PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: PopCo

Author: Scarlett Thomas

Type of Book: Fiction, cryptography, veganism, mystery

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Like the works of Chuck Palahniuk, this book can be seen as a gateway odd book. While a bit strange, it is not wholly odd but for the right reader, it will open all kinds of odd doors. For some, a mere mention of the Voynich Manuscript is virtual assurance of hours spent in a very odd world.

Availability: Published by Fourth Estate in 2004, it appears to be out of print and in the “bargain book” stage. However, you can still score a new copy online:

Comments: A few years ago, I ran a blog called Ghostroses, a terribly unfocused journal wherein I just wrote aimlessly about whatever topic came to mind. I reviewed some books over there, too. This month I noticed that I was getting some hits on IROB from a cryptography site. I was never able to pin down any entry here that would ping the interests of a cryptography enthusiast, but I ended up reading that site for a couple of hours because it focuses heavily on one of my favorite unsolved mysteries: the Voynich Manuscript. If you have time, check the site out. It’s quite interesting. As I read, I remembered the long discussion I wrote five or six years ago about PopCo, a book which discusses in depth cryptography in general and the Voynich Manuscript specifically, though briefly. No idea why I have visitors from a cryptography site now (hello and welcome!), but I am pleased I remembered this old discussion, because I really liked the book a lot.

Since I am preparing for Bizarro Week and spent far too much time fielding some unrelated nonsense on this site, I am behind on my discussions.  So I decided to edit (and in some places gut) my old discussion of PopCo.  It was interesting to realize that I was just as verbose back then, and that despite not having a brain cut out for the hard logic and mathematics of cryptography, I am not quite the dilettante I thought I was, as my interest in the topic persists to this day. Or maybe I am just a persistent dilettante.

At any rate, this book covers a lot of ground – media and marketing studies, mathematics, cryptography, veganism, toys, and social resistance.It is interesting for me reading this discussion because I wrote it not to discuss a book but rather my reaction to a book, which may seem like a specious distinction given my still intense, personal reactions to books. But in this review, I was just regurgitating how this book affected me and didn’t talk enough about how the book was excellent outside of my reaction to it. Like any personal blog entry, this is just a discussion of my life – it just so happens that this one is shaped around a book. Still, even in this somewhat disjointed discussion, I hope I convey what a fabulous book this is.

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas is one of those books that is a revelation. Every now and then, I come across a book wherein I know the author’s ideas and beliefs line up so well with mine that it is very nearly eerie. PopCo encapsulated so many of my own thoughts that I likely annoyed everyone around me as I recommended this book to one and all, even going so far as to purchase several copies at a book clearance store so I could give copies away.

PopCo is hard to categorize. While the heroine, a certain Alice Butler, solves two mysteries, she also contemplates veganism and the ethics of marketing to children. She discusses her knowledge of homeopathic medicine, crossword puzzles, high level math, cryptography and cryptanalysis, and the Voynich Manuscript. Her attempts at developing her own identity ring truer to me than any other coming-of-age descriptions in recent memory. And far from finding her childhood with her grandparents boring, I wondered what I would be like had I been raised by genius, eccentric grandparents, and found the prospect attractive. Alice has within her head the Vigenère square, Gödel’s code and prime factorization in the same manner as I have the world’s best chocolate chip cookie recipe memorized. Alice is self-contained, cool under pressure, utterly geeky and wholly earnest – in short, a heroine unlike anyone I have ever read before.

The plot deals with two mysteries and has a wide cast of characters but still manages not to be labyrinthine, which is a good thing because for most readers – myself emphatically included – the math and codes will be hard enough reading. Yet Thomas manages to explain methods of cryptanalysis so well that I now can break any simple letter shift or replacement code within seconds. For people who are not as inculcated in ideas of anti-marketing and veganism, there may be passages that feel a bit preachy, but I’ve begun to think that simply using the word vegan is seen as preachy to some.

Alice Butler’s mother died young and her father left her behind with her maternal grandparents in order to pursue his avarice (she assumes her mother’s maiden name when left behind by her father). Alice is raised by her grandparents, a mathematician grandmother and a grandfather who is a cryptanalysis expert. While her peers were raised on television, Alice was learning about the Voynich Manuscript and prime factorization. Her grandparents treated her intellect as a given and never acted as if she were too young to explore her world intellectually.  As a result, they sowed seeds in her that permitted her as an adult to vindicate their own intellectual pursuits. The intellectual respect she was given as a child gave her the stability as an adult wherein unusual situations do not alarm her.

