Scarlett Thomas is probably best well known for The End of Mr Y, the black tinged page book with the striking red cover. Popco is the re-issued 2004 novel – a blue tinged paged book with a striking blue cover.
Thomas has an odd tone of voice which won’t sit well with all readers. It’s hard to describe, but is generally slightly standoffish, almost patronising. Popco has a similar tone of voice, but Thomas obviously loves language so much that you can overlook this.
Popco is the story of Alice Butler, a twenty nine year old cryptanalyst/cryptographer. She lives in a tiny London flat with her cat, and works for toy company, Popco. The book opens with a corporate excursion to Devon, which Alice travels to alone, as she doesn’t enjoy crowds. From the outset, then, she’s a loner, someone who’s happy with her own company. It’s lucky that she’s a likeable protagonist.
The location of the majority of the book is an isolated mansion in the middle of Dartmoor, designed to get the creative juices flowing amongst the bright young creative things. Alice is quickly selected for a mysterious ‘secret project’, along with a few others she’s noticed in the crowd. I don’t want to write too much about the plot, but basically she realises that she is disillusioned with Popco and the principles at it’s foundation.
There are times where the story falls away slightly, and the propaganda undertones are exposed a little more forcefully than expected, but I never felt preached to. One conversation in particular has stuck with me, and that was one around why vegans are vegans. Milk comes from cows, but cows don’t produce milk without being pregnant, or in a state of pregnancy. It’s an obvious conclusion, but one that’s left out of the children’s stories. The milk we drink comes from cows who are pregnant for the whole of their generally short lives, who don’t get to see their calves. When you look at it like that, it puts that glass of milk in a whole different light, doesn’t it?
Apart from the anti-establishment message, Alice is concerned with solving a treasure map left by her late grandfather. A cryptologist himself, he taught her everything she knows about cracking codes. This part of the book is interesting as Thomas manages to teach the reader fairly complex methods of code cracking without being too heavy or boring. I’m not that great at maths, but I managed to keep up for most of it.
A couple of chapters in the book tell the story behind the treasure map, about two lovers I immediately dubbed ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ and ‘Buttercup’ as the story seemed to be straight out of The Princess Bride. Despite this, there was enough of a difference to ignore the similarities. Usually I find intertwined stories to be a bit of a distrraction from the ‘real’plot, but in this case it worked really well.
Popco isn’t for everyone, but I found the story, coupled with well drawn characters and, of course, the pretty cover, came together to make a good book. I especially enjoyed the little phrases and idea Alice comes out with, such as the one where she talks about footsteps having a tune, or note, of their own.
If you’ve read and enjoyed The End of Mr Y, you’ll enjoy this too. If you like puzzle solving, you’ll like this.