Pirate Cinema is Cory Doctorow’s latest YA. I’ve previously read Little Brother – Doctorow’s most well-known novel – a 21st century 1984 that sees a bunch of kids tackle a surveillance state. The book is an instruction guide to online security – it works for you and how it can be used against you. The book looks at current issues, specifically the security measures that can abuse our basic human rights. Pirate Cinema is a similar format but a different issue, exploring the future of digital copyright but all wrapped up in a YA escapade.
Doctorow’s well known as a blogger, journalist and activist for liberalising copyright laws. It’s a subject I’m interested in and I always enjoy hearing what he has to say. His novels are enjoyable because you reading something entertaining while learning something applicable to you and the tech savvy world we’re living in. Saying that, Pirate Cinema wasn’t as strong as his previous work and sometimes the teen story wasn’t enough to mask the agenda behind it.
Trent McCauley is sixteen, brilliant, and obsessed with one thing: making movies on his computer by reassembling footage from popular films he downloads from the net. In the dystopian near-future Britain where Trent is growing up, this is more illegal than ever; the punishment for being caught three times is that your entire household’s access to the internet is cut off for a year, with no appeal.
Trent’s too clever for that to happen. Except it does, and it nearly destroys his family. Shamed and shattered, Trent runs away to London, where he slowly he learns the ways of staying alive on the streets. This brings him in touch with a demimonde of artists and activists who are trying to fight a new bill that will criminalize even more harmless internet creativity, making felons of millions of British citizens at a stroke.
Things look bad. Parliament is in power of a few wealthy media conglomerates. But the powers-that-be haven’t entirely reckoned with the power of a gripping movie to change people’s minds….
Let’s start with Pirate Cinema’s YA adventure. Trent is a very average teenager from Bradford whose only real passion is creating mash-up videos based mainly around Hollywood idol ‘Scot Colford’. Illegally downloading clips for his videos gets his entire family kicked off the internet, severely handicapping them in a near future that functions mainly online. Unable to bear the guilt, Trent chooses to run away to London.
Trent spends a few days realising that London is shit scary and being homeless isn’t cool but miraculously manages to create a vibrant new life in the big smoke (I would be far less successful). Meeting up with “Gentlemen of Leisure” Jem, a modern Artful Dodger he soon manages to find his feet and create a merry band of misfits friends. The gang find an abandoned pub and claims it as a squat while eating like kings from Waitrose’s finest skips. Most importantly they steal an internet connection and Trent can complete his films and show them to the world.
There is a lot of fun in the story. Trent’s homeless lifestyle holds a hipster glamour that is enticingly idealistic but would probably fail in practise. The boys sleep in the day and party at night finding cinema screening in Cemetery’s and underground raves in the latest hidden venues.
Conflict comes in the form of the Law and the ‘dark powers’ influencing it; the suits of the giant media corporations who decide Trent is the perfect pirate to make an example of. There’s also a girl, some drinking, some drugs and basically an average teenage kid growing up.
The book as a vehicle for Doctorow’s message serves well but could use some work to stand alone as a great novel. This is Trent’s ‘coming of age story’ and some of the book feels rushed or forced, particularly some early moments of his relationship with Twenty Six and the awkward reunion with his parents. I also feel Doctorow has some stock-type character traits that he doesn’t deviate from between books. For example, his characters consistent love of hot sauce… Not EVERYONE loves hot sauce.
It’s definitely worth reading to challenge your opinions on copyright. Pirate Cinema sets some provoking questions. Are Trent’s mash ups any less creative than filming from scratch? I think a lot of DJs would have a strong opinion. Not to mention the fans that dedicate hours to fan art, fan meme’s and fan fiction. The book also shines a light on internet privacy and gives you some more home truths in the wake of the PRISM scandal. I am a little disappointed that the book oversimplifies a complicated issue. The argument for copyright is completely one-sided in Pirate Cinema which I find hinders, not strengths Doctorow’s convictions but in general he puts across an interesting case.
In conclusion, much like its protagonist, Pirate Cinema is a little clumsy but endearing enough to be loved.