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Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow
Tor Books, 2004. 224 pages.

Cory Doctorow isn't a person -- he's a phenomenon. Political activist, blogger, and general digerati-type tastemaker, Cory has the uncanny ability to see where the lines of hi-tech hipster culture converge and to settle neatly into the niche. As a result it's kinda easy to forget that his stock and trade is supposed to be science fiction. That changed last year, however, when Cory released a string of kick-ass fiction, including his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Given his high profile, it's easy to dismiss praise for Down and Out as a bunch of hot-air Cory fanboyism. But even after you strip away all the hoopla surrounding its creative commons licensing and the coolio plot premise, Down and Out is a tantalizingly good first novel from a talented young author with great things in his future. Unfortunately, Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory's follow-up novel, is not that great thing.

Down and Out, you may remember, chronicled the rise and fall and rise again of a young Canadian from Toronto transplanted to the US. Set in a world where all social arrangements run on a super-magnified version of Friendster, the slightly obsessive-compulsive protagonist pursues his tech-oriented raison-d'etre, only to be betrayed by his lover and his best friend. And what is Tribe about? Well see, the thing is that it chronicles the rise and fall and rise again of a young Canadian from Toronto transplanted to London. Set in a world where all social arrangements run on a super-magnified version of Friendster, the slightly obsessive-compulsive protagonist pursues his tech-oriented raison d'etre, only to be betrayed by his lover and his best friend.

It is forgivable that Cory -- a slightly obsessive-compulsive young Canadian from Toronto transplanted to the US -- writes protagonists who are like himself. Hey -- it happens to the best of us, right? The problem is that where Down and Out used this self-identification with the protagonist to good effect, Tribe reruns through most of the old tricks but without the same vavoom. In Down and Out Cory painted a futuristic world where the only commodity that was still scarce was approbation. Down and Out didn't just explore the consequences of this world in standard sci-fi fashion, it used it to tell us a little bit more about the meaning of friendship and trust in our here and now. Cory's reference to Orwell's tale of penury wasn't just cute -- beneath the glitzy imagineering of Down and Out was a dark, compelling tale and a plot which, although occasionally shaky in a first-novel kinda way, demonstrated a willingness to take risks which, in general, more than paid off.

Tribe, on the other hand, is less well integrated. The Friendster-future in this volume puzzles out what it means to live in one place when your friends are in another. As part of the Eastern Standard Tribe -- a group centered on the East Coast and its time zone -- our hero Art is constantly tweaking his London-based sleep schedule. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is a plausible or interesting idea. One thing's for sure -- it's not nearly as inspiring as Down and Out, which gave us the term "whuffie" as a unit of trust and agreement -- a term I (and a lot of others) now use in daily conversation to describe just-that-thing-Cory-put-his-finger-on. Tribe lacks an equivalent insight.

But even worse, the futuristic angle of Tribe is more or less superfluous to the book. Unlike Down and Out, where the plot and the setting were fused together -- indeed, drove one another -- the events described in Tribe could take place today, without all the fancy sleep deprivation stuff. The futuristic gizmos and IRC chat function as window dressing rather than key elements of the plot. Don't get me wrong. They are -- like Art's user interface engineering schemes -- interesting, fascinating even. But science fiction is at its best when it uses all the science to, well, drive the fiction (and vice versa). That was the case in Down and Out, but it's not in Tribe.

There are other differences between Tribe and Down and Out. Partly it's the prose style. Cory Doctorow is to Internet culture what Damon Runyon was to Broadway -- a keen observer who's mastered the idiom. Indeed, Cory is at his best when he's laying down smoking phat tracks of slangy ubertech geek speak. Tribes doesn't have cops, it has Sony's Vehicle Recovery Squad, "All dressed up in Vaio gear, stylish as a Pepsi ad, packing lots of semilethals and silvery aeorosol [sic] shut-up-and-be-still juice". It doesn't have pornography, it has "metric fuckloads of porn". This style was so breathtakingly insouciant in Down and Out that it makes your teeth buzz.

