Sunday, January 14, 2018

"Pirate Cinema" by Cory Doctorow [Review]

Pirate CinemaPirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you read the book's description, Pirate Cinema is about the media conglomerates and their abusive approach to copyright infringement. Yet most of the novel is really about how "great" it is to be homeless.

In a near future, Trent McCauley is a teenager in a small British town obsessed with remixing existing films into new movies. When he's caught using films illegally, the punishment is to cut off the Internet in his home for a year. In a world where the Internet is used for everything from medical treatment to supporting his family's only source of income, the loss of web access is a devastating fate. Riddled with guilt, McCauley leaves for London, where he gets involved with an underground community. His frustration with an even more restrictive Internet hacking bill leads him to become an unlikely spokesperson for the movement, and his movies become a powerful form of protest. Will Trent ever reunite with his family? Can Trent stay out of prison? Will he bring freedom back to Great Britain and the world? These and more questions drive the novel, along with his love of an anarchist girl named 26.

I started this novel because I love this kind of protest fiction, and tend to lean on the side of the idea that the movie and TV companies have been too heavy-handed. I also find underground filmmaking interesting and wanted to see how Trent evolves into the pirate cinema of the title. That's why I was disappointed that most of the novel isn't about movies and copyright at all.

In London, Trent almost immediately meets an eccentric homeless man who calls himself Jammie Dodger who has turned being homeless into a choice and a luxury. He uses squatting laws to move into abandoned buildings and renovates them into mansions. He finds expired food in skips (dumpsters) and cooks them into gourmet meals. Pirate Cinema makes being homeless seem like the best thing ever, but I'm pretty sure most homeless people wouldn't agree.

It also makes Trent a criminal, which fits into the overall theme. Honestly, the copyright stance Doctorow makes in this novel is beyond what most people would consider reasonable. He argues that anyone should be able to do anything with any creative product that they want, as long as they're not charging for it. A stance like that is admirable but ripe for abuse. I understand wanting to support some guy remixing funny trailers, but when Trent's gang goes as far as handing out copies of movies still in theaters to people standing in line to see the movie, that's going a bit far.

I didn't have much sympathy for Trent, to be honest. The obvious solution to all his problems was to stop downloading and distributing films illegally, and there wasn't that compelling a reason for him to keep doing it other than a vague need to be creative. He went through Hell and cost himself and his family everything, and at a certain point, I felt like he just needed a new hobby.

The whole voluntary homeless theme really took over the novel. When I'm reading about how Trent repaints the abandoned pub he lives in or the delicious coffee his friend brews from homemade equipment, I'm thinking, "What does this have to do with pirate cinema?" I figured it would all connect at the end, but it doesn't. The ending wants to tie everything up into a bow when Trent makes a protest film and pulls a stunt that turns everyone against the new bill. Cue celebration. I felt like the journey getting there had too many distractions and subplots. The novel is just okay to me. Maybe for another author, I would have enjoyed it more, but I thought Doctorow's earlier novel Little Brother dealt with themes of privacy and teen angst better with more focus.

At least he puts his money where his mouth is in regards to copyright laws. You can download Pirate Cinema for free at Cory Doctorow's website.

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