Thursday, September 20, 2007

Review: Eastern Standard Tribe

I've finished my second Cory Doctorow novel, Eastern Standard Tribe (ISBN: 0765307596). As always, he's released this novel under a Creative Commons license so it can be downloaded and read on a computer all as an effort to get you to purchase physical copies of the books he provides that way. Anyways, I read a hardcover edition, clocking in at 221 pages, but it's a rather large type, so I'm guessing that this novel is only around 50K words, amusingly enough that's near the same length as Catcher in the Rye. It's not a long book, but as always, quality rules over quantity. Anyways, here's the blurb from the dust jacket:

Art is an up-and-coming interface designer, working on the management of data flow along the Massachusetts Turnpike. He's doing the best work of his career and can guarantee that the system will be, without question, the most counterintuitive, user-hostile piece of software ever pushed forth into the world.

Why? Because Art is an industrial saboteur. He may live in London and work for an EU telecommunications megacorp, but Art's real home is the Eastern Standard Tribe.

The comm-instant wireless communication--puts everyone in touch with everyone else, twenty-four hours a day. But one thing hasn't changed: the need for sleep. The world is slowly splintering into Tribes held together by common times zones, less than families and more than nations. And Art is working to humiliate the Greenwich Mean Tribe to the benefit of his own people.

The world of next week is overflowing with ubiquitous computing, where an idea scribbled onto one's comm can revolutionize an industry. But in a world without boundaries, nothing can be taken for granted--not happiness, not money, and, most certainly, not love.

Which might explain why Art finds himself stranded on the roof of an insane asylum outside Boston, debating whether to push a pencil into his brain. Happiness or smarts? What's it going to be, Art?

Creativity and invention swarm off the page like hornets in this scathing comedy of loyalty, betrayal, sex, madness and music-swapping.
This blurb has a lot going for it, it tells us a lot of what this book is about: Tribes, industrial sabotage and betrayal. Not all of those are necessarily universal human problems, but we can understand them. Additionally, this blurb makes us want to read the book. It gives us the broad strokes of the novel, and leaves us asking questions which can only be answered by us reading the book. I think whoever was responsible for this, did a superb job on this particular blurb.

Plot wise, this is something of a meandering story. It begins about three-quarters to the end of the story, and we jump forwards and back through time as Art relates his story. Which is an odd choice as this is a first person story, so we have somewhat sudden shifts between first-person past and first-person present. Not a horrid choice by the author but one which it took me a moment to catch onto, especially since the book I had read directly previous to this one was Scalzi's The Last Colony.

The main character is Art, as the blurb indicates, is an user experience engineer. Basically, he's a genius who comes up with ways to make products better or worse. Art begins the story, asking the question if he should choose happiness or intelligence, as that is a choice he has given himself once he gets stranded on the roof of the asylum. Additionally, that question underlines the entire narrative, as Art's prime task in the story is learning that happiness and intelligence are not mutually exclusive concepts. Surrounding Art are a handful of characters that interact with Art as he learns the answer to his question. Primary among these are Linda, Fede and Dr. Szandor. All of these characters ultimately don't matter, except as they relate and react to Art. They don't have true character arcs, and we don't get any real character development for them.

The Major settings are various locales in London and then the asylum outside of Boston. Since this is a first person POV story, we don't have a whole lot of details. Which is both a strength and a failing of that POV.

Finally, we stumble onto themes, and it's here where I get to explain why I found the length of the book being close to Catcher in the Rye's length so amusing. Basically, this book reminded me a lot of Catcher, as its protagonist is a somewhat cynical, borderline paranoid who has some serious issues on folks being "fakes." He has serious issues with his friend Fede, even though he chooses to spend time with him, and this is another way that he's similar to Holden. Also like Catcher, there is a theme of what does it take to be happy. Both Holden and Art are searching for happiness, and more importantly, they're wondering why they're not happy. While this story doesn't have the sheer angst and literature-credentials that Catcher has, it also lacks the extensential angst of Catcher. Frankly, I have to wonder if that's not a good thing--the angst of Catcher in the Rye was almost enough to make me want a drink.

My final thoughts on the matter is that, though short, this was a fun read. I can admit that I've spent the past few years with my head in the sand, focused primarily on the books I had on my shelves and Star Wars, so I've missed out on this latest wave of new writers, people like Doctorow, Scalzi and Walton.

I was stupid.

This book is one of those that shows why.

In the end, I give it a 3.8 out of 4.

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