Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow (Review)

TL, DR: Come for the nerdy futurism and its pertinent analogies, stay for the like/hateable characters, their problems and their snappy dialogue.

Art is a member of Eastern Standard Tribe, a group of like-minds that have taken advantage of widely available instant communication to form an online tribe, whose common denominator is the Eastern Standard Time zone, its geography and culture. This tribe operates like a not-so-secret society or fraternity; where once you’d intern your frat brother, ESTribe tells us, now you’d intern your tribesman. Art is an industrial saboteur for EST, and in the politics and machinations of cross time-zone espionage, Art is doing his best to cover himself in glory… and avoid becoming collateral damage.

We meet Art on the rooftop of a sanatorium, in his underpants, considering the merits of a home lobotomy with a pencil. Soon, we begin to piece together how he got there, as Doctorow weaves together first person present-day sections about Art on the sanatorium roof, and third person flashbacks, which tell us how Art meets the love of his life. And ends up on a sanatorium roof in his underpants, with a pencil up his nose.

The novel continues apace, helped along by Doctorow’s snappy dialogue, which is ‘quippy’, but feels natural, like friends sharing banter, not characters trading stilted witticisms. It doesn’t take him long to build a complete world in 2022, filled with synthetic coffee — does the presence of coffium hinting this is the same universe as Walkaway? — and high tech comms units and bizarre fashion trends. Hello transparent, muscle-exposing skin transplants! Good bye, lunch!

Part of the appeal of Doctorow’s fiction is his ability to see what’s happening with current tech and extrapolate to a convincing future, and Eastern Standard Tribe is no different, but subverted for laughs, lampooning the technological bullshit we have to deal with now. No, that endless cookie policy and data privacy clickthrough you had to deal with to get at that website you wanted to read isn’t the product of piss-poor user experience design. It’s the work of industrial saboteurs, working to make the products of their enemies a misery to use.

Despite his questionable decision making and choice in romantic partners, it’s easy to root for Art; you’ll have to discover whether he makes it off the roof, frontal lobe intact for yourself.

P.S. How good is the new TOR cover? Right? That kind of design is my jam.

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow, second paperback edition published by TOR Books, 2018. Originally published 2004-2005 in hardcover and paperback.

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