In the not-so-distant future we see teen video mash-up geek Trent McCauley run away from his home in Bradford for the bright lights of the Big Smoke after he is caught illegally downloading material for his DIY opus featuring movie idol Scot Colford.
Once in London, he hooks up with a motley crew including a 21st-century Artful Dodger named Jem, a "gentleman of leisure". Soon he is living in a squat and learning about London's secret places but it is not until Trent meets the strident, enigmatic 26, that this story begins to take shape. 26 is a techno activist and she soon has Trent involved in a campaign to influence British politics.
There is much to enjoy here. The scenes were Trent discovers London's underground music movement reminded me of my own misspent youth frequenting illegal raves and evading the police. But the London Doctorow describes is more reminiscent of the capital under Ken Livingstone when the capital's arts scene was thriving and England's film industry wasn't people entirely by Oxbridge types named Olly and Thomasina. He takes a sideways swipe at Hollywood bully boys, who in their increasing desperation to protect their market share, use million-dollar sledgehammers to crack peanuts.
But in the end, Pirate Cinema must be one of the most frustrating books I've read this year. Doctorow appears to rush headlong through the story and I get the impression that he was afraid that actual events might overshadow events in the book. At the time of writing, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden had just gone into hiding after exposing government intrusion on our civil liberties. So perhaps such fears were grounded. I only wish that he had taken a little more time to edit this before publication.
Reading this, I had to wonder who this book was for. The tone is a little too cynical for the young adult market, but the characters and subject matter appear to be written to appeal to younger readers. Consequently, Pirate Cinema occupies some uncomfortable middle ground. As a writer, Doctorow certainly isn't short of ideas, but he seems to throw everything at the wall. Thus we get a fictional "drive-by" past contemporary politics - the Occupy movement, copyright laws, gentrification and political atrophy. And it feels as though he wrote this book with one eye on a movie adaptation. A 21st-century Slackers, anyone?
I say "frustrating" because I can see how Pirate Cinema could have been a contemporary classic, echoing through the ages rather like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse- Five. Instead, Doctorow seems to be in a rush to publish as many books as possible. This is more than a shame; in Pirate Cinema there is a spark of something great that is quickly extinguished.
Pirate Cinema is published by Titan Books, £7.99