Oct 2 2012 12:00pm

You Can Be Active with the Activists or Sleeping with the Sleepers: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

You Can Be Active with the Activists or Sleeping with the Sleepers: Pirate Cinema by Cory DoctorowTrent McCauley is a talented teenager: his main hobby, more an obsession really, is creating movie clips by downloading, remixing and reassembling footage of his favorite actor. Problem is, those movies tend to be copyrighted, which means Trent’s innocuous pasttime involves breaking the law on an ongoing basis. All of this goes well, until it suddenly doesn’t: there’s a knock on the door, and a policeman informs the McCauley family that, because of repeated copyright infringements, their internet access is being terminated for a year, effective immediately.

Now, because of Trent’s harmless hobby, his father can’t do his telecommuting job anymore, his sister can’t do research for her school work, and his mother can’t sign on to get her health benefits. Inadvertently, he’s ruined his family’s lives. Unable to deal with the shame (and the lack of internet access), Trent packs up and leaves his home town of Bradford for London, where he learns to live on the street and gets involved with various artists, anarchists, and activists. Meanwhile, Parliament is busy trying to impose even more far-reaching copyright laws.

Remember the part in Little Brother when Marcus Yallow briefly becomes homeless and gets a quick lesson on scavenging food and surviving on the street? Pirate Cinema considerably expands on this as Trent arrives in London and meets someone who has much more experience living on the streets than he does. For some time, the novel is essentially a fictional and very entertaining version of How to Survive in London on Zero Pounds per Day, but before long Doctorow brings us back to the message of the day: copyright laws, and why they’re wrong.

Trent is a typical Cory Doctorow protagonist: smart, tech-savvy, and sensitive. He enjoys the new sense of freedom and adventure as he gets more involved with political activism and the vibrant street scene of artists and squatters, but he also experiences several moments of homesickness. He genuinely feels bad about the mess his actions have created for his family. He misses his parents and sister terribly, something I found very touching in the midst of this wild adventure. There’s also a great romance subplot involving a fascinating character (who more than deserves her own separate novel) as Trent’s love interest.

Pirate Cinema is, as the cover proclaims, Cory Doctorow’s “newest novel of youthful techno-defiance” and yes, it’s true: there’s a bit of a pattern developing here. From Little Brother (tech-savvy teenagers take on a government-run surveillance system) to For the Win (tech-savvy teenagers take on unfair working conditions for MMORPG gold farmers) to now Pirate Cinema (tech-savvy teenagers take on draconian copyright laws), you could probably call this the Youthful Techno-Defiance Trilogy, if not for the lack of shared characters and settings and so on. They’re three YA novels with a shared theme: teenagers standing up for what’s right, using their knowledge of current technology as a wedge to crack open and change an unfair system.

If it feels that this is starting to veer closely to being formulaic, well - there’s maybe a grain of truth there, but it doesn’t take away from the fun and, more importantly, the relevance of these novels. Cory Doctorow writes about issues that many young readers will connect to, and he writes about them in a way that falls somewhere between a rollicking good story and a call to arms. He’s the Billy Bragg of YA literature: you know you’ll hear some great songs, but there’ll be a strong message mixed in there somewhere, at times more noticeably than others. There may even be a speech. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s simply part of the deal: these novels are equal parts YA adventure and socio-political commentary, and there are going to be times when the story takes a backseat to the message.

What’s really interesting about these novels is that they work much the way Trent’s movies work: they have a viral quality. You read them and you want to get involved. They’re a call to action. It’s hard not to see the relevance of a story like Pirate Cinema in an age when the Ustream broadcast of the Hugo Awards gets cut off midway for showing a brief clip of a nominated show. If my kindergartener was about ten years older, I’d definitely suggest these books to him.

By the way, if you are a parent looking for reading material for your offspring: like many of us, Cory Doctorow is well aware that teenagers have been known to have sex and experiment with drugs. Therefore, he doesn’t shy away from this in his YA novels. If that kind of realism offends your sensibilities, be aware. Personally, I can’t wait until my son is old enough so we can read and discuss these books.

If there’s one aspect of Pirate Cinema that occasionally grated a bit for me, it’s the unusually high amount of British colloquialisms. Doctorow was born and raised in Canada, and while he’s been living in the UK for quite a while, he was still speaking with a North American accent on the last few occasions I heard him speak. You wouldn’t guess that, reading Pirate Cinema. Of course, the novel is narrated by Trent, a Bradford native, so it’s wholly appropriate to have him “escape to the kitchen to put the kettle on and load up a tray with biccies and cups and that,” but there’s such a huge amount of Britishisms sprinkled through the text that it started pulling me out of the narrative once I noticed it, which was after a handful of pages. That, combined with one or two instances where Trent and co. got away with a few things too easily to be truly believable, are the only minor blemishes on an otherwise great YA novel.

In “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” Billy Bragg sings “Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.” I have to think that Cory Doctorow wouldn’t offer either of those. His YA novels are simply a natural extension of what he writes about in his many columns and essays. Pirate Cinema sucessfully follows the same pattern as his previous YA novels, mixing an adventurous, whip smart young main character with a relevant socio-political theme and wrapping all of it in a fast-paced, entertaining story.

