PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
Alice Butler has the enviable job of designing products for one of the world's largest toy companies, PopCo. She's designed kits called KidCracker, KidTec, and KidSpy, for kids who want to be code-breakers, detectives, and spies, respectively. PopCo is one of those "no-collar," ping pong table in the break room kind of workplaces, where the "creatives" are given time off to research ideas and paid monstrous wages to occasionally come up with something brilliant.
Alice is pulled away from her latest project to spend a few weeks in the country working with PopCo's best and brightest on designing some kind of killer app that appeals to teenage girls, a demographic with which the company has been bombing. Staff from every division from virtual worlds to plush toys come together for the project. As they engage in a variety of annoying marketing seminars and teambuilding exercises, Alice begins to realize that her job is less about creating interesting products than it is about successfully marketing them to children. Understandably, this creeps her out, as does the discovery that PopCo utilizes sweatshop labor and engages in outsourcing.
Throughout the book, Thomas works in a fascinating back story about Alice's childhood. Raised by her grandparents, one a cryptanalyst, the other a mathematician, Alice's early years are spent immersed in secret codes and axioms. Her grandfather is obsessed with cracking a particular coded message, possibly leading to treasure, that has stumped codebreakers for centuries. How Alice is drawn into this mystery, and how it links up with her work for the evil PopCo, is one of the most satisfyingly inventive plots I've ever read.
PopCo is one of those remarkable books that tricks you into learning about fifty things you'd never given much thought to before. You never realize in school how fascinating math is. What you get to do at the grammar school level amounts to plugging numbers into formulas without any consideration of the theory behind it (usually because your teachers don't understand any of it either).
When I was 17, I had a calculus teacher who could unfold a proof, and make it seem like a cross between a ballet and the best mystery novel ever. It was like I'd spent years missing out on the things math could do besides help with your taxes and balancing the checkbook. The way Thomas explains code and mathematical mysteries in PopCo makes me feel like I'm back in Mr. Taylor's class.
If you liked...: My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki or Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, this book is for you.