by Scarlett Thomas

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“The code-breaking and -making heroine of [this] smart, engaging novel takes a critical view of the corporate marketing of cool . . . a captivating heroine.” —Publishers Weekly

Twentysomething Alice Butler is a bit of an introvert, but it hasn’t stopped her from landing a job at the UK office of globally successful—if slightly sinister—toy company PopCo. There’s no dress code, but that doesn’t keep Alice’s coworkers from commenting on her “Bletchley Park look” outfits. Now the CEO wants the creatives on the staff to attend what the organization calls “Thought Camp” and invent an insidious product that will part as many teenage girls from their allowances as possible. Alice isn’t feeling so comfortable about her supposedly cool new job. But she has another problem to solve first.

She’s started to receive bizarre encrypted messages, and they may have something to do with her cryptanalyst grandfather; her long-disappeared father; a centuries-old manuscript; and the possibility of buried treasure. Alice is convinced the engraving on the necklace she’s been wearing since she was ten years old holds the key to it all. But the secrets she uncovers may take her by surprise, in this highly original novel that blends code, mathematics, marketing, mystery, and more, “a sort of Harriet-the-Spy-meets-Douglas-Coupland with a Treasure Island twist” (Daily Candy).

“How many novels can you think of that leave the reader with an intriguing puzzle to solve, plus a cake recipe, plus a crossword and a list of the first thousand prime numbers? Clever, likeable, frothy, zeitgeist-chasing.” —Time Out London

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547543932
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/03/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 257,617
File size: 828 KB
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Scarlett Thomas is the author of PopCo and The End of Mr. Y. She has been nominated for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, and named Writer of the Year by Elle UK, one of the twenty best young writers by the Independent, and one of twenty best writers under forty by the Telegraph.

Read an Excerpt

Paddington Station feels like it should be shut. Late at night, long after rush-hour, it has an echo and the occasional blast of cold, thin air that smells of diesel. This really is an ideal time to be in train stations, when hardly anyone else is travelling. It is almost half-past eleven at night and I am looking for my train, which is due to leave in about twenty minutes. The station feels like it is on beta-blockers. A pulse-yes-but slowed. A medicated slowness; a pleasant fug. This speed, if it were healthy, would belong to someone who trampolines every day, rather than to the owner of the more dangerous circulation you see clogging the station at five or six in the evening.

For the first time in weeks I am wearing proper shoes, and I can actually hear my footsteps as I walk, a D Major scale playing on concrete. If you ever plan to hang around train stations in the middle of the night, you should always make sure you can hear your own footsteps, and, if you are at all musical, you should try to work out which notes you make as you walk, as it stops you from being lonely, not that I ever get lonely. Tonight I am wearing a long coat and a hat and I almost wish I was smoking an exotic cigarette in a holder because added to the coat, hat and suitcase, it would close the parentheses of this look, which I recognise from films and spy thrillers, but can't actually name, although I know people who could.

I know people who would make all sorts of assumptions about the clothes I am wearing. They would assume I had chosen a "look." They'd see my shirt and jumper and want to say, "School uniform look today, Alice?" but then they'd see my tartan skirt, tights and sensible shoes and eventually conclude that I'm in what has been called in the past my "Bletchley Park" look. Having named my "look," these people would assume that everything was a deliberate part of it, that all my clothes and everything I have with me, from my purse to my suitcase to my knickers, had been chosen for a reason; to identify me, to give me my own code or stamp. Even if I wore-as I have done in the past-a truly random selection of old or weird clothes, this would simply be labelled my "Jumble Sale" or "Homeless" look. I hate this so much. They know I hate it, which is one of the reasons they do it, some logic dictating that when you act annoyed at something people do, it becomes funnier the more they do it.

I work at a toy company called PopCo. Most people love working at PopCo. It's a young, cool company with no dress code, no rules and no set working hours, well, not for the Ideation and Design (ID) staff anyway. Our team, which used to be called Research and Design, but isn't any more, has its own little headquarters in a red-brick building in Battersea and people are just as likely to pull all-nighters making prototypes as they are to suddenly all decamp en masse to Prague for a week, trend-spotting and fact-finding. Ideas are everything, everywhere, everybody at PopCo. We live to attract ideas: we are always in season for them; we fan our tail feathers and dance to attract them; our doors are always open if they decide to finally come over, drunk, when we had given up hope of seeing them that night.

