Tor, 2004, 221 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30759-6
By now, everyone connected to the SF field should be aware that Cory Doctorow is rushing on the scene like a demented man. His second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, will only add to his reputation. A jumped-up mix of fallible characters and five-minutes-from-now speculation, this is the kind of book you read in a single sitting and then browse over for choice quotes.
What if, on this ubi-connected globe, one feels more kinship to people living in another time zone? What if it’s just more practical to live online than offline, eschewing physical days for virtual ones set on the rhythms of your chosen “tribe”? In some fashion, the idea sort-of works: One can imagine Indian technological workers synced to their Californian managers (or vice-versa). Otakus can live “on Tokyo time” given broadband Internet access and plenty of Japanese friends. You can tie it with the “Global Village” concept without too much trouble. Where it fails the real-world test is when you assume that those “tribes” can start playing seriously dirty tricks on each other, or are anything more than arrangements of convenience. Then there are literal objections to the concept of “Eastern Standard Tribe”, as if everyone in that particular slice of time, from Abitibi to Bogota, was part of a homogeneous group. But that’s a lame objection, especially given that Doctorow adopts a satiric approach to the whole thing. Here, minor crime reporting to the London police will result in about half a day of inconveniences. Sony rentacops will tear-gas you without much of a due process. Legal advice can be obtained through an IRC channel. And so on. This isn’t real: Like many of his contemporaries, Doctorow reacts to the increasing strangeness of our reality by laughing at it.
Other objections are more serious: Eastern Standard Tribe is a very short novel, and leaving aside the cost/benefit ratio, the book suffers from a few dramatic shortcuts: Here, awfully convenient freak meetings drive the plot forward, with sometimes-annoying results. The ungraceful ending feels compressed in about half a dozen pages, with scarcely any place for resolutions. Is also feels like a more scattered novel than Doctorow’s debut Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Maybe it is time for him to start working on bigger things with tighter plots and stronger endings.
Still, this is far from being a disappointing novel: The structure of the book, as it alternates between a third-person flashback and a first-person “present” narration, is initially quite dazzling. (Unfortunately, it falters at the end, when the “present” is explained and the “past” starts being repetitive; we can figure out some plot points ourselves, thanks.) For techno-geeks such as myself, the type of nerd-core prose used by Doctorow feels natural, maybe even a natural extension of what we read on the net every day. There’s a strong identification to that particular brand of fiction… but some of the more specialized passages may very well be incomprehensible to the mundane masses.
Still, it’s hard to be mad at a novel that clocks in at nearly 200 pages per hour in a single sitting. The brisk style, amusing vignettes, take-no-prisoners approach to the future are all in good fun. While I’m not as floored by this novel as I was with Doctorow’s first, it’s still likely to end up as one of my top choices for 2004. Of course, it’s already making me look forward for his next novel.