In Tribe Cory takes more risks. The dark, more literate, more literature-like side of Down and Out moves out of the edges of the book and towards the center this outing. It's risky and sometimes leads to a little bit of stylistic schizophrenia, but it's absolutely the right choice to make -- when it works. All of a sudden we get "she was a gleaming vision skewered on a beam of late-day sunlight that made her hair gleam like licorice" In Tribe, the shifts of register are a little uneven -- and Cory just can't seem to stop using the word "fart" -- but the richer prose, as well as more interesting structure of the book's flash-back/work-forward narration structure, is a sign of better things to come.

And speaking of women with licorice hair -- what is up with Corey and the ladies? Pretty much every female character in his books under the age of 60 exists mostly to have her breasts described, to be fucked, and then to betray the main character. Hello? I mean, I'm not advocating that every novel has to be an exercise in political correctness, but c'mon -- Cory falls here into the sort of unreconstructed pulpisms of a lesser genre of science fiction.

This, ultimately, is the problem with Tribe. Cory is hardcore sci-fi-aholic. You know the espresso snobs who are obsessed with coffee and won't buy anything but Jamaican Blue Mountain and grind and roast their own? That's not Cory. You know the coffeeholics who have to have a cup of joe in their hands all time no matter where it came from or how hot it is? That's Cory. You get the feeling he consumes China Mieville and pulpy Kill-the-BEM novels with equal alacrity. The problem is that he's just too good a writer to produce pulp, and when he lapses into by-the-numbers sci-fi gimmicks like heroines who are mostly pert tits and tight stomachs (the kind, as he reminds us constantly, "that you could bounce a quarter off of") you're kinda like: c'mon dude, knock that shit off and step up like I know you can. Because if there's anyone who can elevate that pulp sensibility to the level of transcendent art, it's Cory. If we're lucky (and he works hard) we may get from him the birth a Tarantino-like synthesis where the standards of the genre pull themselves up out of the ground to hover five feet above us.

But that's someday, not today. Tribe is not the book to do that -- to this extent we're still waiting on the promissory note that was Down and Out. The question isn't whether Cory can do it -- it's whether he'll get around to it. Tribe is a slender 220 pages even with a generous font size -- he still hasn't written a true novel yet. And squeezing out novellas between celebrity appearances on TechTV and the latest O'Reilly conference is not the best way to let loose your inner authorial Mephistopheles. My guess is that Cory will ultimately have to choose between being a phenomenon who writes, or a phenomenal writer. If he hunkers down and puts his shoulder into it, he could produce the kind of books that people will read 20 years from now -- another True Names or Demolished Man. But he may never notice if he doesn't. He'll still get nifty endorsements from All The Right People and his books will still get bought. But he'll ultimately be remembered as part of that oh-so-oughties in-joke that was the A-List bloggers. And let's face it, who wants to be remembered for their blog and not their books?

Eastern Standard Tribe is available on Amazon or as a free PDF download.

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dce / February 20, 2004 8:47 AM

Dammit: Give up the column, and people start - somehow - getting my ideas for articles . .

Your quite right about Doctorow's not having written a proper novel - he's more of a short story author along the lines of Harlan Ellison. And like Mr. Ellison's better works he manages to convey some astonishing ideas; even he can't write women, and his plots wear thin in places.

Take his recent collection of shorts - in it, he describes an alien technology of mechanical exoskeletal hardware. Standard stuff for Sci Fi buff (Riply in her Powerloader anyone?). But Doctorow adds an incredible dash of geek culture when he describes the suit as being scriptable. Macros are programmed for such tasks as entering and starting a car, allowing the wearer to move with lightening, computerized speed.

For anyone who screws around with AppleScript, it's enough to keep you up at night pondering the possibilities.

Good enough for Doctorow to enter join the ranks of Asimov, Clark, Bradbury and Le Guin? Perhaps someday.

But what Doctorow will be remembered for is simple: he's managed to give two books away over the internet. Thousands of his readers never actually purchase any of his work. And yet he's signed a multiple book teal with a prominent publisher.

He's on to something. Musicians, artists, writers, bloggers and businesspersons would do well to watch him closely.

Naz / February 20, 2004 9:01 AM

I still have Down and Out in a PDF somewhere on my hard drive - never read.

I liked this review, and found the criticism of descriptions pert tits and stomachs a good one. It's just something you'd notice if you used it more than once.

I recently read On Writing by Stephen King in which he describes the craft of writing. I then read his latest Dark Tower novel. In it, he described two moments as being "dolorous" not all that far from each other. It bugged me. There are some descriptions not worth using again.


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