Almost everyone in PopCo Ideation and Design is very cool. They devote themselves to it in a way I find impossible. Perhaps it's because I am a division all on my own, a solitary brand- cluster. I am an island despite being connected to land, a new girl despite having been at the company almost two years, an outsider despite being firmly on the inside. Sometimes, despite being on the run from them and their cool, all that happens is that I find myself at the end or beginning of a circle/cycle when everyone else is in the middle of it. Next year they will be the ones wearing shirts with jumpers and skirts, and their hair in sensible plaits, you can be sure of it. Perhaps at that point I will look like a college kid from Tokyo, as they do now, or like a junked-up space-girl, as they may do the season after next. With the people at PopCo there is a dilemma. If you dress like them, you fit in. If you dress in an opposite way to them, or in things so ridiculous they could never consider wearing them, you are cool, daring and an individual-and therefore you fit in. My constant conundrum: how do you identify yourself as someone who doesn't fit in when everything you could possibly do demarcates you as someone who does? If we were all children, it would be easier to rebel. Then again, if we were children, maybe I would actually want to fit in.

After a reception tomorrow lunchtime, the PopCo Open World event (P.O.W./POW), which is taking place at the company's "Thought Camp" in Devon, will properly begin. PopCo is the third-largest toy company in the world, the first and second being Mattel and Hasbro. It has Corporate Headquarters in Japan and the US, and a smaller version here in the UK. Each country has its own separate ID section, but all the really crazy idea-generation (ideation) goes on at four main Thought Camps around the world, one each in Sweden, Iceland, Spain and the UK. We have all heard of this place in Devon but not many people have been there before. Since we usually have our annual POW somewhere really cool, we have all been wondering why, this year, we are basically going to a PopCo complex in the middle of nowhere. They usually throw money at these events; this year they must be spending next to nothing.

The words "toy company" usually make people think of fluffy things and wooden blocks; elves, perhaps, in an industrial-revolution version of Santa's Grotto, hammering and carving and running around with dolls, farmyard animals and jigsaw puzzles, placing them in sacks for delivery to clean children who sit in front of fires. In fact, these days, toys are more likely to involve fast-food promotions, film tie-ins, interactivity, "added-value," super-branding and, of course, focus groups observed through one-way mirrors. Wooden blocks, at least the ones made by most toy companies, are apparently now designed according to a mathematical formula that tells you how many of each letter to include in which ratios on how many blocks so that children need to own more than one set in order to make proper words. I don't know if this is true but I know the sort of equation that would make it possible. Apparently someone did once suggest we started applying these sorts of equations at PopCo but she was then sacked. I don't know if this is true either. Although it is less than a hundred years old, PopCo has more folklore than some small countries, as well as a bigger GDP. The other major toy companies are the same.

The folklore, like everything else, is part of the fun. Fun colonises everything when you work in a toy company. You may have heard of things like "Geek Cool" and "Ugly Beauty." Nothing is automatically uncool any more, which is another way of saying you can sell anything, if you know how. It isn't immediately clear to some people how this cynical, grown-up world of cool has found its way into the toy market. But those of us who work in the industry know that all marketing is ultimately aimed at children and teenagers. They're the ones with the disposable income and the desire to fit in. They spread crazes like they were nits, and make their parents buy things they don't need. Think of all the current buzzwords going around. A lot of people realise that they "come from" school playgrounds and that what your nine-year-old kid says to his mates this week will be what you and your grown-up colleagues will be saying at work next week. Although these things germinate in playgrounds, they often originate in marketing departments. Kids have an accelerated, intensified idea of "cool." They go through friends, phases, crazes like flowers blooming on speed-cam. You can hit them, successfully, with something like twenty thousand products before they are fifteen, at which point their tastes start to plateau and they buy less.

Toy companies don't necessarily make just toys any more-our most successful division is videogames, and our most financed research is in robotics-we simply make the things that kids want. We are in the business of the new and shiny, the biggest and the best, the glittery and magical, the fast and addictive. The toy industry has two big advantages over other industries. Our products are the easiest to sell, and our customers are the easiest to sell to. That doesn't mean that all products succeed, of course. But we can make things that explode or float or take you to fantasy lands, and, if we get it right, kids' eyes will grow big when they watch our advertisements.

