Eastern Standard Tribe - Cory Doctorow

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Eastern Standard Tribe
Cory Doctorow
Tor books
ISBN: 0765307596 (Amazon link)

This is the third book by Cory Doctorow that I've read, and it confirms Doctorow as an author that I'd like to like more than I do!

Let me explain.

I didn't really like Doctorow's first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, much at all. I thought he could write well but I found his ideas a bit facile compared to other authors in the same sub-genre and got annoyed by the relentless aren't-I-just-too-hip? [1] tone.

By contrast, I really enjoyed his second book, A Place So Foreign (And 8 More), which as the title suggests, is a short story collection. The stories were sharper, the writing more energetic, and I had much less of a feeling that the author was more interested in celebrating his own coolness than in entertaining me.

Given this mixed reaction to his past work, my reaction to Eastern Standard Tribe isn't surprising. I think I like Doctorow's writing, but generally I find he's writing stories which either just don't work for me, or which actively grate on my nerves. The central idea of Eastern Standard Time is a case in point - this novel is based around a supremely dumb idea. There are those of us who do not find ourselves living the midst of like minded people. For some of us in this situation, there are groups of people who we do identify with living in other parts of the world. Thanks to modern communications, we can communicate with these like minded people easily. In fact, it may come to be that we prefer to adjust our local time zone to match those of our faraway peers. Eventually, we may choose to band together in a Tribe, identifiable by loyalty to a Time-Zone, and perhaps carry out subtle cultural espionage in other time-zones, shifting the odds in favour of companies or groups in our own time-zone. (If you're in a bookshop, try pages 108-114 for the full info-dump.) This Is A Very Stupid Idea. Before I demolish it, let me say that it wouldn't take much mutation for this idea to carry some weight, and in particular, combining it with the core theme of Eric Frank Russell's classic Wasp would have resulted in something Very Interesting.

Why is it a stupid idea? After all, here I am, writing a quick scribble on a SF book to post to lots of people on Usenet. Don't you form my Tribe? Well, yes. That part is fine. However, it's not exactly SF, it's everyday. The important thing that Doctorow has missed here is that you lot aren't my Tribe, you're one of my Tribes. My Book Tribe. I have others. The second important difference is that I don't care where you live, or what time-zone you're in. Asynchronous communications is one of the defining human inventions! This leads to the third thing; I don't know where half of you live. In fact, in regards to book appreciation, my Tribe is very likely to be smeared across multiple time-zones. How then am I supposed to work for the benefit of one? In fact, why would I work for the benefit of one? Nope, the central premise of this novel is simply Dumb. As I've said before, Cory Doctorow keeps reminding me of someone reinventing Bruce Sterling, badly. Doctorow's idea of Tribes based on time-zones seems curiously insular and outdated compared to the older cyber-punk idea of the global village courtesy of electronic networking. Actual physical location isn't important, only interests and ideas. If I can abuse a Sterling title, Doctorow just doesn't seem to be a GlobalHead.

Okay, so the central conceit is flaky, what if we just ignore that? How's the rest of the book? Good. Very good. The writing crackles with attitude, and there are some very nice touches. There's no particular SF invention at work here, but there's a nice concrete sense of a working near-future, a sort of commercialised, realistic version of the cyberpunk future. Art is an interface expert, his role is simply making sure that people have Good Tools, tools that suggest their own use, that please the hand, that don't confuse the user, that actively improve the workflow they're involved in. It therefore follows that Art is a natural iconoclast and likes to argue, it's what he does best. It helps that he's a smart guy. So why does the novel open with him sitting on the roof of a nut-house, with a pencil up his nose, contemplating the merits of self-lobotomy in the service of happiness over smarts? (In fact, the choice isn't really much of a theme in this novel at all.)

It takes half a novel to discover how Art ends up on that roof. Eastern Standard Tribe is technically the most impressive of Doctorow's work to date, with Art telling his story in multiple flashbacks. I really enjoyed the structuring and pacing of the novel. One of the first flashbacks involves the second of the major characters - Linda. Linda is Art's girlfriend. They met when Art knocked her down and she talked him into sharing the windfall from an inflated insurance claim. So, there's a Boy and a Girl. There has to be a third person to introduce some tension - another Boy, Fede. Fede is Art's work-partner and a fellow saboteur for the Eastern Standard Tribe. Together they're working on some new music sharing schemes for private roads - DRM meets tool-booths and the idea of peer-to-peer networks. All very trendy ideas-wise, but I'd hate to think it's still an hot issue in another decade... If Doctorow is aiming to write SF, he's a failure, but if you read it as contemporary tech-news fiction, it's relevant and up to date.

