Pirate Cinema displays the sublime talents of a wonderful writer with its snappy pacing, zinger dialogue and hip, counterculture sensibility. Shame, then, that it reads so much like agitprop.
Set in a near-future Britain when copyright laws have gone stir-crazy, Pirate Cinema is a young adult novel about a teenager named Trent McCauley who likes to create videos by splicing together clips from various, copyrighted sources. When he is caught, his entire household is cut off from the Internet from a year, which ruins his family, this being a society that relies on the Internet more than ever for basic services and employment. He runs away, falls in with a group of counterculture types, and uses the power of his videos to start a political movement to repeal a new, even worse law being promulgated by greedy fat-cats from the entertainment industry.
In principle, this would be a good premise for a novel about the social dangers of excessive copyright legislation, and I’m broadly on Doctorow’s side when it comes to such matters. The thing about Pirate Cinema, though, is that it has such confidence in its own moral superiority that it starts to read like a propaganda tract of an ideologue, something like the Pirate Bay version of Atlas Shrugged.
Let’s start from the top. The moral argument put forth in Pirate Cinema for the liberalisation of copyright law is that restrictions on file-sharing and display stifle the creativity of secondary content creators like Trent. The novel frames the good-bad axis thus: the good guys are the creators, the bad guys are the fat-cat entertainment companies who want to earn a few extra pennies, even if it means putting kids in jail.
This strawmanning features throughout the entire novel, and the novel never really delves into the deeper issues concerning fair use. This is a dystopian formulation of copyright run amok that caricatures the relevant contemporary issues into a stark and moral black-white dynamic.
And just like Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, the protagonist Trent is a kind of Promethean figure in the book, a genius content creator with a sob story and a hero’s quest to strike down copyright insanity. Once he gets over his initial guilt over having ruined his family’s lives, he becomes a political figure, a lightning rod for change. He is given the raiments of his new, counterculture pop-symbol status: a creative drive that reliably pumps out videos of consistent viral quality, a utopian commune of loyal mates who cook up wonderful creations of culinary genius, a smart, endlessly supportive, snog-happy girlfriend with cool, supportive parents, a genius hacker, et cetera. His very brief character arc ends almost before it begins, and after that he becomes the poster boy for the revolution.
It almost feels like Trent is created to be a sort of an aspirational ideal for the targeted readership, a kind of literary prophet-provocateur for the anti-copyright coalition: a figure you hope you will be if only you join the ranks. And while Trent may be that prophet, you don’t really feel like he truly understands why he’s fighting the good fight – he’s just along for the ride, buffeted on the tide of a strong sense of injustice over his situation, and driven by those around him to be a hero in a cause he doesn’t quite grok.
Ironically, that’s the situation that the reader is put in by the book’s machinations – manipulated to support the cause without really understanding why; but buffeted on a tide of righteous anger and a desire for justice against a straw man evil. In other words, propaganda.
It’s a shame, really, because Pirate Cinema would be a good book otherwise, if not for the fact that it favors the message over the story.
I give this book: 3 out of 5 snogs