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Eastern Standard Tribe

by Cory Doctorow

It is 2022 and Art, the tech-head protagonist of Eastern Standard Tribe, is on the sunny rooftop of a Boston sanatorium debating whether to drive a pencil up his nose. A homemade lobotomy seems like our hero’s only recourse, since his backstabbing colleagues at work have driven him into the asylum by stealing his ideas. The world is also too turbo-everything to get a handle on; life gets more money-driven and polluted and Net-dependent and chaotic every day. Art gazes down from the top of the institution and realizes that “if he were a cartoon character, he’d be the pain in the ass poindexter who is all the time dispelling the mysteries that fascinate his buddies.”

Art is an interesting protagonist – shallow enough that we don’t have to think about him too much but likeable enough that we’re glad he didn’t push the pencil. Art’s world is like ours, only more so: a teeming technosphere in which ideas, cash, and hopeful young trendies are moveable bytes in the schemes of multinational corporations. Art is surrounded by such urban equipment as phones that can do everything (comms) and coffee that never gets cold (coffium). For all the novel’s digital bubblewrap, there is a shaggy-dog story underneath – guy meets girl, guy loses girl, but gets to punch out his weaselly boss by way of compensation.

Cory Doctorow is a rapid-fire stylist – he (and Art) burn through ideas the way gadgets go through batteries. Art delivers breathless, spot-on rants on New Agers, the English, car sound-systems of the future. The novel’s only weakness is its superfluous central conceit, which involves warring tribes from various time zones. As the book blurb puts it: “Art is a member of the Eastern Standard Tribe, a secret society bound together by a sleep schedule.” But Doctorow is uncharacteristically clumsy about who these various tribes are, what they do, and how they affect the book’s plot. The future looks strange enough without the tribes conceit; readers don’t need an extra sprinkling of weird.