Copyright © Scarlett Thomas 2004

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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PopCo 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Scarlett Thomas's PopCo--despite a slow start--follows narrator Alice Butler on a retreat for her job designing toys for a global toy company on a quest to create the ideal product for teenage s. One unique aspect of this book is that Alice--the granddaughter of a well-known cryptanalyst--begins finding messages on her retreat that lead her back to the famous manuscript once secretly decoded by her grandfather. Interspersed with Alice's observations are social, scientific, and mathematical formulas, as well as various types of codes, code keys, and solutions. This books starts out seeming like the typical 'unsatisfied thirty-something seeks more from life' novel, but (like Thomas's narrator) ends up being so much more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Popco is an extremely well written book that contains lots of puzzles, codes, and paradoxes to ponder... Scarlett Thomas rules! If you like fiction books that 'teach' you something, this is the book for you!
riverwillow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved The End of Mr Y so I thought I'd look at some of Thomas's other books. Just like Mr Y, there are so many layers to this book that its hard to know where to start. Alice Butler works for one of the world's largest toy company's on the creative side with a side interest in maths and decryption. Alice is a perennial outsider, choosing to travel alone to a company gathering on Dartmoor, and as the book progresses we begin to understand why. Following the death of her mother and the departure of her father, she's bought up by her grandparents. During the War her grandmother worked at Bletchley Park alongside Alan Turing, while her grandfather is a great cryptographer and has solved many a puzzle. I'm not a mathematician so lots of this stuff went way over my head, even so it kind of made sense. My only quibble is that the ending feels rushed and a little ranty. But ultimately who can complain about a book which includes a crossword puzzle, details of the first 1000 prime numbers and a recipe for cake!
sarah_rubyred on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was gripped, read it all through fast, loved the little codes given to us, the explanations of mathematical theories, her past, her crazy dad and lovely grandparents, the money-making toy design company trying to make advertising to children fun and cool. However, I kept expecting a fantastic finish, and unfortunately I never got one.I did not like the homeopathy. She is anti-corporate toymakers using underhand methods to trick our children into buying their stuff, and yet thinks a made-up treatment for different 'feelings' with no scientific proof whatsoever (which costs a lot of money) is alright.I have just done a little search and Scarlett Thomas is quoted by Homeopathy websites as a 'homeopathy hero'. 'Nuff said.
irkthepurist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
oh what a vexing, frustrating, almost brilliant book. i came to this after "the end of mr y" and had high, high hopes which for 300 odd pages were paying off... and then it all sort of fritters away that promise. such a frustrating book. i don't begrudge having spent so much time with it - thomas is always a beguiling writer, and brilliant at getting quite incredibly meaty concepts over in a reasonably simple manner - but i do wish it had amounted to more. i did feel a little bit like i'd climbed a narrative mountain only to be preached at a bit about consumerism. i kind of agree on a lot of her viewpoints, but because i feel thomas has been a tiny bit dishonest with what she promised the book initially to be and how it eventually pans out... i sort of ended up feeling quite profoundly annoyed with a lot of those viewpoints which i don't really think was the idea. i'll stick to "the end of mr y" i think...
nicholas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read Thomas' "The End of Mr Y" a year or so ago and rather enjoyed it; "PopCo" is similar in style and covers some of the same themes: secrets hidden in historical documents, sinister conspiracies, a somewhat dysfunctional and obsessive first-person narrator. It reminded me a little of a cross between "No Logo" and "Cryptonomicon".
anduin13 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved The End of Mr Y, so as many other people I jumped at the opportunity to read more by Scarlett Thomas. The book had plenty of interesting bits and characters, but unfortunately the plot got lost and towards the later parts of the novel we got a ham-fisted attack against mainstream medicine and a propaganda section for homoeopathy. I did not mind the anti-scientific slant in "Mr Y", and the homeopathy was an integral part of the plot. Here we get a caricature of a pill-prescribing doctor to contrast the wholesome herbalist vegan and the brave homoeopathy new-age post-modern girl. Truly disappointing. If you liked Mr. Y, avoid this, go and buy some homoeopathic remedies and overdose on them (hint: they will do nothing to you).
iamthenewno2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book starts off strongly and builds, that is until the last couple of chapters where the narrative becomes a social statement and completely losses its way. A real shame as I enjoyed Mr. Y and was hoping for more of the same, I liked the cryptography aspect but as mentioned in another review it is as if Scarlett Thomas lost interest at the end or just didn't know how to finish.Thomas should also consider whether she wishes a reference work on Homoeopathic remedies to be her next project, if not please leave it out of future novels, it made sense in Mr. Y but not here.
