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I got to know about ‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas from fellow book blogger Bina. After reading Bina’s lovely review and some enthusiastic recommendation from her, I couldn’t resist reading it. I finished reading it a few days back. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

Here is the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

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 long-lost father? Is someone else 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 around her neck since she was ten.

PopCo is a grown-up adventure of family secrets, puzzles and the power of numbers.

What I think

‘PopCo’ is about a young lady, Alice Butler, who works in a toy company, who has had an interesting childhood spent with her grandparents and who has the secret to a treasure but which is in code. The sad events of her past (her mother dying young, her father abandoning her for pirate treasure, her schoolfriends being snobs and how she tries to be part of the ‘in-group’), the exciting events of her past (Alice learning about cryptography and cryptanalysis and mathematics from her grandparents and the interesting experiences she has with her friends), her experiences from the present (her experience of working in a toy company and the unflattering opinion she has about her employer), and the secret behind the treasure map that her grandfather was working on and the connection it has with the chain on Alice’s neck – how all these come together, form the rest of the story.

From my perspective, the two main themes in ‘PopCo’ are cryptography and Alice’s thoughts on the corporate world. There is a treasure story, a love story and a story of growing up which is woven along with these two main themes. The cryptographic and mathematical part of the book is quite excellent. Scarlett Thomas, mostly through Alice’s voice and sometimes through the voice of her grandfather and grandmother takes the reader through the science and art of cryptography and cryptanalysis – on how messages can be encoded and decoded, what are the strengths and issues with old cryptographic techniques and what are the new techniques prevalent today, and how codebreakers have been working across the centuries to pry the secret out of coded messages. On the way Thomas talks about the Caesar cipher, the Vignere cipher, the Enigma machine, the scientists who worked during the Second World War at Bletchley Park to break the secrets of the Enigma, about the genius of Alan Turing, about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, about the beauty of primes and about how the Riemann Hypothesis has been baffling mathematicians for more than a century now and about how proving it might put the whole security apparatus today (including computer security) at risk. There is a wonderful bibliography at the end of the book, which has some excellent reading suggestions on mathematics and cryptography like ‘The Code Book’ by Simon Singh and ‘The Music of Primes’ by Marcus du Sautoy.

The parts of the book which were about Alice’s thoughts on the corporate world were quite interesting. In some ways it looked like the views of a passionate environmentalist or an anti-corporate person who dislikes corporate propaganda and who bats on the side of animals, individual freedom, and workers in developing countries. Irrespective of where one stands on these issues, it is difficult to disagree with some of what Alice or some of the other characters in the book say on these issues. For example, one of the things that Alice says is that today most companies spend very less money in making a product (which is probably made in developing countries at rock-bottom cost with workers there being paid a pittance and not having much rights) while they spend a lot of money in marketing the product and in brand building. This is probably quite true in many cases, with a few exceptions. Another thing that Alice says is that to promote its products a company might operate websites which look independent and which give positive reviews about the company’s products, making potential customers believe that these reviews are independent. This also might be true – companies are ready to use any strategies to promote their products these days and don’t worry about the ethics of their marketing strategy. One of Alice’s friends says that cows are kept pregnant every year so that they continue to give milk and their calves are killed as soon as they are born. I was surprised and shocked when I read this, because I thought that cows always gave milk. But what the book says is logical, because it is a biological fact that only pregnant mammals and mammals which have recently given birth to young ones give milk. I will have to do some research on it and find out if this is true. Harassing cows so that they continue to be useful – this is a really cruel thing to do.

There are also interesting descriptions of how things happen in the corporate sector – on how weekend retreats happen, on what companies do to stimulate employees’ creativity during such retreats and inspire them to come out with new product and strategy ideas etc. If one has been to such retreats, one can identify with some of these scenes in the book.

