Eastern Standard Tribe

Cory Doctorow‘s latest SF novel, Eastern Standard Tribe (also available for free download), doesn’t reimagine utopia as Disneyland, as his previous novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, did. Eastern Standard Tribes is more mundane, and set closer to the present.
Indeed, the only even slightly futuristic technology in EST is the “comms”: an integrated mobile phone and PDA with extreme ease of use, desktop-worthy memory and storage, and ubiquitous fast wireless access to both the phone system and the Net. Something, in other words, that has already been conceptualized clearly, though with details that haven’t been worked out yet in practice.
In essence, therefore, EST is a novel of the almost-present, and it reads well as a light, zippy satire on the high-tech yuppie culture of techno-savvy “road warriors.” The book is funny and ultimately upbeat: I don’t really see any irony in its celebration of user-friendly tech and entrepreneurship. Nonetheless, the plot does turn upon betrayal, something that clues us in to the naivete and limited understanding of its likable narrator/protagonist.
Doctorow, like William Gibson and Sofia Coppola, sees jet lag as emblematic of the postmodern, globalized condition. The novel’s title refers to the fact that the narrator’s associations and allegiances, for both work and leisure, are with people in eastern North America (New York, Toronto, Boston). This means that he has to keep himself and his schedule on Eastern Standard time (GMT-5), so that he can remain in real-time touch with his friends (through phone and online chat on his comms) even when he is somewhere else in the world entirely (like London, where much of the book’s action unfolds). The resulting clash between local time and Eastern Time wreaks havoc on his circadian rhythms, and he stumbles through most of the novel in a kind of haze, oscillating unsteadily between excessive alertness and extreme fatigue.
What makes the book work overall is Doctorow’s sly sensibility. He throws out ideas with a prodigality that is only matched by their understatedness. It’s easy to read right through the novel’s suggestions and scenarios, and only realize retrospectively (if at all) how clever and crazy they were. And that’s what gives this book (like Doctorow’s other fiction) its alluring and refreshing affective tone: things often seem ever so slightly off, or empty, or not quite real, but in a pleasing, displaced sort of way. Eastern Standard Tribes does not have any overt references (unless I missed them, which is a possibility) to Disney and Disneyland (objects of Doctorow’s self-confessed obsession), but the feel of the book conveys a strange hint of what it might be like if a Disneyesque, blandly feelgood sensibility were deployed in the service of offbeat eccentricity, instead of (the Disney Corp.’s actual) normative values.

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