(And if you’ve enjoyed these novels, rejoice, for in February 2013 the Youthful Techno-Defiance series continues with Homeland, sequel to Little Brother!)


Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality.

1. redhead
great review!

And I agree, both with what you enjoyed about the novel and it's weaknesses. I love how Doctorow turns fiction into a call to arms in Little Brother and For the Win (even Makers, to a point), and this was the first time I felt the message got in the way of the story.Once I figured out all the British Slang, Pirate Cinema was buckets of fun to read. But I wanted another hundred pages or so, to find out what 21's real name is, more about Jem's history, I'd love to know more about Aziz as well. In it for the story, am I missing the point of activism driven fiction?
2. Wisdom
Stupid premise for a misguided political agenda from Doctorow. one even he dosent do. but preaches to others.
It all assumes that there is no art, no free usage law. Why does this act cause a problem? most likely because the owner of the IP is deprived on a revenue source.
Lets see Doctorow react to a remix of his works... repackaged and sold as a hollywood 200 million dollar movie.
3. C Oppenheimer
I agree with #2. Where can we download Doctorow's novels for free so he doesn't get a penny for the work he has put into them, not to mention the cost to his publisher, etc.
4. j80
Yoy can actually download all of Cory Doctorow's novels for free at his website.
5. politeruin

There you go, all of cory's novels for free published under a creative commons licence. Help yourself! You can also remix them howsoever you wish as long as you don't profit from it; you think a hollywood film would be fair use?!

#2 and #3 seem to have spectacularly missed the point that he practices exactly what he preaches, as cory has often said his biggest fear as a writer isn't piracy but obscurity.
Stefan Raets
6. Stefan
@1 - I think it's a personal preference. Most of his recent books have been message-driven. Maybe it's less obvious or annoying if the reader connects with the characters and plot. I agree it came across more strongly in this one.

@2,3 - see 4,5.

@4,5 - I guess I took for granted that people are familiar with the author, so I didn't even think to mention that he "practices what he preaches", as @5-politeruin said. Usually at this point someone will come in and say "Sure, but Cory Doctorow is a well known author - an obscure writer wouldn't be able to do this," usually unaware that he's been doing this since the very beginning. (I also really like that he asks people to get a copy for a library or school rather than make a donation. He's a class act all the way, as usual.)

Thanks for the comments, everyone.
7. politeruin
'Usually at this point someone will come in and say "Sure, but Cory Doctorow is a well known author - an obscure writer wouldn't be able to do this," usually unaware that he's been doing this since the very beginning.'

Yeah, when he's brought that up in the many talks i've seen him give he says that when he was starting out people would say "But of course you can do that, you have nothing to lose!" so you can't win really.
8. Jim jab
Yes but how many Cory Doctorows can there be? He's made a career out of being affiliated with CCC and getting paid by Wired et al. It's a little like being a self-help guru, how many others can become wealthy on being you? Anyone with some imagination can see how this logic fails at scale. If you spend five years on a magnum opus then give it away, how are you supposed to survive? And don't say people will pay what they want. Indie Bundle aside, when has this worked? Why would it? This kind of knee jerk anti-establishmentarianism is really irritating.
10. Ray Charbonneau
Pirate Cinema is not available as a free download, at least not yet. And it's wasn't published with a CC "go ahead and remix" license, the way his earlier books have been.

Neither of these facts bother me, nor did it bother me that I could get the earlier books for free. Authors and publishers make choices, just like readers do when they choose whether or not to buy things. Neither side owes the other anything.

BTW, my books (which are not SF, but here's a link) are also DRM-free.
11. between4walls
Haven't read the book (I wasn't a fan of its predecessors), but wouldn't it be weirder if a narrator who's supposed to be a British teen didn't use British colloquialisms? How is that a flaw, unless they're used wrong?
Stefan Raets
12. Stefan
@10 - Cory just put up the page for the free download today. The book's also part of the pay-what-you-want Humble Ebundle (including a bunch of other really good books - Kelly Link, Paolo Bacigalupi, Lauren Beukes, and two extras by Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi for people who pay more than the average donation)

@11 - You're right that it would be weirder if a British kid didn't use British colloquialisms. My problem was more with the sheer quantity - it felt overdone, like an actor trying to put on an accent and overdoing it. That's probably because the book's narrated in the first person, so the entire thing is written in that mode, not just the dialogues. Like I mentioned in the review, it's a minor problem.
13. politeruin
Damn, looks like he's changed his CC licence to no derivatives without permission. That is disappointing and it does feel like a step back if i'm honest, there have been some great remixes of his books in the past so it's a shame to see that pulled away.
14. remix
the more value product has.. the more it can lose. THATS why the no remix.
go see the "Master".... Cory is just the 21st century remix.
Chuk Goodin
15. Chuk
He explains the different CC license thing -- it's mostly to make it easier for his agents to sell the foreign rights, basically. If you want to remix it, just ask for permission.

Also, I read the free ebook version and it has the best ads (for the book itself) that I've ever read.

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