Cory Doctorow seems to be on a political mission with his fiction, much of which explores the politics of the digital age, and technology enabled potential for abuse of state power. Like many of his recent books, Pirate Cinema is aimed at the young adult market. This time round we’re looking at copyright, which mainly involves questioning whether illegal downloads are actually illegal and so on. It’s a very topical issue, and the author adds a nod in the acknowledgements to “the copyfighters who stood up so brilliantly to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA in 2012 and made me feel, for a moment, like some of my book was coming true”. No questions about relevance then. So, should you give it to the teenager in your life, and will they read it if you do?
In Pirate Cinema we’re 20 or so years in the future and copyright laws are out of control. Trent, a 17 old from Bradford, obsessed with making video mashups of his favourite filmstar, gets his family’s internet cut off after repeated illegal downloads. Unable to bear the problems this has caused for his family (the internet is now an indispensable part of life, and the ban means that his father can’t work, his mother can’t book treatment for her dodgy leg, and his sister can’t complete her school assignments) he jumps on a bus to London. Luckily he falls in with a wily homeless guy and the two break into a disused pub and declare squatters rights.
Bar a few run-ins with the law (like being raided for stealing electricity) life is good. Trent (now going by the name of “Cecil’) and his friends make ‘epic’ feasts from about to expire food they find in the skip behind Waitrose. They get invited into the inner circle of a counterculture internet forum which organises amazing parties. They tap the grid and get free electricity. Trent even manages to get himself a girlfriend, who is into politics and turns him on to the digital rights movement.
“I realized that somewhere out there, there were gleaming office towers filled with posh, well-padded execs who went around in limos and black cabs, who lived in big houses And whose kids had all the money in the world, and these men had decided to ruin my family for the sake of a few extra pennies.”
The squatters take on the establishment, and a high stakes battle ensues as the big bad media guys try to put Trent in prison.
Cory Doctorow is a prolific writer. Pirate Cinema was released in hardback last October (this is the paperback release), and his latest book Homeland is already out. On his writing process (via the FT)
“I figure out how much time I have to write a book. I figure out how many words I need to write. I convert that into a daily rate and I write that many words every day come hell or high water.”
It shows a little: if you’re looking for flaws, there’s a lot to criticise. The teenage narrator’s monologues sound far too mature for a school dropout from Bradford. There are frequent lapses into American English (the Bradford copper who says ‘have a nice day’). The main technical points are explained rather crudely via conversations between the characters.
Perhaps more importantly, Pirate Cinema raises some important issues but it doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. Trent maintains his creative lifestyle by living in a squat, freeloading electricity and scavenging for food in skips. The (very valid – don’t I sound old?) questions of his parents about his future are never addressed. Doctorow himself appears to be living the dream – his books are available for free download via Creative Commons licensing. But then he also runs one of the world’s most popular websites so presumably his other activities would allow him to write books for free. So, definitely no answers here from anyone hoping to make a living from creative pursuits. But maybe my expectations are too high – it is fiction, after all.
Any cop? Pretty typical ‘young adult’ fiction: pacey writing, not much literary subtlety. On the other hand, it makes you think, and makes potentially boring ideas a little bit cool. I would have loved to read this as a teenager.