Eyejaybee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another glorious book from Scarlett Thomas. She seems to have an inexhaustible supply of the most engaging and empathetic principal characters. The plot of this novel moves between the present and the narrator's youth, and gives Thomas free rein to consider a number of mathematical paradoxes while also giving a pellucid insight into cryptography and cryptanalysis. However, despite these potentially alarming-sounding digressions she never allows the pace of the plot to flag, and the mathematical apostrophes are always entertaining and relevant. Scarlett Thomas seems to have carved out a genre all of her own in which she seems effortlessly to merge humour, science philosophy and mystery.And, as with all of the recent Canongate Press editions of her works, this book was beautifully packaged, too.
pokarekareana on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The cover told me that this book might change my life. It didn¿t quite manage that, although it did tempt me to commit petty acts of vandalism in my local supermarket. Alice works for an international toy company, and is happy in her work until a curious work trip takes her and her colleagues to Devon, where she is asked to work on a special project. Alice¿s fascination with numbers and cryptography is piqued by a series of mysterious notes, which lead her eventually to question all that she had previously supposed about her employer, about big business, and the world around her. I found Alice to be a fantastically likable character, and I see elements of her in myself, or vice versa. She never quite follows the crowd, but seems to exist on the edge. A little bit kooky, and not quite in touch with her inner self, she suddenly finds her world tipped upside down over the course of a few days. Scarlett Thomas has produced an intriguing story, although perhaps not quite as gripping as The End of Mr Y.To end, a small disclaimer, and a word of reassurance; I won¿t lie to you. There¿s quite a lot of maths-talk in this, about which I was a bit worried before I started reading. I¿m an incredibly unmathematical person, but I found Thomas¿ way of explaining things quite interesting, and definitely on my level. My fears that I was going to need to do a maths degree to understand what was happening were unfounded, and in the end, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. (Please don¿t tell my high school maths teacher that I liked a book with maths in it.)
Piratenin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really disliked this book. Firstly I found the main character extremely annoying, self righteous and smug. I found that I could not really care what happened to her, I didn't like the way she preached about her eventual anti-corporate values while somehow thinking it was ok to act like a twelve year old when it came to sex and relationships. If the protagonist's adult self was bad, the flashbacks to her teenage self were unbearable. We were somehow meant to believe a ten to eleven year old child is extremely gifted and has great self awareness but is unable to combat peer pressure in any other way than swearing at everyone. Furthermore, there is a continual pushing of homeopathy as a cure all that is both very niave and I think probably would not be realistic to such a science driven and sceptical character. Overall, it just feels like the author is trying to push their own views and vent their own frustrations in a rant and trying to disguise it by doing it through a fictional character. Even some of the views on veganism and vegetarianism, now mainstream ideas, are at best simplistic and ignorant. I wouldn't bother with this book to be honest.
Lucybird on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow. Just wow. I love, love, loved this book. It¿s probably the best I¿ve read so far this year. From the synopsis I had been unsure, and in fact almost bought it a few times before finding something I thought sounded better to read . In the end I mainly bought it because I had really enjoyed the End of Mr Y which is by the same author.This is really a book which made me think, about corporations, and things we ignore but encounter every day. It talked of how corporations trick people, and how tose in marketing seem to be worth more than those who actually make products- and that¿s just one issue it talks about. It doesn¿t feel preachy though, it really does just make you think about things in a different way. It made me interested in alternative medicine, and veganism- and they weren¿t even key themes!It wasn¿t perfect though. Some of the stuff about codes and maths really went over my head. Although I don¿t think it was completely necessary to understand that it would have added something to my enjoyment. There was also a couple of adult scenes which I didn¿t think were needed (I didn¿t mind them being there though) which might put some people off, but there weren¿t as many, or as graphic as in The End of Mr. Y.
pretygrrl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
