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PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
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PopCo (2004)

by Scarlett Thomas

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748None12,415 (3.65)49
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  1. 10
    Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (daysailor)
    daysailor: Same kind of edgy writing, intertwining cryptography history with good story-telling
  2. 00
    Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (LaPietraDiLuna)
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Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
First published at Booking in Heels.

Scarlett Thomas' books tend to ramble and go off on odd tangents, but there's always an over-riding theme. The End of Mr Y was science based, featuring quantum physics and general mind-fuckery, and Our Tragic Universe was a slightly more gentle foray into books and literature. Well, obviously it is, because it's a book, but it looks at the creative writing process and the storyline theories. PopCo is about code-breaking, as you've probably gathered, but there's also a heavy rant focus on anti-consumerism.

That's the kicker, really. It's start off really interesting, discussing Alberti code-wheels, Bletchley Park, unsolveable maths equations... etc. It's obvious that the story is going to be about ciphers and codes, which is great. But then somebody presses a button and it flips over into a slightly preachy rant about big companies and consumerism.

This was written just before the two books mentioned above and it's kind of obvious. Her style is there and it's wonderful, on the whole. It's very.... real, I suppose. You're taken inside Alice's mind and it's as if she was one of us - she doesn't have ordered, logical, relevant thoughts like most first-person fictional perspectives. Instead, she goes off on tangents and reacts instantly to things the way we would. It's what attracts me to the author's books and in The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, it works perfectly.

I'm not saying it's 'bad' here, because it's not. I still love the tone and how you learn a great deal of things you never knew you never knew. It's just that she's slightly less subtle about inserting these facts and stories into the narrative, and it's especially obvious when it's discussing a moral issue. It comes across as very in-your-face (which is, ironically enough, the title of another of her books). There's a huge essay about Francis Stevenson, to the point where it may as well be non-fiction. It's just dumped into the middle of the book, with no introduction hinting at why it may be relevant.

She does get better at this in her later books and develops a much less forced method of introducing you to relevant factual information. And you do learn a lot! PopCo touches upon video game censorship, homeopathy, virtual reality, protest groups... there's an awful lot of research gone into this, as with her other novels.

The ending isn't great either. It further demonstrates how the code-breaking aspects got swept aside a little as it's very rushed. There's a huge unsolved code and a big mystery with lots of drama and intrigue... but then it goes away with an 'eh' moment at the end.

The great style and prose does make this worth reading, although I'd really recommend starting with The End of Mr Y or Our Tragic Universe if you're new to Scarlett Thomas. ( )
  generalkala | Oct 19, 2013 |
This is the best Scarlett Thomas book I've read so far (I loved The End of Mr Y as well, was not quite so keen on Our Tragic Universe - it had its good points, but not enough to outweigh the directionless mish mash of a story).

I love the idea of it being set in a toy company. I love the protagonist. I love all the codebreaking stuff. This book appeals to all of my sensibilities. Yeah, it's a bit hammy in places, but that's part of its appeal. These kind of things are supposed to be hammy. The veganism/vegetarianism stuff sort of annoyed me, but not enough to take away from the fact that this is the most cohesively narrated of Thomas's books (of the one's I've read, rather) and that the central hook is both the most accessible (some of the thought experiment stuff in TEOMY would, I suspect, put people off) and most inherently enjoyable and applicable of her "gimmicks". As a piece of speculative fiction, this is... just. I can't explain it. Just read it, you'll see what I mean. Also, running theme in my reviews today, but Alice felt believable. She wasn't a Lisbeth Salander/Katniss/Whatever caricature, she completely seemed normal! Result!

I am FULLY aware of how terrible these reviews are, btw, but I go to Barcelona tomorrow and there is no way I'll remember anything I wanted to write after that. Sorry! If I EVER get a chance to reread any of these, I'll fix them, I swear. ( )
  heterocephalusglaber | Apr 26, 2013 |
I read the first page of PopCo and decided not to read it. I don't know if there was something about the story blurb, or the start of the novel; but I instantly switched off. ( )
  lesmel | Apr 11, 2013 |
Thanks to Megan Milks for turning me on to Scarlett Thomas, who's so great. Maybe I enjoyed this so much because I worked at an evil neo-liberal web development agency at the turn of the century, but I think anyone who's critical of advertising and likes cryptography (and mysteries) will love this book. Fun!!!! ( )
  anderlawlor | Apr 9, 2013 |
This was pretty disappointing, honestly.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but this just didn't deliver. The whole narrative was just so inconsistent. Though there is an actual plot in here (I think), most of the book is just a series of loosely related tangents. Some of them were quite interesting; others, not so much.

The story alternates between two phases of the protagonist's life: the present, when Alice is a toy designer for the huge, ubiquitous corporation PopCo, and her past as a misfit pre-teen living with her grandparents after her father abandoned her. I actually enjoyed the flashback scenes most -- the author makes a lot of interesting observations on middle school social structure, the fickleness of friends at that age, the fleetingness of trends. I loved the interactions between young Alice and her grandfather, and I thought the sub-plot where he cracks the Stevenson/Heath manuscript was probably the most engaging part. The present-day plot is a lot weaker and more meandering. There's a permeating thread of "Fuck the system, down with The Man" that carries through the whole book, a sentiment that resonates with me, but the preachy, overly-idealistic tone really turned me off. That kind of ranting just isn't something I look for in a novel. I was never tempted to completely abandon PopCo, but when I set it down it was easy to not pick it back up again right away. I finished a few other books in the time it took me to read this one, and it's not even very long.

I did appreciate all the references to science fiction novels, especially the works of [a:William Gibson|9226|William Gibson|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1282769227p2/9226.jpg]. However, it also completely spoiled the plot of [b:The Count of Monte Cristo|7126|The Count of Monte Cristo|Alexandre Dumas|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1309203605s/7126.jpg|391568] for me, which sucks because I was planning to read it one day. On the other hand, all the allusions to [b:Woman on the Edge of Time|772888|Woman on the Edge of Time|Marge Piercy|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1287802442s/772888.jpg|838570] made me want to pick that one up sooner.

I'd still like to read more of Thomas's other work. I've heard [b:The End of Mr. Y|93436|The End of Mr. Y|Scarlett Thomas|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1287799845s/93436.jpg|1535663] is better, so I'm sure I'll try it eventually. ( )
  agirlnamedfury | Mar 29, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 015603137X, Paperback)

PopCo tells the story of Alice Butler-a subversively smart girl in our commercial-soaked world who grows from recluse orphan to burgeoning vigilante, buttressed by mystery, codes, math, and the sense her grandparents gave her that she could change the world.

Alice-slight introvert, crossword compositor- works at PopCo, a globally successful and slightly sinister toy company. Lured by their CEO to a Thought Camp out on the moors, PopCo's creatives must invent the ultimate product for teenage girls. Meanwhile, Alice receives bizarre, encrypted messages she suspects relate to her grandfather's decoding of a centuries-old manuscript that many-including her long-disappeared father-believe leads to buried treasure. Its key, she's sure, is engraved on the necklace she's been wearing since she was ten. Using the skills she learned from her grandparents and teaching us aspects of cryptanalysis, Alice discovers the source of these creepy codes. Will this lead her to the mysterious treasure or another, even more carefully guarded secret?

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:27 -0400)

Alice is quietly becoming the star of PopCo's 'ideation' team. Now she's been called to a mysterious 'thought camp' in Devon where they are brainstorming over the toy market for teenage girls. Alice thinks she's cracked it, but suddenly she's not sure she wants to unleash it on the world.… (more)

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