A Review of Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema

Al Billings

Pirate Cinema

I recently managed to score an advanced reader copy of Cory Doctorow’s upcoming young adult novel, Pirate Cinema. This comes out in early October, so it will be a while yet. Cory has been on a kick writing YA novels for a couple of years now. I believe Makers was his last adult-focused book but both For the Win and Little Brother were YA oriented (and did an excellent job at it as well).

Pirate Cinema is a pretty unabashed polemic piece along the lines of Little Brother. The book blurb reads:

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 too 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….

I enjoyed this book a bit and I’m going to leave this review spoiler free, for the most part, given that it is three months until the book comes out. My main criticism of the book is two-fold. The first criticism is that this book is largely a rehash of arguments that Cory has been making for years about video (and other forms of) piracy on the net. If you’re a reader of Boing Boing and have read any of Cory’s pieces on video piracy, Youtube policing, or remixing culture, you’ve heard most of the arguments that are presented in fictional form in Pirate Cinema. In that sense, as a regular reader of his work, I kind of felt “Yeah, yeah, I know this point…” a lot while reading the book.

The arguments weren’t really new and the presentation was not particularly subtle. When the main character has horrible things happen to him or people he knows in response to the draconian privacy regime that his government has set up in concert with Hollywood studios, it is exactly the kind of worst case scenarios that we hear on Boing Boing and other outlets in response to the industry sponsored anti-piracy law of the week. It is painted in broad strokes and kind of hits the reader over the head with the clue bat repeatedly. That isn’t to say it is bad but it is pretty overt and presented as very black and white. The media guys are unrelentingly bad. In fact, I don’t think that there is a single positive portrayal of them in the entire book. They’re all clueless, money grubbin’, and evil, out to put poor kids in prison, etc. in order to protect their outdated business model and profits. The portrayal of government insiders, similar to Little Brother in parts, is a mix. You have the ethically bankrupt members of parliament and their parties willingly bought and sold by the movie industry and then you have the few, slightly less compromised, ones trying to do the right thing but in a compromised situation. They have a little more “gray” in them but not much for the most part. Almost without fail, government types, especially older adults, are largely either clueless, bought and sold, or just ineffective. The political activists, who are older, are helpless against blocking the horrible laws as they get worse until the kids take direct action and rally the populace.

All a bit polemical and not terribly nuanced. That said, it wasn’t badly done and it is good page turner. Cory Doctorow is an excellent writer, by and large, and knows how to craft a good story.

My second criticism is a bit more of a subtle thing (what I criticize, not my criticism itself, which is blunt). It is related to the above comments in a way. The criticism is that the world and the lives of the characters in them is not portrayed very realistically. On finishing the novel, this left me a bit frustrated. Trent, the main character is a runaway from a nowhere town in the north of the UK. Without giving much of a spoiler (it is the beginning of the book!), he spends an entire, single, night on the rough streets of London before finding a positive change in his fortune. While the kinds of things that happen to runaways to the big city are mentioned in passing, Trent never sees any of this directly. He meets good people. He’s unmolested. The bums and locals are friendly. Heck, even the drug dealers are friendly and leave him and his friends alone. It is like an ant-gritty version of a runaway story. Rather than strung out on heroin, beat up by the local predators (he is homeless after all and all of 16), or similar, it is all glossed over and presented in a positive light. This kind of tone is presented throughout the book, which is written in the first person (with a character that “sounds” a lot like Marcus Yallow in Little Brother). This may simply be that this is a YA book but I’m not sure that Cory really writes “gritty,” when I reflect on his earlier books. While people get beat up (for being gay even) at one point, anything violent or dangerous happens out of the direct perception of our viewpoint character. I think this detracts from the book.

If this was a movie, along with not being a very realistic portrayal of the life of homeless kids fighting the government, I’d say that it lacked tension. Little Brother had most of the same issues that I discuss above except for the fact that our viewpoint character witnesses violence first hand and is waterboarded in the first person, along with being imprisoned. The fact that horrible things are directly happening to Marcus and his friends in that book gives it a lot more tension and makes it more gripping. In contrast, Trent’s biggest issue is legal. No one is threatening him physically, ever, in the entire book. He may go to jail for his pirate activities and his activism but it is all kind of dispassionately presented. He’s never really terrified of it and you never really believe it is going to possibly happen. Without the threat of personal harm, either physically or in the sense of actually going to prison, the whole legal thread just kind of goes without being immediately present.

Reading the above, you’d probably think that I don’t like the book or think it is horrible. I don’t. Most of this criticism is that I was hoping for a better and more gripping tale than what I read. This is a good book, just not a great book. For people, especially teens, not well versed in the arguments around pirating movies (or other digital content) or the various proposed (and successful) draconian legal responses, I think that this would be a pretty good introduction to it. The characters are likeable and well written. The sex (of which there is much more than Little Brother) occurs “off camera” so the library associations and schools won’t need to necessarily ban the book for “showing” a little reality of what it is like to be a teen.

Would I recommend this to my adult friends who are very active online? Maybe. It is a quick read and enjoyable. It isn’t Makers though and that was the most gripping and best written of Cory’s novels in my opinion (and which I still recommend to people involved in hackerspaces with me).

Give this to your teenager or maybe your college kid and I think they’ll enjoy it but realize that it really is written as an anti-corporate, pro-sharing/remix culture piece and it isn’t terribly subtle about it. If you’re already a fan of Cory Doctorow’s, you’ve already heard all of the arguments in it.