Scarlett Thomas' first book, The End of Mr Y, was an odd book; brilliant, but odd. A intriguing novel that was funny, perplexing and entertaining all at the same time; an intelligent book that was brimming with innovative and interesting ideas. The question was how on earth could she possibly match it?
Sensibly, Thomas doesn't even try. Her follow up book, PopCo, is nothing like The End of Mr Y. It is far less fantastical and much more grounded in reality. In fact, it is as about as different as any book could ever be from its predecessor. This means that you have to judge it on its own merits and don't end up comparing it (favourably or otherwise) with Mr Y. Scarlett Thomas, it seems, is one very smart cookie.
Alice is a slightly odd woman. Raised by her grandparents following her father's mysterious disappearance, she has been brought up in a world of codes and secret messages (her grandfather was a cryptographer). Around her neck she wears a mysterious locket bearing an incomprehensible number which she is told is the key to something important, yet she has no idea what. By day, Alice works for a massive toy company, PopCo, who work tirelessly to sell pointless bits of plastic to small children whilst making massive profits. When Alice is called to a mysterious meeting, she finds herself holed up with other PopCo employees, charged with inventing a killer toy for the teenage girl market.
Although very different to The End of Mr Y, PopCo is just as massively ambitious with a plot focusing on many different areas. It takes in codes and code breaking, mathematical problems that have baffled the world's best brains, a mysterious treasure, a sad tale of a child growing up in very unusual circumstances and the sharp, often underhand marketing practices of major corporations who cynically manipulate children and their parents into buying expensive things they don't need.
It takes in so many issues that you start to wonder how on earth it can possibly give them all the attention they deserve. Surely trying to pack so many issues into a single book is going to create a muddled, confused mess? And yet Thomas manages to craft a book that has a entertaining, yet intelligent and thought-provoking storyline. A storyline which considers the ethics of giving the hard sell to children, creating things they don't need (or particularly want) but must have because all their friends have. It turns a critical eye on marketing departments; the psychology of buying; the ethics of meat-eating and much more.
Yet none of these issues are approached in a preachy way. There is certainly a social message to the text (quite a clear, strong one) but it is never shoved down your throat. Anything which happens always feels like a natural progression of the plot. So (for example) there is a discussion about veganism, it doesn't feel like it is there because the author is trying to convert you, but because of natural interest from the characters.
Thomas has developed an extremely readable style. There were a few places in the mid section where the book dragged a little and some tighter editing would not have gone amiss. Yet on the whole, Thomas tells a good story and keeps the reader with her over 500 pages That's no mean feat when consider that mathematics (a subject that can make grown adults run away in fear) is a core part of its plot. Thanks to her down to earth style, whatever Thomas is discussion - maths, marketing, codes - she does so in an interesting and entertaining way.
It helps that Alice is a very likeable protagonist. Thomas makes her fun to be with and gives her an easy style that helps the reader get inside her (rather odd) head. She is, by turns, intelligent, funny, acerbic, loving and sad. In other words, she is human. Her ideas, her interactions with the oddball assortment of other characters is a lot of fun to read and really helps to drive the book forward.
For a variety of reasons, it did take me quite a while to get through PopCo. Partly this was because it was such a long book; partly because I was reading it at a time when I didn't have much time but it was also at leas partly because I found I couldn't read too much of it at once. Particularly in the sections which focussed most strongly on Maths and puzzles, I found my attention would wander after a while. This wasn't because the book was boring; more because the subject matter was so complex I had to feed it into my brain in bite-sized pieces so that it would fit. Thomas does her best to make these segments accessible, but they can be hard-going for people of a non-mathematical persuasion.
If there's a major criticism it's that the ending fizzles out rather disappointingly. Plot strands are tied up too quickly and too neatly; as though either Thomas herself got bored of writing, she had a deadline to meet. Having invested so much time in the text, you really hope for a more solid conclusion. This was a shame because overall I enjoyed reading PopCo, but my final impression on closing the cover for the last time was one of mild disappointment.