Alice’s grandfather managed to crack the code behind one of the greatest encryptions ever, the fictional Stevenson-Heath manuscript, a map that leads to billions of dollars worth of treasure. However, he does not want to announce that he has made the discovery because he knows the treasure was buried on an island that became a bird sanctuary. If he reveals what he knows, the island is sure to be ruined by treasure hunters. However, he longs to show that he did, indeed, crack the code. Mr. Butler was unfairly denied a place decoding German communications during WWII and cracking the Stevenson-Heath code could vindicate him. So instead of revealing that he cracked the code, he sets up a method by which his granddaughter Alice can one day show that he did, indeed, break the code, hoping that one day the world would know of his feat without destroying the bird sanctuary. He teaches Alice various methods by which she can decode and encode messages, using some esoteric math that as I mentioned above is oft-times difficult for a lay reader in math like me to understand. He also gives her a locket with a number on it, a number that Alice believes will help her crack the Stevenson-Heath code.

After her grandfather dies, Alice is recruited by PopCo, the third-largest toy maker in the world. Once on board, she creates code breaking and investigative toys for children and is eventually invited to stay in the country with the company CEO and some other employees in order to find and market a toy for older girls, a hard demographic to crack. While at this company retreat, Alice finds herself confronted with a lot of new ideas and the realization that some of the ideas, if she adopts them, will make it hard for her life to go on as usual. But she is also being sent encoded messages that she has a hard time understanding the motivation behind. She senses something going on under the surface of some of her coworkers and as she strives to discover what it is, she finds herself shedding old friends whose values are at odds with hers, finding a new world operating under the surface of the so-called real world.

Before I begin my gushfest explaining why PopCo made me happier on a personal level than any book has in a very long time, I want to get my sole, big criticism out of the way and herein lies a potentially big spoiler, so beware:

I was mildly annoyed by the ending. I truly hoped that the numbers on Alice’s locket would be enough for a devoted reader with a lot of time on her hands to crack the mystery. Then, through the book, I learned about prime factorization and realized that it could take forever and plus some to prime factorize 2.14488156EX48 (which is 2.14488156 x 10^48). This crushed me, because I truly thought that once factorized, the number would yield a Dewey Decimal number for the book that would contain the original source material that she would need to crack the Stevenson-Heath code. Of course, given the amount of time discussing the Gögol code, I should have known this would hold the key.

But I can be forgiven for not seeing this from a mile away because Alice herself does not see it. And to be honest, even after reading the ending about 20 times, how Alice managed to discover what it was her grandfather was trying to tell her and how she reached the solution is still unclear to me. I’m pretty proud at how much math I managed to absorb, and how many methods of cryptography and cryptanalysis I can still recall after reading the book, but the ending is only clear to me minutes after reading it and then it falls away like sand between my fingers. All I can say clearly is that while this ending is not an unfair, red herring sort of ending, it was a bit of a letdown that all of the math that this liberal science grad learned for the first time was not needed to solve the puzzle.

End of criticism. Let us now begin my unadulterated praise.

Scarlett Thomas created a character in Alice who defies a lot of the heroines on the literary landscape at the moment. She is contrary, which is not uncommon, but she is contrary not to show spunk or kookiness, but rather she acts as she does when she is younger because she is trying on many different personalities to determine which one fits best. But there is also the sense that Alice was fated to be a contrarian. There are many examples of this, but one of the best are her deliberate attempts not to fit in despite the fact that on a very basic level she could never fit in if she tried. When a mode of dress she likes becomes vogue, she drops the style just to remain outside the herd and nothing sets her teeth on edge as much as the hipsters she works with, whose affectations are for her baffling because they rely on a group identity that reacts instead of simply acting.

But Alice, for all her sense of being an outsider, is not alone. After spending a lot of time with people who are glib and unthinking, she finally finds her values replicated in other people, though not overtly, and finds a way to act upon her contrarian beliefs. I long for the day that happens, when a group of people finds me and says, “Hello, you can come home now.” No arguments over political minutia, no endless quarrels in cyberspace, no pointless infighting – just a sense of a common goal and a means by which to pursue it. Of course, I know this place exists only in fiction but at the same time, there have been moments in history when hidden people band together and change the world without a lot of pointless drama. Maybe it will happen again soon. It is a hopeful thought.

