Creating patterns in the air – Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo

I’ve been reading Scarlett Thomas‘s PopCo, originally published in 2005. My wife had originally read it and recommended her so I got it out of my local library (since if we don’t use them , then we lose them). I have her Our Tragic Universe to read next.

Alice works for PopCo as a creative. With her background in cryptography, drawn from her grandparents, she designs games based on spying. A team of the PopCo creatives are taken to the Devon countryside to work on a new toy or game in strictest secrecy. Meanwhile she begins receiving coded messages.

Like Hubertus Bigend’s Blue Ant, PopCo exists to market products virally, without it seeming as if this is happening. One of the underlying ideas is to create an ‘idea virus’, the idea that the each consumer is to believe that they are acting in opposition to the current  trend. The analogy drawn is the creation of clothes for  band which are then copied by the consumers. Meanwhile, whilst on tour, the band sell merchandising to their fans. Essentially the fans, knowingly or unknowingly, become part of the machine and are marketed to.

Between the onion skins of the novel, simultaneously layered and unpeeled, Thomas explores the world of the post-millennial world in the same vein as William Gibson. She references Neuromancer towards the end of book, especially with the Polish radio station who splice readings of the novel with music. I do wonder if she had read Pattern Recognition before writing her book as they tread in similar ground. Unlike the Gibson series, she does not quite track the full implications of her ideas and I did feel that the creation of NoCo slightly misses a trick. The messages are revealed from a group of would-be  culture-jammers and anti-corporate people who are trying to create a series of cells to subvert corporations. It does come across as a corporation in its own right though rather than taking the line that Neal Stephenson, Gibson or Cory Doctorow developed in terms of developing the idea of makers really creating change.

At the same time, Thomas virtualises the world as she brings in the idea of gold-farming in virtual worlds with the work of Kieran, who is the chief architect of PopCo’s activity in the areas. She expresses though, does not explore, gold farming and the way that gamers have been used by cynical corporations which Doctorow does this well in For the Win. She doesn’t quite get into the nitty-gritty of the consequences (though I am writing with a few years hindsight in this post).

It gets to what I think is the central point of this book, that the world at that moment was uncertain. It was not uncertain in the normal way but at the end of millennial freedom that might have begun with  the Seattle World Trade Organisation riots to 9/11 and the No Logo movement. It was uncertain and potential at a fundamental level which is explored through the maths and cryptography that Thomas employs in a style reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Cyptonomonicon, though somewhat lighter. According to her blog, PopCo is the final novel in the ‘Postmodernism is Rubbish’ trilogy ( She succeeds in showing the insanities and vacuities of the post-modern marketing world (something that Max Barry did in his novel, Jennifer Government (2003).

She comes to similar conclusions that Gibson does in that the world is more interested in manipulating its consumers in the chasing the new and more concerned with marketing rather than making. It marks, I think, that final moment before the Maker movement became better known.

What I have not worked out yet is how Thomas fits in with Gary Wolfe’s question regarding the sfness of sf (posed in his review of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and re-published in Sounds). I do wonder if she is an sf fan in the same way that Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon are in that it is part of her cultural make-up and it informs her writing. That is another post though…
PopCo (Kindle edition)

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