For the first 300 pages or so, this had become my favourite book. Reviews tend to involve a lot of hyperbole, but when I say this was temporarily my favourite book, that's the simple truth.
Let me start from the beginning. While it's wholly irrelevant, aesthetically the book is gorgeous. The page edges are dyed a rich, dark, royal blue and cracking it open feels almost decadent; certainly luxurious. The first few pages are a little disconcerting, inasmuch as, small font, narrow margins, no dialogue... it's a wall of text, and it makes it appear inaccessible. But as soon as you start reading, you've got through that and you're happily sitting on Alice Butler's shoulder while she tells her story.
The first half of Popco is like being in a room with rich, dark green or blue walls; dark painted floorboards; fabrics everwhere, lots of lovely strange trinkets on shelves and tacked to walls; old postcards and photos; jewellery hung from beaded lamps and the fugue of slightly stale, sweet dope in the air... too many things to look at and explore and your senses go into overdrive. Thomas draws you into that room *completely* and you find yourself chewing the inside of your cheek from the shock of reading something so full of texture and imagination.
We follow Alice Butler - toy designer and code-cracker - to Dartmoor; then we follow the story to Bletchley Park, then all the way back to British pirates in the 18th century; forward to chocobos in Final Fantasy VII and virtual worlds; back to the 1980s and a small house full of pure mathematics and the The Voynich Manuscript
, then forward again to the present day to an evil toy company conglomerate... back and forth we swing through time and Thomas never misses a beat.
It is a fiercely, frighteningly clever book. She goes into great detail regarding paradoxes, incomprehensible maths, probabilities, codes and how to break them. It's actually rather astonishing. The entirety of chapter 9, for example, is spent discussing codes, specifically the Vigenére code, and how to use it and on page 87 is an actual Vigenére Square. She pours detail and flavour into absolutely everything she writes about and it's incredible... until three quarters of the way through the book, at which point it becomes unbearable, and crosses over into preaching.
Veganism and homeopathy are the lifestyles she's pushing, and she pushes them *hard*. At first, it's alright - it's just one of many, many topics she covers. But then she keeps on, and on, and on. More pages about homeopathy (which, incidentally, is bunkum) and more preaching about the evils of eating meat, and dairy products.
I don't think I've ever been quite so frustrated with a book, as every drop of magic she'd infused the book with went away with the pontificating. It took about 40 pages of it for my adoration to turn into something far more disappointed and cynical and the last 80 pages or so became a chore to read. Given the majesty of the first 3/4, it's incomprehensible that it became so dreadful.
And yet, the bits that were wonderful were so glorious, the book as a whole still gets a high 4 stars. The words on those first few hundred pages are so beautiful I want to eat them. That's not something you come across very often and it should be cherished. But I desperately wish she'd kept the over-evangelism to herself. Large parts of the tail-end of the book are used to skewer marketing - and it's justified. But when she's simultaneously marketing her own lifestyle choices and borderline haranguing people into complying, it's also hypocritical. And it's a shame.