A review of Cory Doctorow’s Shannon’s Law (in Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands Ed. Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, Random House, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Borderland is a place that exists between the Elfland and mundane reality. It is a strange blend of the fantastic and the urban, a city that is invested and embodied with the oddities and absurdities of magic. Elfland is a place where secrets are kept. It is a place that is so different from our own realm that humans can’t comprehend it and the elves that come across to Borderland can’t explain the differences. It is this oddity, this confusion and difference that attracts the attention of Shannon Klod. When the Way from the human world into Bordertown opens after having been closed for years, he packs up every bit of technology and crosses over with the intention of ridding Bordertown of what he sees as chaos, that uncontrolled oddity that makes Bordertown so fascinating and simultaneously confusing. Shannon brings the internet to Bordertown, seeking to create a connection between the worlds, one that is technological, run by rational processes and anchored in reality.
Of course, in order to get the internet to work in Bordertown, he has to incorporate the magical, the absurd into his specifications. It requires the use of carrier pigeons, mirrors atop buildings, and other oddities that are uncommon to the work of techies. Shannon and his techies see these as inelegant solutions to problems, wishing to streamline the process and make it make sense. But, chaos naturally resists order.
Borderland, much like the fairy world, Elfland, runs according to a creative paradigm rather than a sense of order and simplicity. The Elfin lands run on ideas of aesthetics, dramatic situations, and things that are interesting. Information can pass between the realms, but only if it is interesting. Shannon claims to be anti-aesthetic, to not understand the artistic and to exist in a state of pure rationality. When Shannon tries to expand his internet connection beyond Borderland into Elfland, he has to paint binary code into the frame of a painting and write numbers into a poem in order to make it fascinating, interesting and therefore of sufficient quality to pass between the realms. A man who does not like to believe he has any aesthetic sense has to rely on the artistic ideas of others and himself in order to get materials to pass between the realms. He has already allowed the creative to slip into his consciousness, changing him and illustrating on an unconscious level that there is room for movement away from a purely rational outlook to one that includes the epic, the magical, and the passionate. He falls in love with a half Elf, half human woman, a blending of the absurdity of the Elfin realms and the rationality of the human realm. She is a techie, interested in Shannon’s project, but also enjoying acts of epic beauty, fascinated by jumping from rooftop to rooftop and the rush of excitement that comes from risk.
What Shannon ignores is that aspects of the internet are magical themselves, they resist easy laws and easy understandings and defy attempts at control. Control systems are constantly updated to try to regulate the internet, but it is always altering as people interact.
“They’ve got their epic magicks and their enchanted swords and their fey lands where a single frozen moment of deepest sorrow and sweetest joy hands in a perpetual balance that you could contemplate for a thousand lifetimes without getting the whole of it. But… we invented a machine that allows anyone, anywhere, to say anthing, in any way, to anyone, anywhere.”
To find out more about Cory Doctorow’s current projects, visit his website at http://craphound.com/bio.php