Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
Leave it to Cory Doctorow, author, blogger, and technology activist-extraordinaire, to weave a story that successfully blends coming-of-age woes, homelessness, national politics, copyright law, cooking, gadgetry, love, overcoming homophobia, civil disobedience, film-making, mashups, public speaking, the judicial system, beer and coffee brewing, cryptography, and oh so, so much more into a wonderfully geeky, heart-wrenching, page-turning bang-up novel that people of all ages should read. This book is full of such big, exquisite ideas to learn about that you’ll be Googling your fingers off through the entire story and I mean that in the best way possible. You will learn reading Pirate Cinema and you will love this as much as you love the characters.
Trent McCauley is a teenager in Bradford, a city in northern England, set about 25 years in our future from what I can gauge. His lower-middle-class family hangs by a thread, with his father working at home for a temp phone-support agency, his mother partially handicapped and collecting disability, and his sister who tries to maintain top marks at school. Trent is an aspiring mashup artist taken with fictional actor Scot Colford whose films he cuts, splices, and edits with his laptop to create comedic, popular videos online. All four family members rely absolutely on the Internet. And that’s where the major plot draws from.
To create his mashup clips of Scot Colford, Trent illegally downloads Colford's movies and other footage of him from the Internet. That is until England’s three-strikes law disconnects their entire family from the Internet for a year due to Trent’s almost compulsive downloading. Now that Trent’s mother can no longer go online to claim her disability benefits, she’s out of luck for a year with no physical office to go to anymore or hardcopy paperwork to fill out. Now Trent’s Dad can’t do his phone support job, performed through VoIP as it was. Now Trent’s sister can’t do her schoolwork properly, since all her books, research, work, assignments, and tests are online. And now Trent can’t make his movies, but that’s hardly the biggest of his concerns as his family’s ability to survive is put into serious jeopardy.
Feeling utterly devastated by his actions, Trent runs away to London, some 320 km (200 miles for us) to the south. He arrives alone, scared, and is soon robbed of his clothes, money, and laptop. Having read the jacket description of the book where-in Trent is described as coordinating a fight against a huge corporate-written law throwing people in jail for violating copyright, I wondered just how in the world Cory was going to get our hero from Point A to Point Z (because, obviously, there are Points B through Y for such an undertaking).
With a lot of help from his friends is how, as Trent allies himself with London’s best and brightest runaways, a beautiful teenage IP wonk, her lawyer father, a computer parts scavenger/technician, a squatter electrician, a political activist, a British MP, and many more colorful characters that come to be not only his friends, but in many ways his family. Pirate Cinema is a story of hope and of action. Trent and his friends don’t sit around and whine about their situation, they work hard and they work creatively to bring about change.
The three-strikes Internet Piracy law is a real thing in the UK and though last year’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was thankfully defeated in the US, Big Content (movie studios, music labels, book publishers, etc.), their lobbyists, and politicians are always looking for new ways to crack down on illegal file-sharing. I won’t get into the politics of it all - believe me, Pirate Cinema does a brilliant job of that all on its own. Although the book is based in England and therefore expounds on English law and governmental policy, you will come away wanting to learn more about the same intricacies of the US government, or wherever you’re based. And as I noted above, you’ll come away wanting to learn about a lot more than that.
Thankfully, this book isn’t just a lecture masked as a novel, though there are a few moments when Cory seems to lose himself in explaining certain topics -- computer cryptography for instance -- forgetting that there is indeed a story to return to. But what a story, with characters that you will come to care about deeply, a base of operations that you will come to think of as your own, and a series of events that, you’ll begin to understand, resonate far beyond the pages of the book.
Perhaps the most amazing bit of Pirate Cinema beyond its story and beyond its lessons is its absentee character, actor Scot Colford, Trent’s idol. Scot has been deceased for some time, though he seems to be an actor from maybe the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Trent writes several pages worth of text about his movies, his life, and even his family. We are obviously never introduced to a living Scot, but through Trent’s love of him, he comes to life as perhaps the most important character in the book next to Trent himself. Cory must have spent quite a bit of time creating Scot Colford as a character and actor so that he could then be used in Trent’s mashups. That we come to care so much for a character that isn’t even part of the main narrative is an accomplishment indeed.
There are tons of options for getting your hands on a copy of Pirate Cinema. You can reserve a copy on librarypoint.org, purchase a DRM-free copy from any eBook retailer (think of Cory Doctorow as the Anti-DRM), purchase it as part of the Humble eBook Bundle to support charity (expires October 23rd) or download the eBook for free from his website, where you can also download free copies of all his other novels, licensed under Creative Commons.
Pirate Cinema is not only a great book, it is an extremely important book for our times. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt true that people the world over have come to rely on the Internet for their very lives. It is no longer simply a convenience, but a necessity for finding jobs, applying for unemployment, going to school, paying your taxes, and so much more. Let Cory paint for you a picture of the world where innocent mistakes online can lead to life-altering consequences. This is not science-fiction, this is the world we’re turning into, but one that can be avoided.