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Pirate Cinema Review

piratecinema.jpg.size-230Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Titan Books £7.99 buynow1
Review By: David Stonehouse

Cory Doctorow’s expertise in media certainly adds a stamp of authenticity to Pirate Cinema. His undoubted insight into the field gives a convincing edge to a thoroughly enjoyable novel about political activism.

Events are set in the near future and begin in Bradford. Trent McCauley is a sixteen year old whose obsession with making movies by editing together downloaded clips gets him into hot water over copyright infringement, and leads to his family being banned from the internet for a year. It may not seem like much of a punishment but, in our modern web-based world, it effectively cripples his family. His father is unable to work, his mother can’t access the medical support she needs, and his little sister’s education is put in jeopardy. Unable to cope with the chaos he has caused Trent runs away to London. His first moments as a homeless person are a shocking eye-opener but he quickly stumbles across the path of the Artful Dodgeresque Jem, who loads him up with survival tips and puts him back on his feet. It turns out Jem has his eye on a potential squat in an abandoned pub, and has been on the look-out for a partner who isn’t too much of a screw-up to help him secure it.

Before too long Trent knows how to salvage the best food, has a contact who can kit him out with unsold technical gear, and has met up with a group of activists and film enthusiasts led by a beautiful girl called 26.

With his new-found friends and film editing expertise Trent quickly finds himself involved with political activists determined to overturn the copyright laws that criminalise downloading and line the pockets of the huge multinational media corporations. Under his pseudonym, Cecil B DeVil, Trent’s mash-up movies of his favourite filmstar quickly become popular in secret screening events in places such as abandoned churchyards and underground galleries. Unfortunately, as their Pirate Cinema movement takes off, this attracts the attention of corporate lawyers who do everything in their power to stop them. The pressure steps up even further when a stunt at a film premiere places their activities on the international news.

Doctorow has spun a gripping page-turner of story. The characters are engaging and convincing. Trent’s teenage angst and failure to recognise his own potential are cringe-worthily real. His nervously developing relationship with 26 is sweetly naive and the psychology of his guilt towards his abandoned family is painfully believable. The cast of supporting characters are all fully realised so that we care about minor characters’ secrets and histories and no-one is allowed to be a one-dimensional caricature, which is quite a feat considering the character rosta includes MPs, barristers, doctors, parents, tramps and god knows who else in between.

However, Pirate Cinema is not just a damn good story. It is also a thought-provoking meditation on how big businesses manipulate the government in order to maintain their stranglehold on their revenue. Doctorow raises many interesting questions about the nature of art and creativity, and the validity of corporate claims of ‘ownership’. Even more disturbing is his illustration of the process by which laws are passed through corporate lobbying and how party whips are used to silence MPs who might be inclined to dissent. He also lays on a plate how completely dependent on the internet we have all become, and the devastating implications for those people to whom the right to access it is denied. Added to all that is some very convincing technogabble about how our gadgets are spying on us, which further stokes the flames of the ‘Big Brother’ paranoia.

There are times, particularly early on, when Trent’s runaway experience seems far too safe, and unlikely help is too conveniently on hand. There are also occasions when it feels an unlikely push to believe that Trent and 26 really could just be the 17 year-olds we are expected to believe they are, but really these are minor niggles. This isn’t supposed to be a book about the hardships of homelessness, and the charm of the characters is more than enough to cover some of their more unlikely achievements. It’s also very attractively written, with a lyrical literary style which makes every page a pleasure to read. Throw in some well-judged comedy and a satisfyingly well-orchestrated finale and it all adds up to a really great read.

Pirate Cinema is well worth a look. If Doctorow was hoping to entertain as well as make the reader think about the serious implications of our modern culture, he has succeeded in spades. This is a clever, provocative and hugely enjoyable book, and anyone with any interest in the politics of modern media should snap up a copy straight away. Excellent!

David Stonehouse

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