Cory Doctorow is almost as well known for his blog and internet activism as he is for his speculative fiction. So it’s no surprise that he combines the two in his latest release for youth audiences, Pirate Cinema.
Sixteen-year-old Trent McCauley loves creating illegal films by editing together clips from other people’s work. Unfortunately for him, in his near-future Great Britain the penalties for illegal downloading are harsh. When his entire family is cut off from the net (and therefore their access to jobs, social welfare programs, and school), Trent runs away to London. Needless to say, he’s got a lot of growing up to do, and a lot of thinking about how the world works and how he wants to change it.
Very near future
I may not be as much of an internet activist as Doctorow is, and I’m not up to date on current UK internet laws, but there’s a lot in this book that feels eerily close to laws that either have already been passed or have been proposed in the US. It was actually hard for me to feel the ‘near future’ dystopia of Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has done a simply superb job anchoring his book in current reality, so much so that it almost reads as contemporary fiction. This gives Pirate Cinema a lot of power, because unlike several popular teen dystopian novels, Trent and his world are very easy to relate to. This takes an immense amount of skill, and is the biggest testament to Doctorow’s writerly chops in this book.
Screw the man! Save the empire!
In the mass of life-and-death teen dystopian novels crowding our shelves today, it was really nice to find a throwback style story of a group of teens doing teenage things to fight back against the system. Trent and his buddies don’t have to kill anyone or beat people up, and their lives are never in danger. Don’t get me wrong, they always have something to lose, but they face landing in jail rather than death. They fight back using some very creative civil disobedience, and really do use the system against itself instead of moving outside of the system to utterly destroy it. While Trent does leave his parents’ house, it’s because he feels deep guilt over what has befallen them because of his actions. They didn’t kick him out, and they aren’t going to disown him if he ever decides to go back. The adults that are present in Pirate Cinema tend to be smart and supportive, giving excellent advice and generally not being people Trent and his friends need to hide from.
So, Doctorow has an agenda in this book, and it’s hard to miss even when just reading the title. There is a lot of exposé where a character is explaining how the various laws and technology to enforce those laws work to Trent. There were several places in the book where I just sighed and thought, “Here we go again,” because Doctorow really does hit you over the head with a clue-by-four to pound in his message. Granted, I’m more educated about internet laws than the average person, but the sheer amount of soapboxing in this book pushed me out of the story overall. Which is a shame, because Pirate Cinema is a good story. However, I can see that, for Doctorow, the story is secondary to the message.
Why you should read this book?
Pirate Cinema is a fun teen near-future dystopian, and when was the last time you heard that? The message is clear, and it is an important one not just for teens but for all of us. Doctorow gives us a very bleak picture of what can happen when the financial well-being of a few gets in the way of the good of all. If you’re not familiar with internet and copyright laws, no matter where you live, this is an excellent and entertaining way to educate yourself. Best of all, I don’t have to give out any ‘content may not be suitable’ warnings. This is a solid teen fiction appropriate for that target audience (twelve or thirteen and up).