Nothing about Cory Doctorows 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 ideasindeed, 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.
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 Tribes essays on these themes range from frustrating lumps of exposition, clumsily placed into the mouths of characters Ayn Rand style,
Another idea explored in the book is a variation on Rosenhans classic experiment, wherein merely showing up at a mental hospital with a vague and silly-sounding symptom (a voice in the patients 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 theyve 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-sketchedsomething Doctorow admitsand its clear that his real fascination is with ideas.
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.