the Little Red Reviewer

Eastern Standard Tribe, by Cory Doctorow

Posted on: July 26, 2011

Eastern Standard Tribe, by Cory Doctorow

Published in 2004

where I got it: library

why I read it: I like all things Doctorow

 

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Meet Art.  he’s smart, he’s loyal, he’s naive, and he’s sitting on the roof of a mental institution thinking really hard about suicide.

Let’s back up a bit, and find out how he got there, shall we?  In this near future, the time zone in which you live defines your friends and your employers. Business never stops, and who wants to be doing conference calls at 5am because that’s when your employer is up? it’s so much easier to just work with the hundreds of millions of people who already populate your time zone and whose circadians already match yours.

An Industrial saboteur of sorts, Art spends his days offering bad advice to Western Europe, while at night developing software to be used for the benefit of his home tribe, the Eastern Standard Tribe.  To Art, his Tribe is more than just employer. To him, they are motherland and family. If only everyone was so loyal.

Art should have figured out something was up much much sooner. Meetings canceled, calls at odd times, his girlfriend acting really, really weird, but he’s just so damn naive. It never occurs to him that a tribesman would be anything but loyal to the tribe.

I won’t tell you exactly how things go from bad to worse to f’ing disaster, but Art finds himself the victim of a classic catch-22: he tells the doctors at the institution that his friends are trying to kill him (which they actually are), and the docs mark him down as paranoid and up the sedatives. He’ll maybe be released when he can prove he’s no longer a danger to anyone, at which time his “friends” will find him and kill him.  Sounds strange, but the gated institution might be the safest place for him.

But Art has never been about safe. He’s a “user interface” guy – the guy who studies how people are using the things around them, and sees how to make everything work better for the user. Incapable of turning his brain off, Art is the perfect guy to create software that people actually want to use, marketing they actually respond to, medical help they actually want to participate in.

One of Doctorow’s earliest novels, Eastern Standard Tribe isn’t the most polished of books. The flashbacks within flashbacks can get confusing, and while the ideas are brilliant at times, the execution just isn’t there. Reminds me a little bit of Stephenson’s Zodiac actually –  more style than substance, fast paced and faster talking yet bursting with undeniable potential.  If you are a Doctorow fan, I highly recommend this book, if only to witness the genesis of Makers and For The Win.  If you’ve never read Doctorow and this article has peaked your interest, I suggest starting with Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Makers, or Little Brother.

In many ways, Eastern Standard Tribe brought back memories of when I was in school for industrial design.   We were designing things, not software, but the concept of an interface is similar. We’d brainstorm until the coffee ran out, using anything within reach to create 3D models of our ideas. We wanted to design things that people wanted to use, that they intuitively already knew how to use. Why aren’t I doing that today, you ask? I  couldn’t handle the heartbreak.

Doctorow books are never easy for me to review. I’ve read most of his stuff, but have reviewed very little of it. Why, you ask? Because his books always punch me in the gut. They are always only a few months into the future, a future we’re on track for, a future I want to go to. And because it’s Doctorow, the character who has the best intentions always gets smashed to bits. It’s frackin’ heartbreaking. It’s great to be a user interface guy, or an industrial design girl, but it sucks when all everyone else is interested in is fattening the bottom line.

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5 Responses to "Eastern Standard Tribe, by Cory Doctorow"

I generally find it more difficult to review books that punch me in the gut, and I understand just what you mean by that because I’ve had authors do that to me before as well.

I haven’t read any of Doctorow’s novels. I’ve read a few of his short stories in the past although the names completely escape me. I do have a recollection of enjoying them. If I do get around to reading a novel of his anytime soon I’ll probably start with Little Brother. I heard so much about it last year that I cannot imagine not reading it at some point.

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If it’s like Stephenson, I really need to give this a go – though you say it isn’t polished, the initial concept sounds fascinating, and I’d like to see where he goes with it. Like Carl, I haven’t read any Doctorow either, so is this an okay starting point?

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Carl – He’s got a few collections of short stories out, I recently reviewed his “With a little Help” and his first collection I think is called “Overclocked”. Both are very, very good. Little Brother is excellent.

Jacob – it’s like really early Stephenson, nothing like Baroque Cycle. This isn’t a bad place to start by any means, it’s probably a great place because it’s a pretty short book. But if you’re underwhelmed or thinks to yourself “where’s the rest of the story??” know that Doctorow’s newer stuff is way better.

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I really need to read some Doctorow. I started one of his books once, but the library wanted it back and I still haven’t got it back to read it. Oops!

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For some reason I haven’t had much success with Doctorow’s books. I didn’t enjoy Little Brother because the protagonist irritated me and I thought the message of the book was way off (which probably has to do with my living in Israel) and I haven’t felt driven to finish For The Win, which I’m halfway through. It’s a shame because I really want to like his books and this one does sound interesting.

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