wow what a terrible terrible little book. ugh. the book is anathema to sci fi fans. its anti science. its filled with oversimplified examples from Propability 1 (this passes for crypto), rants against genetics, nanotechnology, sophomoric, outdated commentary on computer programming and AI. All this rambling PLUS a cast of boring, unlikeable characters, plus flashbacks of some heartstring-pulling, iwasanorphan whining childhood recollections.UGH!Do NOT get this book, especially if you are looking for a crypto or sci fi books.Its rare that I throw a book out, without finishing. garbage.
kalliope on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quirky heroine, cryptography, pirates, toy companies, commercialism. I couldn't stop reading it.
P1g5purt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
PopCo is a little like Apple - An enigmatic and messianic CEO, Senior Executives with eccentricities bordering on whimsy all veiling a maniacal obsession with market domination. Alice Butler finds herself in the creative department of a PopCo division via a job setting crosswords for a provincial weekly. When you¿ve been raised by your grandparents, one a pure mathematician, the other a cryptanalyst it¿s probably inevitable that your breakthrough product is a spy kit. With that kind of pedigree and a day-job in junior code-breaking she¿s a walking illustration of geek-chic. The invite to the annual PopCo conference may come from left-of-field but we find there was some fuzzy-logic to this decision. With references to planned obsolescence, viral marketing, negative-brands and ideation this is a novel with ambition, but not over-burdened by it. The childhood reminiscences, a vehicle for the introduction of the Maths and cryptanalysis, are a perfectly pitched relief. PopCo¿s ¿Thought Camp¿ has its eye on the holy grail of marketing ¿ the killer product for teenage girls. Alice eventually unearths a more literal treasure - Her grandfather placed the key to the location of a 17th century pirate¿s booty in her locket and when she finds it it makes PopCo's "market-cap" look tiny. A book dealing with corporate cyncism could be as soul-less as it's subject matter. Fortunately PopCo's flashbacks to childhood add emotional depth. Alice¿s grandparents may have effectively bequeathed a multi-billion pound fortune but there¿s more than a suggestion that the real treasure is the memory of the time spent with them.
chompina on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
PopCO is definitely one of the most interesting books i've read so far. if i had to choose an adjective it would be "life-changing". makes you see everything in a different perspective. you've got to be very insensitive, unintelligent or just very closed minded not to like it.
annarama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is excessive detail about boring things.
Phyrexicaid on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting book. Main character's infatuation with homeopathy was annoying, and added nothing to the storyline. Felt like an advert for the author's beliefs. I could be wrong.It also felt like a female author's take on Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.
omwench on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the cleverest, engaging, and most interesting books I've ever read. Definitely a desert island book--I could probably learn something new every time I read it.
claudiabowman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I quite enjoyed this. Clever use of coding and the protagonist is fleshed out quite believably. There is some anti-establishment stuff that seems to come on a little suddenly toward the end, but otherwise it's a very good read.
lazybee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Alice Butler works at PopCo, the world's third-largest toy company, where she designs code-breaking and detective kits. She has a lifetime of experience in code-breaking, having been raised by her grandfather, a cryptoanalysist, and grandmother, a mathematician and former Bletchley Park cryptographer. The novel takes place at a corporate retreat centre, where Alice is a assigned to a new project which leads her to question the ethics of her job. At the retreat she starts to receive anonymous coded messages, which she thinks may be connected to a treasure map her grandfather decoded years earlier. The novel moves between Alice's present life at a corporate retreat centre and her childhood with her grandparents.I absolutely loved this book most of the way through. The characters, especially Alice, were engaging, and the book deals with some interesting subjects including math, marketing and pirates. Unfortunately, I found the ending really unsatisfying. While I agree with the book's anti-corporate message, I found the resolution to that part of the story didactic and oversimplified. The resolution to the part of the story about Alice's grandfather and the map was more satisfying, but was rather strangely structured. Overall, I still liked the book alot and think it was worth reading, but was disappointed that it didn't come together better at the end.
marcyjill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book started off so well and ended in utter disappointment. It is as if the author ran out of steam around page 200. I definitely do not recommend this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not only is this a fun book about cryptanalysis and the overreach of marketing, but it also touches on feminism, the rural vs. urban dichotomy, and globalization. Top-notch characters had me riveted. In the end, though, it felt like the whole affair was really the first half of what should have been a larger book (but still worth every penny).
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