I liked the character of the heroine, Alice Butler, and her personality traits – always rolling up a cigarette and smoking, trusting homeopathic medicine when she is not well, her attitude of not caring about money or growing up on the corporate ladder, her attempts to fit in with the ‘in-crowd’ in school and then discovering that she will always be an outsider, her relationship to her grandfather and her grandmother, her love for mathematics inspite of being a literature grad. I also liked Alice’s grandparents – her grandmother is a mathematician and is trying to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, while her grandfather is an unofficial mathematician and cryptanalyst himself, having fought on the side of the French resistance in Occupied France during the Second World War. Both of them inspire Alice’s love for mathematics and cryptography. Some of the other characters in the book are quite interesting – Ben, Alice’s new romantic interest, Chloe a colleague of Alice’s who is mysterious, Georges who is Alice’s superboss and a few others. But many of these secondary characters are not developed as deeply as the main ones.

I also liked the cover of the book – it looked like the book had been dipped in ink and the ink had seeped into the covers 🙂

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from this book.

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 would 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?

My hair doesn’t respond well to getting wet, and it doesn’t seem to enjoy becoming too dry either. It’s like a fragile hanging garden that I constantly have to tend to prevent it from wilting and dying.

‘Concept-driven’, ‘High concept’, and ‘Concept-led’ are forms of criticism that emanate from Richard Ford, Carmen the second’s boss. His role in the company is to come into Battersea every so often and trash all our ideas. ‘It’s got an intriguing feel,’ he will say. ‘But ultimately it’s too concept-driven’. Nobody has ever worked out what he means by this, or why it’s a bad thing. Surely kids’ toys are always concept-driven?

When the air hits my face outside, it is like an unexpected kiss.

People threw food away before the siege of Leningrad because they didn’t know what the next day would bring, and a few months later they were boiling up handbags for soup. You never know if you will wake up one day to find your mother dead or your father gone or that war has broken-out. You just don’t know.

‘Do you think that in a hundred years’ time we’ll all be living in these games, working in virtual industries buying and selling imaginary products, while some invisible underclass of people actually collects the rubbish and makes our food and does all the work in the real world?’

      Her question hangs in the air for a second and two. I am tempted to say that we already are almost living in this world…

This is called a power law, or is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Principle. What is the Matthew Principle? It is, of course : “for whomsoever hath, to him shall be given”, otherwise known as “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”.

Ben probably lives in one room in some inner-city house-share in Reading, with mouldy coffee cups and science-fiction novels in little piles by his bed, probably a mattress on the floor. All his possessions would probably sell at auction for less than Georges would spend on a meal. Why am I thinking like this? It’s almost embarrassing to find myself thinking like this. Surely the point of love is not simply to find two guys and then go to bed with the poorest one?

I always knew that bad things happen in the world. I am not an idiot. But my attitude has always been that just have to try to get through life, for as long as possible, without deliberately making things worse but, also, aware of the fact that you can’t make anything better. In the end, there’s probably no four-dimensional being watching us to see if we make the right choices. There is no judgement. You live your life and hope that you won’t be involved in any wars and then what? It’s all over, and you become earth.

…we all know that actual objects don’t’ matter any more. What matters instead is the logo, the idea, the lifestyle, the brand. Companies are now required to spend millions of dollars establishing this brand, paying sports stars and actresses to endorse it, paying marketing gurus to tell them how to make it ‘go viral’ and so on. How can they compete otherwise? Perhaps there really is nothing left over to actually pay to make the product. Perhaps that’s why the people who make it have to live in poverty, and why the materials are substandard and glue shows on even the coolest trainers. They pay only to make the label, nothing else.

She walks into the room, everything about her soft and somehow feathery.

I was thinking about the SF. The Supreme Fascist. It’s what Paul Erdos called God. It’s his version of the Supreme Being, I suppose. He said that life is a game that you can never win, because every time you do something bad the SF gets one point, but every time you do something good, neither of you score. The game of life is to keep the SF’s score as low as possible but however you play, it’s a game you can never win.

My skirts moves in ways I hadn’t ever noticed. When it brushes against my knees, the sensation is like being licked by a cat.

