Rumour has it that PopCo, first published in the UK by Fourth Estate, did not get the attention it deserved. After the commercial and critical success of The End of Mr. Y, PopCo is being repackaged and rereleased by Canongate (my employer).
The story follows Alice Butler, a young woman (about Scarlett Thomas’ age) who works for PopCo, the world’s third largest toy company (the other two being Mattel and Hasbro). She is at a PopCo retreat when she begins receiving strange coded messages. Her mysterious sender seems to know about her childhood spent solving puzzles, ciphers and codes.
This is a surprise to Alice, as she has kept pretty quiet about her childhood. The novel intersperses her life with her grandparents (her father disappeared when she was nine) and her adult self in the present day. We learn that her grandfather gave her a locket with a strange code engraved on its surface, and asked her to never take it off. We learn that she helped her grandfather in research projects in cryptanalysis, especially in efforts to decode the Voynich manuscript.
Spoilers after the jump.
We then find out that her grandfather had managed to crack the code in the Stevenson / Heath manuscript, which was rumoured to reveal the location of a pirate’s treasure. Alice is approached by two strangers one day who are trying to find her grandfather, and she realises, after reporting the incident to her grandparents, that they have probably come after hearing about this treasure from her father, who vanished because he went looking for it.
Back in the present day, Alice has started a relationship with another PopCo employee, Ben. She learns about his reasons for becoming vegan (it has to do with his research for an online universe called The Sphere), and in time, received more messages from her unknown letter-writer.
I can’t say much more without giving the entire story away, so here’s what I think. I enjoyed PopCo much more than The End of Mr. Y, and I think it’s simply because it uses cryptology as a theme. I adored Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, and the explanations into the various codes and ciphers in PopCo were, for me, the best parts of the story. The way the story was told also reminded me a little of Kurt Vonnegut, another author I love.
However. It may be because I’ve already read Mr. Y, and I’ve seen her website, so I know how she feels about large corporations and animal rights, but the anti-corporate talk and pro-vegan stuff was kind of boring, because it’s her personal agenda, and I’ve read it before. I don’t think she needs to push and push her views in fiction — that’s what non-fiction is for. To me, that those parts of the novel dragged a little. The anarchist in me was admiring of the actions of the characters in confronting and defeating the corporate machine, though.
I may have spoiled it for people, by telling all that Scarlett Thomas is pro-vegan and anti-corporate and uses her fiction writing to spread her gospel, but I hope not. I really took pleasure in reading PopCo and it’s a good contribution to the massive universe that is fiction.