This is a story that reads for all the world like a horrible dystopia, but is based on facts that are all too real. Bacigalupi credits the 2008 article by Michelle Nijhuis, called “The Doubt Makers” for the inspiration of the story, and for much of the non-fiction content. In essence, Nijhuis exposes how businesses systematically cast doubt on scientific studies that might interfere with their profit-making enterprises, allowing many dangerous commodities to stay on the market long after they should have been banned.
[This process still goes on, of course. As scientist Seth Darling, author of a book on climate change, writes, in spite of an overwhelming consensus among scientists that our planet is warming and that we are primarily to blame, mainstream news outlets still provide substantial airtime to skeptics. In a July 31, 2014 op ed for the Chicago Tribune he wrote: “Because the mass media have propped up a false debate, the general public is understandably confused.” Many of these so-called skeptics are actually paid for their “testimony,” and it is this manipulation that is the focus of Bacigalupi’s novel.]
The author does a good job of making a weaving a compelling plot out of this disturbing practice. He creates a group of talented teenagers, each of whom has experienced a death in his or her family because of unsafe products that should not have been allowed to stay on the market. Calling themselves “2.0” and led by Moses Cruz, they are working together to try to stop further risks to public health. They have targeted the biggest enabling PR firm, Banks Strategy Partners. Simon Banks and his business partner George Saamsi help put together reports, testimony, and controversy for companies with potentially lethal merchandise, in order to delay punitive government action. The 2.0 group wants to convince Alix, Simon’s daughter, to help them get into her father’s records so they can (hopefully) interest the media. It is not an easy job: Alix has no idea what her dad really does, but she loves him, and has a hard time believing he would help companies put so many lives at risk for the sake of greed.
And Alix isn’t the only one needing convincing. “Status quo is easy to sell,” one of the 2.0 group says. “You can’t con someone who doesn’t want to be conned, and you can’t wake up someone who doesn’t want to wake up.”
But Alix is drawn to Moses, and also wants to know what the truth is about her father. What she doesn’t realize is that the power and money behind these corporations could threaten her life, as well as the lives of others in the group.
Bacigalupi previously tackled the nefarious side of corporate greed in his story for middle graders, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, but that book ended on a more upbeat (and unfortunately more unrealistic) note than this book for older readers.
Evaluation: Bacigalupi successfully integrates his info-dumping into an interesting and suspenseful scenario. He is a consistently intelligent and compassionate writer.
In addition, I really like the fact that this is a very diverse group of teens, but the focus is on what unites them rather than their physical or gender-related differences.
Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2014