Review: PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

UK book cover of PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

ADVERTISEMENT: I use Grammarly’s grammar check because I’m too busy with my own work to constantly check my boyfriend’s essays!

I love Scarlett Thomas and her books, but there’s a definite quality scale thing going on. I absolutely adored The End of Mr Y, but then Our Tragic Universe didn’t quite seem to meet the same standard. I liked it, but not as much. It’s her style that just kind of works though – it doesn’t matter what she’s writing about, it always seems as though she’s actually inside your head, and because of that, I will read anything she writes.

Plot summary: Alice Butler has been receiving some odd messages – all anonymous, all
written in code. Are they from someone at PopCo, the profit-hungry
corporation she works for? Or from Alice’s long lost father? Or has
someone else been on her trail? The solution, she is sure, will involve
the code-breaking skills she learned from her grandparents and the key
she’s been wearing round her neck since she was ten. PopCo is a
grown-up adventure of family secrets, puzzles, big business and the
power of numbers.

Okay, so that’s fairly helpful – Scarlett Thomas’ books tend to ramble and go off on odd tangents, but there’s always an over-riding theme. The End of Mr Y was science based, featuring quantum physics and general mind-fuckery, and Our Tragic Universe was a slightly more gentle foray into books and literature. Well, obviously it is, because it’s a book, but it looks at the creative writing process and the storyline theories. PopCo is about code-breaking, as you’ve probably gathered, but there’s also a heavy rant focus on anti-consumerism.

That’s the kicker, really. It’s start off really interesting, discussing Alberti code-wheels, Bletchley Park, unsolveable maths equations… etc. It’s obvious that the story is going to be about ciphers and codes, which is great. But then somebody presses a button and it flips over into a slightly preachy rant about big companies and consumerism.

*bangs head on desk* I get it, I do. I completely understand why you might be concerned about product marketing or item quality, but that is not what this book is about. Well, it is. But it shouldn’t be. So there! Scarlett Thomas’ books touch on so many topics that I could happily deal with a brief interlude discussing why toy companies are bad, but this completely takes over the second half of the book. It’s not subtle at all.

In fact, not much of PopCo is. This was written just before the two books mentioned above and it’s kind of obvious. Her style is there and it’s wonderful, on the whole. It’s very…. real, I suppose. You’re taken inside Alice’s mind and it’s as if she was one of us – she doesn’t have ordered, logical, relevant thoughts like most first-person fictional perspectives. Instead, she goes off on tangents and reacts instantly to things the way we would. It’s what attracts me to the author’s books and in The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, it works perfectly.

Someone on the K table drops something and there’s a sharp crashing sound and then cheers and clapping. I thought they were supposed to be cool? You’d think they’d have sent out a trend-spotter to find a more interesting way of responding to a crash in a pub/restaurant/cafeteria. 

I’m not saying it’s ‘bad’ here, because it’s not. I still love the tone and how you learn a great deal of things you never knew you never knew. It’s just that she’s slightly less subtle about inserting these facts and stories into the narrative, and it’s especially obvious when it’s discussing a moral issue. It comes across as very in-your-face (which is, ironically enough, the title of another of her books). There’s a huge essay about Francis Stevenson, to the point where it may as well be non-fiction. It’s just dumped into the middle of the book, with no introduction hinting at why it may be relevant.

She does get better at this in her later books and develops a much less forced method of introducing you to relevant factual information. And you do learn a lot! PopCo touches upon video game censorship, homeopathy, virtual reality, protest groups… there’s an awful lot of research gone into this, as with her other novels.

The ending isn’t great either. It further demonstrates how the code-breaking aspects got swept aside a little as it’s very rushed. There’s a huge unsolved code and a big mystery with lots of drama and intrigue… but then it goes away with an ‘eh’ moment at the end.

I’ve done That Thing where I rant about a book I actually kind of like. I know I give the impression that I hated PopCo, but I really didn’t. I just resent being preached to quite a lot, especially when I’m not expecting it, and there were some moments where I made an attractive, screechy ‘Urrrrrgh!’ noise when I was told that people are saving the world by pouring Coke on their keyboards. Oh hey, I made the noise again…

The great style and prose does make this worth reading, although I’d really recommend starting with The End of Mr Y or Our Tragic Universe if you’re new to Scarlett Thomas.

Read my review of Our Tragic Universe or visit Scarlett Thomas’ website here. 


  1. David says:

    It's a while since I read it, but I sensed a more subtle point being made – Alice signs up for the "anti-consumerist" underground but if I recall correctly that seemed to entail almost the same habit – taking orders via messages secreted on billboards, working using the same methods as the advertisers and so on. It seemed to be saying that anti-consumerism might be as bad as consumerism – and where does that lead us?

    1. admin says:

      Yes, that's right. I understand what it was saying, but that doesn't take away the fact that I was annoyed with being preached at. Whether the author believes that message herself or not doesn't really matter – the long, ranty essays were still there! 🙂

  2. Ellie says:

    Hmmm, this still sounds interesting… I think I have The End of Mr Y somewhere (it made the Moving House cut thanks to you lot loving it so much!) but apparently I need to get a move on and read some of her other books too!

    You were contacted by Grammarly too, huh? It was the first (polite and personalised) advertisement request I've ever seriously considered accepting; if it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me! 🙂

    1. admin says:

      I'm glad TEoMY made the cull! Although if I'd found out, you'd probably have got another copy through the post with a note saying 'Read Me!' It IS a little odd, there's no getting around that, but it's so good 🙂

      Haha, that's pretty much what convinced me! I do like basic courtesy, but it's so rare in advertisement e-mails that I felt compelled to accept!

    2. Ellie says:

      I know! It had my NAME and a reference to ONE OF MY POSTS! I was quite impressed just because it makes such a nice change from "DEAR BLOGGER PLEASE DO ALL THIS SHIZZLE THANKS I HAVE NO IDEA WHO YOU ARE." 🙁

    3. Laura says:

      GUYS! I also got this advertisement request and they are very good at being all convincing and stuff… Hey, if we all just recommend it to each other, it's fine right? Cool 🙂

      ALSO I have still yet to read a Scarlett Thomas book, but I WILL because I own The End of Mr Y so… It would be foolish not to! Hehehe

    4. I also got this email and was tossing up whether to do it or not, but I think I will do it since everyone seems so cool with it.

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