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3.9 11
by Scarlett Thomas

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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


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?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"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

"No heroine this year was more beguiling than Alice in Scarlett Thomas's PopCo. A mix of maths, cryptography and vegan politics, this book might just change your life."--Independent on Sunday Novels of the Year.

Publishers Weekly
The code-breaking and -making heroine of Thomas's latest smart, engaging novel (after Going Out) takes a critical view of the corporate marketing of cool, an exploit she knows from inside the rapaciously hip boardrooms of the titular British toy company, the third largest in the world. Twenty-nine-year-old Alice Butler has parlayed her expertise in "crosswords, cryptography, and cryptanalysis"-talents she gained from her mathematically inclined grandparents-into a job at PopCo's Ideation and Design department, where she creates sleuthing kits for kids (KidSpy, KidTec and KidCracker). At a companywide countryside retreat (aka "Thought Camp"), the CEO selects Alice to help invent a product that will spark a craze for teenage girls. While Alice looks into her past for insight to this inadequately tapped market-and for clues to her own identity-she also ponders a locket from her grandfather that may contain the code to a centuries-old puzzle. As Alice works on PopCo's blockbuster product and decodes the ancient brainteaser, as well as encrypted messages from an anonymous PopCo colleague, she becomes increasingly disenchanted with her employer's ubiquitous branding, advertising and exploitation of young consumers. Thomas delivers a captivating heroine and a pointed cultural critique that will especially resonate with the No Logo crowd. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A treasure hunt, cryptanalysis, a mysterious necklace, romance, the present state of sales marketing, the evolution of consumer products, a call to awareness against human and animal exploitation-all are intertwined in this extremly ingenious novel. The very aptly named Alice is recruited by the PopCo Corporation, a toy manufacturer, because of her crossword puzzle- making abilities. Since then, she has worked as an "ideation creative" and designed a successful trio of toys that allow kids to do code-breaking, spying, and detective work. When she finally realizes how immoral PopCo really is, she eagerly agrees when asked to join "NoCo," a subversive global organization of corporate employees that do their best to undermine the companies they work for with the ultimate goal of bankrupting them. For the first time in her life, Alice feels like she truly belongs, and toward the end of the story she decides to write the novel we have just read. British author Thomas (Going Out) is without question a gifted writer, and many readers will certainly find her new work a mind-blowing experience. Strongly recommended for all libraries.-Lisa Rohrbaugh, East Palestine Memorial P.L., OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of the agreeable but aimless Going Out (2004) finds a sense of direction in this ambitious novel, which quietly but scathingly critiques consumerist society. Narrator Alice Butler, 29, invents new products for PopCo, a global toy company that sells "the things kids want"-or rather, creates those wants through such sinister marketing tactics as fake websites with fake kids "discovering" various PopCo products. Alice is mildly alienated by this as she heads to the company's annual brainstorming session at its luxurious "Thought Camp" in Devon. But over the course of her stay, childhood memories come flooding back to reveal how far she's strayed from the ideals of the grandparents who raised her after her mother died and her father vanished. Both were ace mathematicians and cryptographers: Her grandmother worked at Bletchley Park on cracking the Enigma code; her grandfather deciphered a manuscript that led to buried treasure, but refused to make use of it because the treasure lay in a wildlife preserve. He left the secret to Alice, who at "Thought Camp" finds herself increasingly repulsed by the shallow values of most of her fellow employees, who think that "no dress code, no rules and no set working hours" means they're free, when in fact they're as trapped as the workers who actually produce Popco's stuff in dangerous Third World factories. Thomas passes along a lot of surprisingly interesting information about math and cryptography, plus some highly creepy material on toy marketing, as she connects her heroine with fellow rebels and suggests an alternative to mindlessly feeding the corporate desire machine. The conclusion may not be terribly plausible, but it provides apleasing happy ending for morose but oddly lovable Alice-and a form of revolt that suits her wised-up, yet not entirely cynical, generation. Thomas has always been a sharp observer and deft creator of character; it's a pleasure to see those skills employed in the context of a strong plot and stronger point of view. Thought-provoking fiction for the Digital Age.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.87(d)
890L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 Years

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.

Meet the Author

SCARLETT THOMAS is the author of PopCo and The End of Mr. Y. She has been nominated for the Orange Prize and named Writer of the Year by Elle UK, one of the twenty best young writers by the Independent, and one of the Telegraph’s 20 best writers under 40.

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PopCo 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 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!
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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