Pirate Cinema was another of the books from the Humble E-Book Bundle I picked up a couple months back. It is the latest novel by Cory Doctorow whose first book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I’d read a couple years ago and enjoyed very much.
Sadly, I can’t say the same for Pirate Cinema. Here’s the blurb:
In a somewhat dystopic future where copyright enforcement has run amok, a young boy runs away from home after his illegal internet activities get his family cut off from the internet for a year. He runs off to London where we gets in with the cool street kid crowd where he finds love and starts an underground movement to lobby the British government for more relaxed laws.
To be frank, of all the books I’ve read this year as part of Operation Read More, Pirate Cinema was the only one that I didn’t enjoy. In fact, it kind of annoyed me.
Annoyed me in the “really wasn’t for me” way if nothing else. Maybe others will appreciate the things that annoyed me as plusses – though this doesn’t seem to be the case as I glance at other reviews about it. Either way, this was the first book of the lot this year that I almost didn’t finish.
But let’s start on the positive.
Something I haven’t talked about in any of these posts that did work for me in this book was its heart-line.
I first heard the term heart-line in a commentary for one of my favourite TV shows, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Don’t remember the who or the episode but the what was said was that no matter what the episode was ostensibly about – protecting a village from a giant, fighting the mother of all monsters, etc – they were always very sure to make sure there was also a personal story. There was always something to connect viewers to the characters on a personal level, be that feelings of inadequacy, desire, or lost love. The heart-line is the through line of the story that anybody can relate to. It’s what draws people in.
In Pirate Cinema, the moments that most rang true, those that I connected with most (or at all), were those heart moments. When they weren’t outright annoying, the political lobbying and copyright preaching simply had no interest to me, but when Trent was re-uniting with his parents, or the moments with his sister, or when meeting his would be girlfriend, or his first kiss…. that’s when I was invested.
One Side Only Please
Sadly, this usually took back seat to the proselytizing. Too much of the book is long speeches or dialogues written like speeches about the ill’s of copyright law and the extreme enforcement of it, leading into speeches or dialogues written like speeches about getting laws passed in the United Kingdom.
What bothered me the most was how totally unbalanced the stance was in the book. I want to compare it to a book like Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer. That’s a book that discusses the granddaddy of all debates – the existence of God – atheism vs creationism – and Sawyer himself is an atheist, yet the book contains many competent, well developed characters at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. It really is a discussion about the existence of God and not the preaching of how God doesn’t exist. Good book. Go read.
Pirate Cinema on the other hand isn’t a discussion, it’s a bunch of like-minded characters explaining their points of view and why they’re right. The contrasting points of view are all extreme and delivered by faceless characters who are removed from the story and are all pretty despicable. They buy governments and imprison children and destroy families just to make a buck.
It would have been nice to have one likeable character have an opposing point of view. Create some real conflict through differing opinions instead of going from one speech and fairly happy circumstance to another.
An Undefendable Argument
The argument itself wasn’t even really defendable. The main character of Pirate Cinema downloads movies illegally in order to harvest the clips and make mash-up videos. (Just so it’s said: I’m not myself really opposed to mash-up videos though I am against pirating movies as a whole.) The argument – which is just as extreme as the hardline stance of the faceless corporations in the book – is that it’s his creative right to use these clips and what he’s doing is no less a form of artistic expression that should be permitted than making the movies in the first place. That they’re equal simply because of the time and creative energy put in.
It isn’t even an argument about whether pirating movies or songs or what not should be legal or how gray it is or what an artist’s rights should be. It’s preaching that the hyped up penalties in this imagined future are harsh and that Trent should be able to use whatever clips he wants to make his movies.
Most comparable here would have been if somebody started randomly recording everything Trent did, and his family, and his girlfriend, and edited up movies about their lives for the world. Regardless of the effort and energy he put into his Scot Colford movies, he didn’t hire the actor(s) to deliver those lines and do that work and has no right to the performance.
There’s also a great moment that’s wasted in the later half of the book (minor spoilers) where one of his edited movies which he shows only one person is leaked onto the internet and costs him his lawsuit. Not a single person in the book points out the irony –even jokingly- that he’s in deep trouble because his movie was leaked without his consent.
In the end, it’s not even the right argument. The enforcement of laws may be harsh in Pirate Cinema, but the book fails to distinguish that from or even mention the validity or value of having proper copyright laws. (Let alone starting a discussion that movies and songs are easier to copy and harder to police so do need harsher penalties as a deterrent.)
Pirate Cinema wasn’t for me. At all. But you can find Pirate Cinema on Amazon, or download it electronically for free (legally) on Cory Doctorow’s home page. Though I encourage anybody to instead check out Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (also free) for an honestly intriguing bit of Sci-Fi.
(This is part of a series of “book reports” I’m doing – recording my thoughts on the books I’m reading as part of a general desire to read more. This will typically be talking about what I liked and what felt false, filtered through the lens of what I, and perhaps other writers, can learn from it. It won’t be a discussion of deeper themes and meanings. Comments are always open to tell me your take. Click here to see all the books I’ve talked about.)