Of course, what you have to remember is that Art and Fede actually want to make a complex disaster from their current projects, they're leading a (stupid) double life introducing stupid restrictions in to miscellaneous products to work against their nominal clients for the benefit of their own Tribe. I've already had a go at this idea, so I'll just note that it often serves as The Dark Secret in the three-way relationship. Art immediately is lying to his girlfriend, and living a (nerdy) double life. Never good. Of course, having a car crash which leads to having a girlfriend, and then being mugged with his new girlfriend has also led to tension between Art and Fede. Art is starting to find his role and their relationship a bit strained. Arguments ensue, things deteriorate, Art ends up on the roof of a nut-house telling his story.

While the layered unfolding of the primary narrative is fun, much of the colour of this novel comes from the detail of each episode. Unfortunately, for every good little throwaway detail there's a stinker. In particular, much of the novel seemed to get too much fun from the "Ha, ha, foreigners are funny." meme [1]. Having a American character in England complain about not being able to get good beef and joking about Mad Cows is curiously old-fashioned. That I might have over-looked as it's easily retconned by handwaving another outbreak in the UK while the US cleans up its act. More grating were the jokes about bad dentistry and the inevitable jibes about European social welfare. The idea that cultural saboteurs from the EST tribe were manipulating regulations to permit entire years of paid leave for lazy Euro workers prepared to game the system left a nasty political after taste in my mouth. This taste deepened when during the aftermath of the mugging, a key event in the plot, Art and Linda are subjected to an exercise in Kafka-esque bureaucracy in a police station. Such a scene is almost expected in this type of gently satirical near future SF, but what galled was the implication that Art's preferred North American police system was superior to the funny foreigners. [2]

There are a few other lazy scenes, where ideas seem hastily improvised - for example, why would a methane powered car explode when you throw a brick at it? I've seen quite a few gas-powered cars (not methane though) and they don't explode. Oh, wait, it'd look cool (on paper?) and emphasise that Art is superior to those who drive 'fartmobiles'. I might be unfair in that statement, but you see, I didn't like Art. As a character I found him aggravating, clever but not well adjusted, though I have to admit a perverse joy in his love of a good argument. Art's still much more sympathetic than his nasty girlfriend Linda, but then Art freely admits that she's crazy (although she's not the one in a nut-house), and Linda does turn out to be Bad News for Art in the end so you could argue our view of her is coloured by his biases.

That all sounds very negative. Annoying people sniggering at funny foreigners in the service of a dumb plot device? Doesn't sound like a good read. Well, as I said above, I really rather like Doctorow's writing even when he writes stories that I don't like. He's very good with words, whereas I'm not, so I will now struggle to describe what it is I admire. His writing is snappy, crisp, self-consciously smart - it's an anecdote being told at a very hip cocktail bar by one of the digerati. It's plain, direct prose, but delivered with energy and pace, and what's nice is that the author, generally as Art, talks directly to you as if you're one of the same hip crowd in that cocktail bar. Confident, breezy, clean, readable prose does a lot to compensate for the novel's other weaknesses.

Recommended? Not sure. It's certainly worth a read, and it's probably fairest to point you at the author's website, where you can freely download the entire text. I'd suggest using this as a sample chapter service, and then buying a physical copy if you enjoy the start of the story; only fair to make the author some money after all!

Maybe his next novel will be the one that works for me...

[1] Doctorow is co-founder of BoingBoing, and a typical day there should illustrate my point. The posts vary from the genuinely zeigeisty and cool, through the amusingly off-beat, to the downright pointless. Now, I'm sometimes all in favour of pointlessness, but there comes a time when you have to admit that pointing to a random slice of contemporary Japanese life isn't so much the act of a hip cultural commentator as low-brow sniggering at the funny foreigners.

[2] No, this isn't just offended patriotism. For a start I'm not English.

Posted: Sat - May 15, 2004 at 09:12 PM