But Alice’s contrary nature is interesting because even as she sets herself apart, her mind remains open and she listens to new ideas, even as they may seem completely anathema to her natural way of doing things. When her new lover Ben explains why he is a vegan, her first impulse is to ask the questions most vegans likely hear when discussing their nutritional choices, the tiresome what do you eat if you don’t eat any sort of animal products? Instead, she thinks about what it means to be a vegan and realizes that Ben is brave to make such a hard choice in a world like this and tells him so.

This, when juxtaposed to her friend Dan, a man I disliked from the beginning (what sort of man invites a woman to his home, watches porn with her and then tells her he’s gay when she makes a pass at him?) shows the dichotomy between her old friends and the new people she meets during her group brainstorming session in the countryside. She and Dan discuss the fact that some of the toys PopCo manufactures are made in places where slave and child labor are likely used, or if the workers receive wages, they are exploitative. Dan truly thinks that it is better for people to earn a dollar a day than to earn nothing, and that concessions have to be made to the market economies in order for businesses to compete. Therefore, to him it makes perfect sense to use sweatshop labor in China to sew toys for children. He even says that if the workers found the situation objectionable, they could refuse to take the jobs. Alice thinks about the notion of real choice and realizes that the only choice is exploitation or starvation, which is no choice at all, but she knows by then that Dan will be unreceptive to the idea. Watching Dan flip through a magazine, she sees ads for products made in the third world, probably 90% of them made by slave labor and she wonders how it is that this way of living, with so many goods made so cheaply, could ever have seemed like a good idea on a sheer ethical level.

Does this sound preachy? Well, if you are a free-market über alles type, you may want to give this book a miss, but then again, maybe you shouldn’t.

In another conversation with Dan, Alice bites back at the notion that there is something wrong with her for not understanding or caring about social references from childhood born by pop culture and media. Dan mocks what he thinks Alice’s childhood was like because she had no television. Explaining what she did as a teenager, Alice says:

“I read a lot. I helped my grandfather with his various projects. I learnt how to compile crosswords…”

He shakes his head. “So basically you were the most boring teenager in the world.”

He’s joking but suddenly I feel angry.

“So, at age fourteen, your spare time would have been filled with what? Saving the world? Talking to aliens? Being a spy?”

He doesn’t seem to know if I am joking or not. “I don’t know. When I was fourteen, I think I just watched loads of cool stuff on TV.”

“Oh right. TV.” Now I really am cross. I can’t help it.

“What? What’s wrong with TV?”

“TV fools you that you’ve had a life you haven’t had. Don’t you know that? At least I had a life, even if it was, as you say, boring.”

“God, settle down, Alice.”

“No. I hate it. All that retro stuff that’s around at the moment. Remember when we all watched that thing on TV in the seventies and it was so ironic? I don’t even know what any of it’s called because we didn’t have a TV. It all just seems to be this stupid nostalgia for something that never existed in the first place. Just shapes on a screen…”

The conversation ends with Dan trying to assert that books are just words on pages and it was then that I knew two things:
1) Dan and Alice would not be friends at the end of the book; and
2) Alice would find it hard to continue at PopCo, a place where television tie-in and commercials for toys tied Alice, however indirectly, to a medium she loathed.

Alice’s revelations about the people around her and different ways to look at the world continue apace. In a conversation with another character called Chloe, Chloe tries to explain how people manage to do things that seem odd and continue doing them even when they analyze their behaviors:

“Have you ever heard of cognitive dissonance?”

I shake my head although the phrase is familiar.

“It’s the idea that your brain has trouble processing certain things,” she says. “For example, say you belonged to a cult that believed that aliens were going to arrive on Earth tomorrow, and you’d believed that for thirty years. Tomorrow when the aliens don’t turn up, what do you tell yourself? Do you say, Ok, I must have been wrong all these years? Maybe you should, but you can’t: You’ve had such a big investment in the idea that they’ll turn up. In fact your whole identity is based on it. What you experience at that moment is cognitive dissonance, as your brain rejects the idea that your life
has been meaningless. To overcome it, you tell yourself a story that you want to hear. You tell yourself, for example, that the aliens didn’t come because it was raining. Or that your calculation was wrong and they’re actually coming in ten years’ time. Well, some radical psychologists have applied this to meat-eating consumer culture. They’ve found that people tell themselves stories to make themselves feel okay about doing the things we have to do to be ‘normal.’ People
tell themselves animals have happy lives before they are slaughtered, for example, or that the third world slaves are happy. And it’s very hard to take those ideas apart, because people have so much invested in them.”

