarring in the first part of the book, which is more reflective.

Click on the SoundCloud link below and decide for yourself if the audiobook version is for you.

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