Monday, October 29, 2012

100 Books #103 - Cory Doctorow's PIRATE CINEMA

"If it's just theft, then why do they need to get their laws passed in the dead of the night, without debate or discussion?" - 26 in Pirate Cinema

There's something more than a little bit After School Special-ish about Pirate Cinema, I'm afraid. Well, let's say half After-School Special and half Steal This Book. With maybe a little of some sunny Oliver!-ish can-do musical extravaganza thrown in here and there. Which is to say that in a lot of ways, the didactic agenda of this novel gets noticeably in the way of the story a little too often to make this a genuinely enjoyable read. And however praiseworthy that agenda may be, a novel-length parable illustrating its importance is a bit much.

But! Fear not, for the bits where we don't feel the author sitting next to us and preaching at us (and let me just get it out there right now: I sing an enthusiastic tenor in every performance of the choir to whom Cory Doctorow is preaching) are pretty good, though in some ways that almost makes it worse -- they're good enough to just make the reader ache for an edit of this book with maybe at least some of the finger-wagging cut out or cut down.

I wonder how Doctorow, champion of remix culture, culture jamming, sharing, and all the other ideas that are illustrated in this book, would feel about such an edit, though? On the one hand, his work would be getting watered down, stripped of a lot of its political message and used as mere entertainment, and thus maybe undermining that message; on the other, well, it would be a remix like any other. Another fan might choose to edit out all of the teenage romance and cheerful "we can do it" remodeling/repurposing/squat claiming stuff and just leave the expounding dialogues in place to educate everyone about the dangers of copyright maximalism and the move to privatize free expression and bring all media under corporate control.

Actually, as I consider it, I would probably enjoy reading either of those edits, at least more than I enjoyed reading this novel.

That's not to say it's a horrible novel; it's not. Doctorow has considerable narrative skill and has populated his story with a host of very charming characters, young punks all, lovable scamps with talent and creativity and technical know-how (and, in more than a few cases, an impressive knowledge of property law, both intellectual and real). One would have to have a heart of stone not to root for Trent and his girlfriend 26*, Jem and Rabid Dog, Cora and Aziz and all the rest**. Especially since their foes are so faceless, so nameless as to not even be human at all: Paramount, Universal, Disney-Marvel, Virgin -- you get the idea.

Trent and co. live in an absolute copyright dystopia that takes things even further than that depicted in my good friend Paul Laroquod's Swap Thing videos. If you want to see a movie on the big screen, you not only have to fork out the cash for a ticket, but also subject yourself to metal detectors, searches, and temporary confiscation of any personal electronics you've been dumb enough to bring. Download too many illegal files off the internet and you can have your entire family's access cut off for a whole year. And all that's even before yet another piece of draconian legislation gets passed that imposes, among other things, mandatory minimum jail sentences for being caught in possession of any music, photos, films or other files you can't prove you obtained 100% legally.

Enter our hero, Trent, a teenaged kid who happens to be a very talented video editor, and to be, as teenagers are, utterly disinclined to wait until he's done with school and has been hired and vetted by a corporate overlord to sanction/pay for/control his exercise of his talents, anymore than a kid who was good at a sport would wait for a professional league to discover him before playing that sport. Of course, as we've established, Trent does not live in a world that acknowledges or respects this equivalency; it is as if a promising young basketball player got busted and banned for enjoying some pick-up games on the playground, sharing his ball and the court and his knowledge of the rules and the history of the sport with other kids freely being suddenly banned from ever touching any ball or court or uniform, perhaps even any spectator's seat at a game, ever again.

I know, ridiculous, right? What's to stop such a kid from, say, stealing a ball from a sporting goods store and shooting some hoops on a deserted playground in the dead of night? Maybe even teaming up with other people who got busted and starting a secret club where they head off to a secret cobbled-together court somewhere to indulge their shared passion.***

That's pretty much what Trent does. When a third copyright offense, logged as he finishes his latest mash-up masterpiece on his laptop at his parents' house, triggers the harshest penalty -- his entire household, parents and sister and all, being banned from the internet for an entire year -- Trent runs away and goes rogue, joining up with a bunch of other similarly banned/punished people to continue doing what they love outside of/under mainstream society, hacking hardware to circumvent the latest crufted-on copyright protection cripples, remixing films and books and music into their own weird new creations, throwing parties in which their artwork is freely shared and enjoyed by anyone cool enough and smart enough to be willing to put in the time to find out where to go and how to do it.

Ahh, hackers. Ahh, culture jammers. How are they not lovable? Romantic? Quixotic? Charming? Plucky? And yet also, somehow boring. They always get along. They always make things happen. Hell, even the parents and other adults like and encourage them, even 26's parents, who tell Trent it's just fine that he sleeps over in their 17-year-old-daughter's bedroom. With her. Even if they don't sleep. Wink wink. Really?

After a while, even the important jeopardy -- the big bad so big and so bad and so important that Doctorow couldn't allow even the ghost of any other kind of conflict so that even the neighborhood drug dealers where Trent squats are nice and friendly and helpful -- feels unreal and incohate. The corporate sharks are swimming out there in the deep water, watchful and hungry, but our carefree happy little heroes stick to the shallows and frolick away, and just occasionally chuck some chum out to sea out of sheer exuberance.

Don't get me wrong; I had fun reading this at times. But I could never just immerse myself in the story, between the preaching and the excessive benevolence of the book's universe. In the end, I found that for all my love of Doctorow and what he does, I didn't ever feel like I was this book's audience.

But I'm not sure who is.

*Yeah, that's really her name. Sometimes people call her Twenty for short.

**Not that they need much rooting for.

***You sports fans should all take a moment and contemplate with gratitude the fact that, as dickheaded as the NBA, NFL, FIFA, etc. can be, they haven't to date tried to get play not under their aegis banned by law.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review. I have confession to make: I have not read one of Doctorow's works of fiction. I tried once, but it was an audiobook and I was put off his reading style, and thus never got the chance to evaluate it as a piece of writing.

    I'd like to point out that the legal elements you describe are not actually worse than the legal environment in the Swap Thing universe -- the legal environment in the Swap Thing universe is actually much worse than what has been revealed so far. Episode #3 is about a Kafkaeqsue journey through a Copy/Watch office -- that is when the true extent of the insanity of that universe will be revealed. Episodes #1 and #2 contained a minimum of legal references -- I didn't want to get, as you say, 'too preachy'. 8)


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