Meet Trent. He lives in the near future, in Bradford. He likes to remix old films, but in order to do this, he needs to download them. Illegally. Meet Cory. He writes books and although comes from Canada, lives in London. He likes people who remix his books, and lets people do it from his website. Legally. And so the scene is set.
Pirate Cinema is a Young Adult novel by Cory Doctorow. Or more accurately, it is a call-to-arms. It is a manifesto and I imagine Cory hopes every teenager reads it for its political messages. But what of its story? So Trent’s hobby ends up with his family having their internet connection cut meaning his Dad can’t work, his ill Mum can’t claim her benefits and his younger sister starts suffering at school. He runs away to London where adventure – pirate adventure – awaits. Trent finds himself squatting in an old pub and making remix films under the name Cecil B. DeVil. He meets a girl called 26 and his gang – who includes Chester, Rabid Dog and Jem – is called the Jammie Dodgers. Trent’s mission – and that of the reader – is to learn about copyright law and how the big corporations and the government use it to make the rich richer and put the poor in prison. Trent’s adventures include creating a literal underground cinema, dealing with his runaway sister, being filled a lawsuit and pulling off his greatest stunt while trying to get a law repealed.
There are some nice touches of science fiction that take the plot a little further into the future than just tomorrow, such as hats that zap mosquitoes with mini-lasers (which perform a useful function later in the book). Doctorow has an excellent knack of taking today and extrapolating it forward a few years.
Doctorow’s greatest talent, however, is creating stories about potentially dull politics stuff – internet piracy and copyright law in this case, and making an eminently readable book. Pirate Cinema has loads going on and is the very definition of a page-turner. The characters are all interesting and different and you quickly care for them. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to make technical stuff fun to learn about. He knows how to make his point. Which is one of two issues with this novel that need highlighting.
The first is that this is a polemic. Doctorow is known for his liberal views on internet piracy and copyright. Odds are, if you’ve read his books or his blogs before, you’ll already know his politics and this won’t be anything new or surprising. If you disagree with his point of view (and this reviewer doesn’t), you might find that you quickly tire of being lectured to. There is of course, nothing wrong with a shouty, preachy, science fiction book. Many of the best ones are. But they are also subtle or nuanced. This ain’t. The problem with Pirate Cinema is that everything comes too easy to Trent.
Which is the second issue. Ok, so he’s a genius, but when this story begins he is an underage runaway who arrives in London with no knowledge and no friends. But everything comes easy. Within a short time of arriving in London he finds himself in a gang of equally talented, cool, smart friends. They dine on the best free food and spend all day perfecting coffee. He meets his dream girl and they quickly fall in love. When he needs something, such as a new bit of technology, or a way to avoid being kicked out of the squat, someone turns up at the most opportune moment with his solution. Whenever he screws up, everyone forgives him. At one point, he gets nervous and leaves a meeting just before its raided, so he doesn’t get arrested, but all his friends do. And it’s fine. They all get out of jail quickly and no-one minds he didn’t share their troubles. Whenever you expect 26 to berate him or point out his flaws, she just kisses him. There’s a lot of sexuality in the story and for a young adult book, again, it all comes too easy for Trent. He gets his first kiss with 26 and then they have sex, and soon after he discovers two of his friends are gay and that plot thread ends with everything just fine, and there is no toll. There is no struggle, especially considering most of the characters are homeless and misfits. Drugs are fine. Not having money is fine. Nothing he does ends badly. There is no sense of peril or real difficulty, so you know that in the end, despite all the barriers that Doctorow throws at him, he will succeed.
There is, to be fair, a bit of a downer coda, but even that, you feel, will work out ok in the end.
Despite all that, I thoroughly enjoyed Pirate Cinema. It was fun. As I was reading it I knew its flaws and failings and I knew it would end well. I expect a lot of disenfranchised teens will enjoy it too, as well as existing fans of Doctorow. I doubt, however, it will appeal to anyone else. Nothing is genuinely earned by the characters and there is no honest counter-balance to the story.
First posted on Geek Syndicate