A new copy of PopCo will cost you just over £5 (Kindle or paperback), although second hand copies can be picked up for a third of that.
Cannongate Books, 2009
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013
I first read 'The End of Mr Y' by Scarlett Thomas, which I thought was absolutely marvellous. So, after reading that I decided I'd look at her other things on Amazon where Popco and her newest novel, 'Our Tragic Universe' stood out. Since Popco was in paperback and therefore a bit cheaper I decided to give it a go, and wasn't disappointed at all.
Alice was compiling crosswords when she was headhunted by 'Popco', a massive toy company of the likes of Hasbro and Mattel, for her ability to make puzzles and understand codes. At Popco she sets to work designing code cracking type sets for kids and going to the endless seminars and workshops that they set up for all their various divisions. On one particular weekend workshop Alice, amongst around 50 others, get asked to stay behind to take part in a special project. They are to try to design the toy, or new trend, that will crack the illusive market of the teenage girl. At the same time Alice discovers that someone is sending her secret messages in code, she has no idea who they are from or who would be sending them.
Along the main story of Alice's life at Popco, part way through you also get to go back into her past, to see how she came to be an expert in code and code breaking, and how she grew up with her grandparents, maths and code breaking fanatics. Her grandfather is obsessed with cracking uncrackable codes, and he tells Alice that he has cracked a coded treasure map, which is ultimatley the reason her father went missing and she now lives with them. But he wont tell her where the treasure was hidden or how he cracked the code. Will she be able to find out for herself, and does she even want to?
There are many, many reasons why I think that this book is so great. It certainly wont be for everyone, but for me it's absolutely my kind of thing.
When the book begins it is entirely set around Popco and Alice's job there. As you get to know more about her and her work for the company, how she loves codes, problems solving etc, you get to discover where her love for this comes from. The flashbacks to the past come quite slowly and gradually, by the end of the book, the book goes between the present and the past constantly. I don't think that this affected how the story moved along too much, the past had to be explained in detail is it did happen to affect the present so much. However, it is a bit weird that by the end of the book what's going on at Popco hardly seems to matter anymore. Still, everything does come together very well.
A huge part of this book is about how to crack codes and how they are written. And it does get VERY technical at times, going into the maths of how codes are made and used. I am absolutely horrendous at maths. Absolutely. It just doesn't sit well in my brain, so I did kind of struggle with some parts of this. However, I think that everything is explained very well here, there are some parts that you will need to know a bit about maths to understand, but to be honest, I kind of skimmed these parts. And by some parts I mean about 5 pages, not too much for it to affect the book on a whole. I actually thought all that stuff was very interesting, learning about all the different ways to crack codes, etc. There was certainly a lot in there that I'd never even thought about before, like that from a lot of codes you can figure out the letters by the frequency the letters are used, there is even a list in the back at the book of how often each letter of the alphabet is used, and which letters have the most words that start with them. This does play a huge part of the story, but I don't think it's too heavy, the story fits well along side this.
As well as learning about codes, there is a lot in this about the toy industry and about how corrupt it is. I wouldn't have realised that half the things go on which do, and this book points them out well in a way which is interesting and easy to understand. For instance, toy companies are aware that 'indie' brands of toys sell, people like to buy toys from smaller companies with no ties to large companies, thinking that they'll be getting something special. Because of this toy companies set up these companies, not telling the consumer they are part of the larger company, but still manufacturing the toys in third world countries as they do the rest of their stuff. It's all well worth reading about.
As for the actual main story, it's pretty good. You really do wonder how things will work out, what's really going on and why. This is one of those books that I really couldn't put down. I started reading it and then stayed up until about 2am trying my hardest to get to the end. But because of the somewhat complex parts, you really do have to be awake, so I gave up. Alice is a great main character and I think she is easy to identify with. She doesn't fit in with the 'cool' crowd and has always been a bit odd. She likes her job and designing things she's interested in but doesn't like how her company is run and how there's a constant battle to be cool, you hope that this kind of thing stays behind when you finish school, but not when your job is to figure out what's cool and then convince kids of it. I like the other characters too, they're all a bit edgy, different from the main stream 20 somethings. I think that this could have come across as trying too hard, but it really doesn't. I found all the characters quirky and interesting, it certainly makes it so the book is never boring!
