Paolo Bacigalupi is one of science fiction's most versatile writers. From his justly lauded dystopian debut novel The Windup Girl to his environmental YA thriller Ship Breaker to his ha-ha-only-serious zombies-apocalypse-as-allegory-for-race-in-America Zombie Baseball Beatdown, he's never been shy about switching modes and moods. All his books have a two things in common: technical brilliance and nuanced, important treatments of social issues. It's a killer combination.
His latest novel, a YA thriller called The Doubt Factory, is right in the Bacigalupi pocket in that its storytelling is utterly different from anything else he's published, deals with a vital social issue, and is a technical marvel of the form. Specifically, it's a thriller about corporate distortion of communications whose third act is so tense, so taut, and so fantastically turned that I didn't move a muscle except to turn the page for an hour while I read straight through about 150 pages' worth of buildup and climax.
The Doubt Factory's protagonist is a girl called Alix who attends an elite prep school that is paid for through her father's high-flying PR clients. As the book opens, Alix is bored in class, watching out the window, when she spies a young black man who exudes calmness and mastery. When the school's authoritarian principal comes out to chase the intruder off the school lawn, the guy lays the principal out with one punch, eases him to the ground, and makes his way calmly off campus before the slow-moving rent-a-cops even know what's going on.
This is Alix's first encounter with "2.0," a guerrilla protest group about which almost nothing is known, except that they appear to be attacking her dad's clients. But as 2.0 grows more audacious in its actions at Alix's school, it quickly becomes apparent that their real target is Alix's family — and possibly Alix herself. Alix's life becomes a benign jail of private bodyguards who shadow her every step, punctuated by ninja-like visits from the young black man, who has the ability to alter his appearance and slip right through even the tightest security cordons. And now, Alix is asking questions about her dad's line of work — questions she's never asked before.
In The Doubt Factory, Bacigalupi expertly tells the tale of how FUD-generating "communications consultants" have distorted our public discourse on behalf of their fantastically profitable clients, for whom a little delay in regulatory action is worth billions, and for whom the occasional class-action payout is just part of the cost of doing business, expertly calibrated and factored into the bottom line.
Bacigalupi also explores modern protest tactics, dramatizing an incisive critique of hacktivism and leaking and pointing to ways of stirring up trouble that might have a deeper and longer impact than what has gone before.
But as good as The Doubt Factory is as polemic, it's even better as a novel. There is just so much nail-biting tension, so many unexpected turns and twists in the caper plots that run throughout the book, and it's so well done, that it's certain to find a large and appreciative audience. The combination of a book with a conscience and a set of serious adrenal glands is unlikely and extremely effective.