(Edited to add, the above paragraph is certainly interesting in light of Harold Camping and the Family Radio Christian cult’s belief that the world would end on 5/21/11. Camping just re-defined what the Rapture means because, obviously, not to do so would be to give lie to his entire life.)

This conversation was quite illuminating to read. It helped me put into perspective a lot of things that come up when living in a place like Texas. This is a place wherein it is hard not to be a Republican, Christian meat-eater. When I first wanted to become a vegan and discussed it, I thought that the negative reactions I garnered were similar to the subtle sneers ex-smokers give to those who still gather under the business building eaves at lunchtime, frantically inhaling before work begins again. I don’t think I understood the role of cognitive dissonance really until Thomas spelled it out.

With meat all bets are off in terms of most rational discussion. Even discussions with the nicest vegans put people’s backs against the wall because it is an either/or proposition. You either eat and wear animals or you don’t. And if you make such a choice for ethical reasons, those around you who hear your reasons behind the change and may find some truth to it find themselves frantically trying to defend a way of life that simply talking to you forced them to defend. You cannot choose between Southern Baptist, atheist, Mormon, Islam, etc. like one does in religion. Some people try to be a bit more ethical by choosing so-called free-range chicken and hormone-free milk, but when they learn about the real lives of free-range chickens and that any milk purchase supports the veal industry, again they find themselves in a position that their intellect may not be able to defend so they turn to emotional responses.

So cognitive dissonance sets in, even if the person you are talking with is not trying to convert you or demean you. Your intellect hears the evidence, but your emotions feel frayed because most people don’t like causing harm to animals but most people like eating them. Suddenly, an action you have engaged in for your entire life is being called into question and the first response is to defend it (and that Alice does not fall into this trap when contemplating Ben’s veganism shows what an amazing heroine she is).

In the past, I considered vegans a bit extremist and still consider some of them annoying. That’s life. Some vegans, Christians, or former smokers are annoying. Some are not. Some vegans are asshats who write books about veganism where they manage to show a complete lack of sympathy where the addiction process of certain foods are concerned and then go on to trash Sandra Bullock to show, you know, what indie thinkers they are. Some are quiet, thoughtful people who change their lives and then find themselves being screamed at when they are asked why they don’t want cheese on their pizza.

This all sounds very heavy, doesn’t it? Thomas could never have predicted where a reader would have gone in an analysis of a conversation in her book, but the book, even when discussing cultural morality, never reads like a shrill screed. The conversations in which these ideas are shared are natural, and the longer the reader stays in Alice’s cool, analytical, but ultimately moral head, the calmer we feel. It all makes sense, suddenly, the madness of life and that there is possibly a way out is the ultimate reward for reading the book. Add that all of this is a part of a larger mystery, a mystery aside from Alice’s quest to solve the riddle of the Stevenson-Heath manuscript, a tight mystery that hinges on this information, and one finds the sense of being preached to almost nil. And Alice manages to solve both mysteries. She learns who is sending her coded messages at the gathering in the countryside, messages meant to test her, and she redeems her grandfather’s life work without threatening an endangered natural habitat. Alice is sort of an intellectual super-heroine with frizzy hair, a love for William Gibson and more in her head than I will ever be able to cram into mine.

Without delving into non-fiction, I read few books that echo my own belief systems. This book came into my life during a time when I was a bit low. I had lost the last three cats I rescued to disease. We managed a feral colony of forsaken cats and a dreadful disease (FeLV) wiped out the colony and spread to tame cats. I write this reaction to PopCo the day after rescuing another cat and finding out he was too sick to be saved. My copy of the book is battered because it spends a lot of time in my purse, going with me various places, fished out when I want to re-read  a certain section. This will not last much longer, this attachment to the book, but it still helps me and it helped me after having to put to sleep a betrayed, abandoned, terribly ill cat last night.

This morning, with the dead cat still fresh on my mind, I opened the book and it fell open close to the back. My eyes settled on this passage:

“Look, it’s a seal!” Esther said suddenly. We all look. Sure enough, there is a seal playing in the water. We all keep completely still as the seal’s smooth, brown head emerges from the water and looks around.

“Hello,” I whisper.

“That is the most beautiful thing,” Ben says.

Then the seal is gone, gone deep into the cove and possibly out to sea.

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