I think that in reading this book you certainly feel as though you've learnt something. The maths and code solving stuff can be a bit much for someone with no idea, but it is explained really well and in a way which makes is very interesting. You not only learn a bit about this, but also the ethics of huge toy companies and how they work and also there's a bit in there about the ethics of the farming industry. As well as this there's a great story, an absolute page turner. This book is a bit different from the norm, but I'm glad I gave it a go. Really glad in fact. I can see Scarlett Thomas becoming a firm favourite of mine and I can't wait to read her newest book. This book is interesting throughout, and although there's a lot going on it's not something to give yourself a headache over, I manages to read it in about 3 days, along with having to go to work etc. So if you want something a bit different, don't hesitate to give this a go. As I said already, 'The End Of Mr Y' is also particularly good and works in the same kind of way as this one book is about thought experiments and reality instead. You can clearly see that Scarlett Thomas has spent an incredible amount of time doing research for both.
Although I have clearly raved about this book I think I'm going to have to give it 4 stars instead of the full 5, which might seem a bit odd. But this is simply because of how complicated some of the maths in it can get at times. I can grasp most of it but then there are parts which I cannot even attempt to get my head around, which is a bit of a shame.
I think i should just add that the cover for the book that dooyoo has up is an old one, it has since been reprinted in a blue and silver design to match the other books by Scarlett Thomas, which looks much nicer.
Popco is a contemporary novel set in Devon. The title refers to the name of a fictitious toy company, the third biggest in the world after Mattel and Hasbro. It is told from the first person perspective of Alice Butler, a young woman who works for Popco in their Ideation and Design department.
Almost everyone in Ideation and Design is young, very cool and addicted to following fashion trends, which currently mean everyone dresses like college kids from Tokyo. Alice stands out as she has her own style, but her dilemma is, if she dresses like them she fits in, and if she doesn't dress like them she is cool, daring and individualistic and therefore still fits in.
At the beginning of the novel, Alice travels to the Popco Open World event at the company's 'thought camp' at Hare Hall, a vast mansion in Devon. She is preoccupied with a new toy she is designing, an addition to a series of spy toys she has created. Alice is specially suited for this kind of work due to her code-cracking skills, something she has learned from her grandparents, who were involved in deciphering codes during the war.
At Hare Hall, Alice meets up with her colleague Dan, a videogame designer, and after the initial presentation by the CEO they are summoned back to a meeting of selected employees. These have been chosen for their special skills to stay on after the Popco Open World conference, to secretly work on a new toy design. Alice agrees to stay, but is puzzled when she begins to receive coded messages from someone at Hare Hall.
She also starts to become ill and spends a lot of time in her room taking Bach Flower remedies as she recovers. More coded messages arrive and she tries to find out who is sending them, she also reflects on the past that brought her here. In a series of flashbacks we find out about her upbringing with her grandparents and her grandfather's lifelong obsession with solving codes. It's all connected to a locket that Alice's grandfather had given her containing a secret code she has never managed to crack, but which has something to do with the location of buried treasure.
Popco is densely packed with stories within stories. There is the story of the buried treasure, the story of her grandparents, and Alice's own story of her school and college years. As Alice tries to think up ideas for new toys, she reflects back on the trends and social codes of her school days that influenced her own purchases. It reveals the cynical manipulation of children through their need to fit in with their friends, and the way toys are designed to be collectible to encourage brand loyalty.
There are strong parallels with Lewis Carroll's novel Through the Looking Glass. In Carroll's book, Alice becomes the pawn of the White Queen. In Popco, Alice is uneasily aware she is a pawn of the toy company. In Carroll's book there is a character called Haigha, which resembles the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland. In Popco, Alice is staying at Hare Hall. Both Alice's have a cat. Lewis Carroll was also a skilled mathematician and an inventor of games and puzzles, much like Alice's grandfather in Popco.