We sell the sort of attachment to objects and sentimentalism that means that a kid will run back into a burning house to rescue a toy rabbit, but Dad won’t swerve in the car to avoid a real one. That is the real power of brands, when you think about it. One rabbit has a label on its arse, another one doesn’t. You can love the one with the label and everyone accepts that. Risk your life for a real animal and people say you’re mad.

Of course, branding is traditionally what happens to animals, slaves, property. Now, of course, the mark is worth more than the object.

If someone worked out how to predict primes, the Internet would crumble in a day. There’d be no e-commerce, no secure sites, no credit-card transactions.

As I was driving up a steep hill, with fields on either side, I suddenly become aware of a strip, like a ribbon, of pale blue light on the horizon. At first I didn’t know what it was. Then I realised that this was the last part of sky that hadn’t yet been taken by the already impressive sunset : a baby blue sliver of day, which I could only just glimpse through the trees. At one point, when there were no trees, I saw it span the whole horizon; the day dying before my eyes, with blood everywhere. Then a hedge obscured it and the whole, tantalising scene was just gone.

      Higher ground. I had to get to higher ground. Instead of taking my usual turn-off, a downhill section like driving into the centre of a very deep bowl, I turned off randomly, pushing the car upwards, further, trying to find a place to look down on the dying sky. I had to see it; all of it. For some reason nothing else mattered and I raced against the clock to get up the hill before night-time reached critical mass and the sunset was gone. Finally I found the perfect viewing spot : an abandoned, darkened shell of an old burnt-out petrol station. Switching off my car headlights made all the difference. The sunset now spanned the entire horizon in front of me : miles and miles of sky. Behind me, it was already night-time. But I was like a furtive god up there, surveying the last long sliver of the day, still with its afternoon-blue set beneath not just oranges and reds but grey, black, purple : all these swatches of sky bruising and smearing together. You couldn’t draw this. You couldn’t capture any of this in a photograph. I had never even seen anything like this in my life. This was the sky ripped in two with its insides spilling out. Black silhouettes of trees and houses looked like burnt-out ruins set against the bright mess in the sky. I realised that I was actually sitting in a real burnt-out ruin, randomly, on my own, with no family left in the whole world. I started to cry.

      And it all made sense. The world was beautiful, even if people you loved died. In fact, if this sky was a kind of death, then maybe it wasn’t so bad. Was heaven in there somewhere, behind all those colours? This sky made me believe, for the first time, in heaven. It made me believe in heaven and ghosts and the afterlife in a way I had never imagined I could or would. This wasn’t an intellectual belief, with empirical proof or rational argument. This was a feeling of miracles and love and a vast, infinite future. This was a sky from fiction, and I believed in it, then. I believed in it all. If this was nature, then maybe nature was all right. Maybe death was as natural as this sky. And suddenly I didn’t need that brown veil any more. All I felt was hope; and the loss I felt about my grandfather’s death seemed to bleed away with the remains of the sky until I was sitting there in complete darkness with my face wet, unable to move.

Further Reading

You can find Bina’s review of ‘PopCo’ here.

If you are interested in Cryptography, you can try reading Simon Singh’s ‘The Code Book’. It is excellent. If you would like to get into the mathematical part of cryptography and are not intimidated by pages filled with equations, you can try reading ‘Cryptography and Network Security’ by William Stallings. It is a recommended textbook in its field.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘PopCo’. It is an intelligent novel on contemporary themes with a treasure hunt thrown in. You will enjoy it if you like reading novels based with secret codes.

I can’t wait to read ‘The End of Mr.Y’, Scarlett Thomas’ next novel, which according to Bina, is about quantum mechanics, Schrödinger’s cat, many worlds theory and other exciting topics. I also read in Wikipedia that Thomas’ first three novels were about an English literature grad solving mysteries. I can’t wait to get them too – they look so intriguing and they look like mysteries with literary clues 🙂

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