Monday, March 13, 2006

book 15: PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

I loved this book. In a way I feel like it was written just for me; I don't often feel that and when it creeps up on me I am profoundly satisfied.

PopCo reminds me of two books I loved- Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson and Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. Ok, I didn't love P.R. but I really liked it. Cryptonomicon is set in a slightly alternate present as well as during WWII. It tackled the subject of the beginnings and ramifications of cryptography, especially its impact on the development of today's computers. It was written wildly, smartly and with love. Pattern Recognition was Gibson's step into the present and considering his more recent books (like All Tomorrow's Parties, which I can only believe was written at gunpoint and while suffering from dysentery), was refreshing imaginative and uncrappy. It was a great story focusing on how advertising can kill, with enough conspiracy hoo ha and hacktacularness to satisfy any genre reader.

(Deep Breath)

PopCo covers both of these topics and more. Familiar names pop up, Turing, Bletchley Park, Gibson himself in a nice radio homage I wish actually existed. The main character, Alice Butler, works for the third largest toy company in the world, PopCo. When invited to a crazy work retreat, she ends up getting sexed up and fucked up- about what her work means and what her small action do to the world. Deep y'all. But not stupid. PopCo takes corporation paranoia to an exciting and real place. Besides the SF-present stuff going on, there is a lot of wonderful character development of Alice. We see her as a precocious child analyzing Vignere squares and an introspective pre-teen with a list of prime numbers in her head but not the right nasty attitude to keep friends. Her angry teenagehood is not glossed over, but it is not fetishized as some sort of major turning point for her character, thank god. I hate that shit.

The ending feels a little rushed, but it is adequate. The option given for battling evil corporations is nothing that your average ADbusters reader couldn't pull out of their ass in five odorific seconds, but in some way that is kind of comforting.

What I liked best about PopCo was Alice. She is a smart character with recognizable contradictions, which feel organically developed-- not just tacked on for expositons' sake. She is smart enough to have an amazing job and knows her power, without becoming boring to read about. Her "quirks" feel like real interests, many of which I share. At first she seems a little blank, but like in life, the longer you stay with her the more fascinating she gets.

Read it, especially if you like long, complicated books that make you feel slightly smarter for having read them.

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