It all makes for an enjoyable, although complex read. It's a heavily researched novel, crammed with facts about mathematics, cryptanalysis and codes, as well as the powerful cultural influence of global corporations. Alice Butler is an interesting, quirky and well-rounded character, although other characters don't tend to come across so clearly, something that's harder to portray with the use of the first person narrator. The popular culture of the early 1990's is vividly brought to life, as is life in the 1600's. Scarlett Thomas has a talent for switching time periods and adopting the voices that come with them.
However, it's noticeable that the character Alice is very much like the character of Ariel in Scarlett Thomas's later novel The End of Mr Y. Both characters smoke, dabble with drugs, and are sexually promiscuous. Both also use Bach Flower remedies. Both are also fascinated with mind experiments and are trying to solve the mystery locked in a printed text. It's beginning to look somewhat formulaic.
Popco is a highly entertaining read and an eye-opener about the world of toy design, but is let down by a final twist that is something of a disappointment after such a long and complicated build up. It all seems to wind up too quickly, with several things left unresolved and unanswered.
First published in Great Britain in 2004, by Fourth Estate, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
This review is also on Helium under my pen name A Marshall
I picked up this book after reading Scarlett Thomas' book "The End of Mr Y" which intrigued, baffled and bewildered me in equal measures. After reading the first page or so of "Popco" in the book shop, it seemed to be less confusing and i parted with my cash and dashed home to start reading.
This book is written from the perspective of the main character - Alice Butler - who works for a toy company: Popco. She is described as a non-conformist who has created toy concepts based on her own interests in codes and encryption. the book starts with her late-night journey to a company retreat/convention which is taking place in a country estate.
Without giving away any of the story - which i am still digesting - Alice describes her experiences of her stay at the company convention with flashbacks to her life with her grandparents. It was, for the first two thirds, an interesting story and Alice was an enjoyable character - she is interesting to read and Scarlett Thomas has creatd a character who i found great empathy with.
However, i couldn't shrug the thought that i was on the receiving end of an endless diatribe about the state of life, community, consumerism and code-breaking. Popco suffers from the same problem as "The End of Mr y" in that whilst Thomas is interested in a highbrow and difficult to understand topic, she doesn't make it easy for the reader to fully grasp and understand everything. My own knowledge of codes and code breaking and prime numbers is, fair to say, pretty basic. By the end of the book, my knowledge has slightly increased by I am still completely baffled about what it was all about.
The impression I have is that Thomas wished to write up all of her knowledge about code breaking and history of code makers and constructed a fictional tale to cradle it. I really feel that this was two separate tales shoehorned together into one book - one story about Alice, her past and the interesting and weird happenings going on at the Popco convention (and fledgling romance) - and the other story about a race to solve an age old code, and a "how to" guide on prime numbers. There is even a third aspect of consumerism and anarchy which is dragged in at various stages by certainly one contrived character and then developed at dramatic pace which i found very, very difficult to keep up with.
It was an exhausting read digesting all of this and, a few days later, i still am trying to figure it out. However, i do think this was rather the point. I feel that Thomas is purposefully writing a cannon of works which are thought provoking and forcing her readers (and society as a whole perhaps?) to just think more, react less and really consider what it is they do and why. But it just doesn't work - some elements of the book (the consumerism angle, and some of the writing about prime numbers and codes) just felt so try hard and emphatic that i could have been sitting in a lecture.
This is not to say that it is a bad book. It isn't - the writing is so good as to almost overcome the negatives. She really seems to care about her topics that this was an intersting book, it's just a shame that she didn't reign in some of the more lecture-like sections.
I will re-read this again, and it was interesting. It's not a book that could be read on the beach, or one that could easily be picked up and put down over a lengthy period. But for a thought-provoking and unusual read, and one which Makes You Think, it is better than some books i've read recently.
I'm giving this 3 stars as the strength of the writing and enthusiasm of the author are slightly overwhelmed by the confusing topics and the final third of the book which i felt should have been longer to give more time to understand why things happened the way they did.