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Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow, Tor, 2004, 223 pp.

Eastern Standard Tribe is Cory Doctorow's second novel, following the well-received Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and a short story collection called A Place So Foreign and Eight More. Eastern Standard Tribe is an excellent novel but fairly short; the story is hampered by a lack of depth, the wrap-up feels short, and what could have been interesting characterization often suffers from wild swings in consistency. Doctorow's writing is smart and his ideas intriguing, so the book promises more and leaves the reader wanting more than can be delivered in such a short space.

Art Berry is a user-experience expert, and his job mainly consists of puncturing received wisdom about how things are done. As he says later in the book:

"It's all about being an advocate for the user. I observe what users do and how they do it, figure out what they're trying to do, and then boss the engineers around, getting them to remove the barriers they've erected because engineers are all basically high-functioning autistics who have no idea how normal people do stuff." (174)

Art can break through these barriers because of a knack that he has for the task. It certainly sounds like a satisfying way of working, but Art is desperately unhappy in his current job in London. He's actually allied with the tribe of the title and he is on a secret assignment of sorts to undermine Greenwich Mean Tribe, mainly by suggesting ideas to his current employer that sound plausible but are bound to backfire. His co-worker Fede, also an EST member, is ostensibly helping him; it's not much of a spoiler that Fede is out to undermine Art and his tribe -- Art says so in the framing story.

Art is currently locked up in an insane asylum near Boston and he's looking back on events in the past few months of his life and how he ended up being committed. He had a promising idea and was sold out by Fede and his new girlfriend, Linda. Doctorow's version of a meet-cute is to have Art hit Linda with his car, and the relationship mostly goes downhill from there. The bitterness in the description of Linda's manic-depressive approach to dating is partly due to Art's status as a mental patient, but it's also a function of the too-speedy pace of the book. Linda's ups and downs are glossed over without much explanation, and her betrayal is painted as inevitable, leaving Art as the chump for falling for her in the first place. The other characters in the book, such as a sympathetic doctor in the asylum or Art's grandmother, were cleanly written, but the major characters definitely needed more room to breathe.

The near-future sf novel is a notoriously tricky gig to pull off. Eastern Standard Tribe is set in 2012, and Doctorow mostly succeeds at portraying this time period, relying on a light-hearted tone that carries the reader along. He unfortunately feels the need to give us a massive infodump in the middle of the story (reminiscent of the dismaying amount of information in the middle of Stephenson's Snow Crash), on the topic of Art's tribes, how they developed, and the rivalry between the time zones. Slyly, this in the mouth of Art as he's talking to his therapy group, most of whom are too drugged to comprehend what he's saying. And the group therapy doctor, not too closely in tune with realities of fast-moving tech culture, is thoroughly convinced that Art's ramblings are further evidence of mental instability. Secret time zone tribes, locked in a world-spanning game of sabotage and competition... how paranoid!

Meanwhile, Doctorow's speculation about handheld devices called comms that everyone uses in the book feels right on the money. The comm can do almost everything current PDA-makers would want their devices to do, and it becomes an ingrained part of everyday life. Art for one feels naked and isolated without his, and in a funny/disturbing scene near the beginning of the book, can hardly stand to let Linda touch his comm. Art is clearly an early adopter, so some of the advanced features don't feel too early for just eight years from now. I'm not so sure about some of the other bits of progress mentioned in Eastern Standard Tribe, such as fartmobiles. On the other hand, the insane asylum near Boston feels totally retrograde; Doctorow uses this backwardness as a way of giving Art a happy ending (his user-experience brain has a lot of time to analyze the pitfalls of the institution) but hopefully medical science has more breakthroughs in treatments for mental health than is portrayed here.

Eastern Standard Tribe is a book that promises more than it delivers. If Doctorow's next novel runs to a few more pages than this one, it could definitely be a standout.

Last modified: March 25, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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