PopCo by Scarlett Thomas (Shane's book 28, 2011)

Not long after the success of Thomas's The End of Mr Y, PopCo appeared in the shops, complete with a similar looking cover. I assumed it was her next novel but in fact PopCo was published first. [amtap book:isbn=184767335X]

That shows once you start to read it. PopCo is less sophisticated than Mr Y and Thomas either has trouble marshalling her material or has simply not yet developed a sense of how to balance a novel.

The End of Mr Y was essentially a fantasy novel, albeit one that took place in a world that is recognisably our own. PopCo, which dabbles in cryptography, mathematics and virtual worlds, is a novel about science.

Its heroine, Alice Butler, works for an international toy company, PopCo. She develops spy kits for children. Butler's grandmother was a mathematician who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and her grandfather solved a centuries-old code pointing to hidden treasure but refused to tell anyone where the treasure was.

After a team-building weekend at a remote country house, Butler and a few of her colleagues are asked to stay behind to work on a special project. The team is expected to develop the ultimate product for teenage girls. As Butler works she becomes disillusioned with her job and grows increasingly uncomfortable with the ways that her company markets its products to children.

Though it shares some themes with Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, PopCo is not in the same class. It reminded me more of Harry Potter. Like Harry, Butler has no parents. Her mother died when she was a child and her father disappeared. The country house in which Butler finds herself is not exactly Hogwarts but there she meets a gang of quirky friends, they take lessons together with a range of teachers and a kind of mystery develops.

Butler's 'classes' are the weakest sections of the book. Her teachers explain the concepts that Thomas wants us to understand. The vast information dumps drag and unfortunately they aren't limited to Butler's teachers. Her grandparents, in flashback, offer long explanations of codes and maths and her friends explain virtual worlds and vegetarianism.

The most cringe-inducing moments come when the narrator explains homeopathy and Bach flower remedies. That these bonkers ideas are given the same weight as the other concepts in the book when neither one has ever been proved scientifically is disappointing and serves to undermine the reader's faith in everything else. If Butler believes in homeopathy then I'm inclined to think she's a gullible fool. Why would I trust her judgment on anything else?

That point becomes significant when, towards the end of the book, Butler discovers anti-capitalism. It seems to be a fairly naive, shallow version of anti-capitalism. It might be possible to believe that Butler has come to see a way out of her corporate existence but Thomas doesn't really convince me that that is the case. Given Butler's belief in homeopathy, I'm more inclined to see her anti-capitalist ideas as another placebo.

It's quite a messy book. Thomas packs in lots of threads and ideas that she fails to do anything with. The homeopathy and vegetarianism stuff, for example, has no real relevance to the story. It just seems like Thomas wants to preach a little. The disappearance of Butler's father is left unresolved too, despite being referred to so many times that I was convinced it had some significance to the outcome.

Part of the problem here is that there is no great tension at the heart of the plot. Butler is a woman who realises she doesn't like her job very much. That's it. Everything else is just smoke and noise that Thomas deploys to create the impression that there is something more going on here. Unfortunately, there isn't.

PopCo is a straightforward read and though it has its moments, it's a waste of time.