Fourth Estate, £12.99
PopCo, by Scarlett Thomas
A feisty, zeitgeisty rage against the machine
Monday 16 August 2004
PopCo is a big, zeitgeisty novel that free-associates in the way that only cyberpunk science-fiction used to be able to do. It is such enormous fun, and so peppered with sharp observations and satirical jabs, that it gets away with editorialising patches, a certain hastiness of composition that has the heroine's age drop a couple of years between chapters and means Edgar Allan Poe's name gets consistently misspelled (again), and a home stretch which works better as a call-to-arms than the ending to a novel.
Scarlett Thomas's PopCo is a big, zeitgeisty novel that free-associates in the way that only cyberpunk science-fiction used to be able to do. It is such enormous fun, and so peppered with sharp observations and satirical jabs, that it gets away with editorialising patches, a certain hastiness of composition that has the heroine's age drop a couple of years between chapters and means Edgar Allan Poe's name gets consistently misspelled (again), and a home stretch which works better as a call-to-arms than the ending to a novel.
However, it's hard to resist a book which has so many good jokes and, furthermore, comes complete with a crossword puzzle, a list of prime numbers, a frequency chart for the occurrence of letters in English (bound to come in useful) and a recipe for "Let Them Eat Cake" cake.
The upfront story is about Alice Butler, a minor "creative" in a global toy company. Alice becomes more aware of her employers' ghastly ethics while confined at a Thought Camp on Dartmoor, under orders to develop a killer product to push on teenage girls. Slightly reminiscent of the cynical-neurotic-adorable narrator-heroines of Anne Billson's novels, Alice has a wonderfully realised voice. Thomas makes a great deal of her habitual paranoia and the elaborate mechanisms she has devised to circumvent encroachments by an as-yet unspecified "enemy". Bizarrely, these feed into the successful code, surveillance and spy toys that she has designed.
The think-tank strategies used at the retreat are compelling and credible, as are the sort of rotten things PopCo gets away with. We're supposed to despise the company mainly for employing abused third-world labour, but it's easier to be appalled by guerrilla-marketing trickery like the invention of a "mirror brand" - a non-logo range designed to appeal to kids who think they're too cool for the mainstream - or the backing of "unauthorised" fan websites.
Embedded in the story is a powerful and affecting account of the heroine's own childhood and teenage years. This accounts entirely for her paranoid mindset and present occupation, but also prods her towards an inevitable rebellion. There's a great deal of good fun about code-breaking, maths and (get this!) buried pirate treasure, for which it's worth putting up with infomercials for the vegan life and a long spell in which Alice is ill in bed.
If the heroine, her code-breaking grandparents, and the kids from her school years are vividly characterised, most of the other PopCo employees don't quite register. The boyfriend she picks up at camp is so nebulous that you expect him to be revealed as the villain, and when many co-workers own up to being in an underground movement, it's still hard to differentiate them from the genuine drones. PopCo doesn't quite answer all its mysteries - which will mildly annoy some readers, but enthuse others.
The reviewer's most recent novel is 'Dracula Cha Cha Cha' (Pocket)
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