Art is a secret agent, but not in the typical meaning of that phrase. He doesn’t represent a government, a military, or even a shadowy corporation.
Instead, he works for the best interests of the Eastern Standard Tribe, a band of like-minded individuals who share similar tastes and beliefs and have, in the tech-friendly near-future world of this yarn from Doctorow (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Feb. 2003), synced their lives together by matching their circadian rhythms. After all, what good is having all those people in one’s Tribe, sharing a certain East Coast kind of bonhomie, if you can’t all do it when everybody is awake and semisentient? In any case, the year is 2012, and Art is undercover for his Tribe in London, starting up a romance with high-maintenance West Coaster Linda (whom he met by hitting her with his car) and working on a deal involving car radios and music downloading that sounds like a cross between iTunes, Napster, and Sirius satellite radio. The details are a bit fuzzy, since, as Doctorow assures us early on, “In order to preserve the narrative integrity, Art (‘not his real name’) may take some liberties with the truth.” And, by the way, Art is also an unwilling resident of a psychiatric ward at a time that may or may not be simultaneous with the goings-on in London. The members of his therapy group don’t seem very interested in his theories on why Tribes developed (a fascinating little Malcolm Gladwell–esque essay in itself) and don’t really seem to believe that they exist at all. As in Down and Out, Doctorow shows here that he’s got the modern world, in all its Googled, Friendstered and PDA-d glory, completely sussed. Sadly, it’s another thing to translate this into gripping fiction, which this particular effort is not.
A near-future yarn that would have worked better as a piece of speculative nonfiction.