Trent McCauley is a talented teenager: his main hobby, more an obsession really, is creating movie clips by downloading, remixing and reassembling footage of his favorite actor. Problem is, those movies tend to be copyrighted, which means Trent’s innocuous pastime involves breaking the law on an ongoing basis. All of this goes well, until it suddenly doesn’t: there’s a knock on the door, and a policeman informs the McCauley family that, because of repeated copyright infringements, their internet access is being terminated for a year, effective immediately.
Now, because of Trent’s harmless hobby, his father can’t do his telecommuting job anymore, his sister can’t do research for her school work, and his mother can’t sign on to get her health benefits. Inadvertently, he’s ruined his family’s lives. Unable to deal with the shame (and the lack of internet access), Trent packs up and leaves his home town of Bradford for London, where he learns to live on the street and gets involved with various artists, anarchists, and activists. Meanwhile, Parliament is busy trying to impose even more far-reaching copyright laws.
Remember the part in Little Brother when Marcus Yallow briefly becomes homeless and gets a quick lesson on scavenging food and surviving on the street? Pirate Cinema considerably expands on this as Trent arrives in London and meets someone who has much more experience living on the streets than he does. For some time, the novel is essentially a fictional and very entertaining version of How to Survive in London on Zero Pounds per Day, but before long Doctorow brings us back to the message of the day: copyright laws, and why they’re wrong.
Trent is a typical Cory Doctorow protagonist: smart, tech-savvy, and sensitive. He enjoys the new sense of freedom and adventure as he gets more involved with political activism and the vibrant street scene of artists and squatters, but he also experiences several moments of homesickness. He genuinely feels bad about the mess his actions have created for his family. He misses his parents and sister terribly, something I found very touching in the midst of this wild adventure. There’s also a great romance subplot involving a fascinating character (who more than deserves her own separate novel) as Trent’s love interest.
Pirate Cinema is, as the cover proclaims, Cory Doctorow’s “newest novel of youthful techno-defiance” and yes, it’s true: there’s a bit of a pattern developing here. From Little Brother (tech-savvy teenagers take on a government-run surveillance system) to For the Win (tech-savvy teenagers take on unfair working conditions for MMORPG gold farmers) to now Pirate Cinema (tech-savvy teenagers take on draconian copyright laws), you could probably call this the Youthful Techno-Defiance Trilogy, if not for the lack of shared characters and settings and so on. They’re three YA novels with a shared theme: teenagers standing up for what’s right, using their knowledge of current technology as a wedge to crack open and change an unfair system.
If it feels that this is starting to veer closely to being formulaic, well – there’s maybe a grain of truth there, but it doesn’t take away from the fun and, more importantly, the relevance of these novels. Cory Doctorow writes about issues that many young readers will connect to, and he writes about them in a way that falls somewhere between a rollicking good story and a call to arms. He’s the Billy Bragg of YA literature: you know you’ll hear some great songs, but there’ll be a strong message mixed in there somewhere, at times more noticeably than others. There may even be a speech. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s simply part of the deal: these novels are equal parts YA adventure and socio-political commentary, and there are going to be times when the story takes a backseat to the message.
What’s really interesting about these novels is that they work much the way Trent’s movies work: they have a viral quality. You read them and you want to get involved. They’re a call to action. It’s hard not to see the relevance of a story like Pirate Cinema in an age when the Ustream broadcast of the Hugo Awards gets cut off midway for showing a brief clip of a nominated show. If my kindergartener was about ten years older, I’d definitely suggest these books to him.
By the way, if you are a parent looking for reading material for your offspring: like many of us, Cory Doctorow is well aware that teenagers have been known to have sex and experiment with drugs. Therefore, he doesn’t shy away from this in his YA novels. If that kind of realism offends your sensibilities, be aware. Personally, I can’t wait until my son is old enough so we can read and discuss these books.
If there’s one aspect of Pirate Cinema that occasionally grated a bit for me, it’s the unusually high amount of British colloquialisms. Doctorow was born and raised in Canada, and while he’s been living in the UK for quite a while, he was still speaking with a North American accent on the last few occasions I heard him speak. You wouldn’t guess that, reading Pirate Cinema. Of course, the novel is narrated by Trent, a Bradford native, so it’s wholly appropriate to have him “escape to the kitchen to put the kettle on and load up a tray with biccies and cups and that,” but there’s such a huge amount of Britishisms sprinkled through the text that it started pulling me out of the narrative once I noticed it, which was after a handful of pages. That, combined with one or two instances where Trent and co. got away with a few things too easily to be truly believable, are the only minor blemishes on an otherwise great YA novel.
In “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” Billy Bragg sings “Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.” I have to think that Cory Doctorow wouldn’t offer either of those. His YA novels are simply a natural extension of what he writes about in his many columns and essays. Pirate Cinema sucessfully follows the same pattern as his previous YA novels, mixing an adventurous, whip smart young main character with a relevant socio-political theme and wrapping all of it in a fast-paced, entertaining story.
(And if you’ve enjoyed these novels, rejoice, for in February 2013 the Youthful Techno-Defiance series continues with Homeland, sequel to Little Brother!)
This review was originally published at Tor.com on October 2nd, 2012.