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Eastern Standard Tribe

by Cory Doctorow

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating


Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow
Tor, March 2004
ISBN: 0765307596

Nothing about Cory Doctorow’s second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, is as misleading as the end of the first chapter when Art Berry, the protagonist, says, ‘The theme of this story is: “Would you rather be smart or happy?”’ That may be a perennially intriguing question, but any claim the book can lay to answering it is subverted by the ending, which suggests that smarts can lead both to happiness and material success. Indeed, Doctorow seems to conflate these last two concepts.

This is not to suggest that Eastern Standard Tribe is not a novel of ideas—indeed, Doctorow writes the sort of near-future science fiction in which ideas overwhelm both story and character. One of the most important ideas that Doctorow raises is actually external to the text: in addition to being available as a hardcover, readers can download the entire text of the book for free from his Web site, www.craphound.com. Why make the book freely available? Partly in order to learn how electronic books will work in the future, but largely as a promotional vehicle.

Doctorow is betting that readers will download the book, take a look at it, and decide that they’d really like an actual printed-and-bound copy, perhaps autographed by the author. This strategy worked quite well for his previous novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, also available online. In fact, printing the PDF version of the book and reading stapled sections of it was a perfectly enjoyable way to read the text—it’s 128 8x11 pages, each of which encompasses two pages of text.

As with electronic publication, Doctorow uses Eastern Standard Tribe to explore ideas and flesh out their implications. The principal topic for this book is not the “choice” (if one exists) between smart and happy, but the development of group identity across a global information network: how do we make friends, build relationships, and learn to trust people who may be thousands of miles away, people we have never met? How deep do these loyalties run? How will this change our culture? Eastern Standard Tribe’s essays on these themes range from frustrating lumps of exposition, clumsily placed into the mouths of characters Ayn Rand style,
to brilliant chat-room sequences that ring true. Doctorow’s rendering of cryptographic credential verification is a cypherpunk’s wet dream.

Another idea explored in the book is a variation on Rosenhan’s classic experiment, wherein merely showing up at a mental hospital with a vague and silly-sounding symptom (a voice in the patient’s head saying “thud”) resulted in all eight test patients being committed. Once committed, these patients had little to no way of demonstrating their sanity, and were held indefinitely before being discharged for reasons every bit as arbitrary as their admittance. The present-tense storyline of Eastern Standard Tribe involves Art trying to demonstrate his sanity after being committed to the institution based on testimony from “friends,” who have in fact set him up so that he cannot interfere with a scheme they’ve hatched in the past-tense storyline.

If the plot sounds thin, it is; as in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the plot is there to force the characters into contact with a series of ideas. The characters are merely types, lightly-sketched—something Doctorow admits—and it’s clear that his real fascination is with ideas.
The question of Art’s fate and the breezy prose are enough to pull the reader through to the book’s disappointing conclusion, but no question is ever answered convincingly, not even “what happens?”

Books need not answer questions, if they pose interesting enough problems, or suggest new ways of experiencing the world. Eastern Standard Tribe straddles that line, but does so with humor and style; Doctorow clearly has one foot planted in the next decade, and the book is a joy to read. Is it worth spending $20 to read it in hardcover? Head on over to his Web site and decide for yourself.

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