Karl Cullinane Lives! (According to Moore’s Law)

Tuesday , 29, July 2014 11 Comments

Recently, The CronoLink pointed out a quote from Tolkien, regarding the linguistic notion of “cellar door” being the most beautiful sound in the English language:

Most English-speaking people … will admit that cellar door is “beautiful”, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.

Tolkien was not the first linguist to note the beauty in the phrase “cellar door” but he was one of the first to identify that while the phrase itself sounds beautiful, he expanded its meaning to also define a group of words that sound beautiful as well. Furthermore, Geoffrey Nunberg identifies both Tolkien and Lewis as fantasists who expanded “cellar door” as a physical unit of escape: Lewis in using the physical portal of the Wardrobe, and Tolkien in his affection for the holes of hobbits (see also Lewis Carroll: rabbit holes).

Ties of Blood and Silver, Joel Rosenberg

I, of course, further complicated the simple joy of “cellar door” by also applying the term to the hidden themes and architecture in stories that are somehow related to the author’s expertise, and almost magically elevate a tale to greatness. A good example of this is in the employment of gunpowder in Joel Rosenberg’s The Guardians of the Flame* series. This fantasy absolutely shines for a variety of reasons, but Rosenberg’s personal expertise in guns and gunmaking are critical to elevating the story to the numinous. After all, a bunch of do-gooder heroes committed to overthrowing slavery is a powerful story, but it isn’t believable until they put their money, engineering, and guns where their mouths are.

I read the first four books of The Guardians of the Flame  before getting to Rosenberg’s space-war Ties of Blood and Silver, and, despite being the sort of book that would normally have been right up my alley, I couldn’t get into it, for the completely ridiculous (even to me, at the time) reason that Karl Cullinane (the Slaver-hating hero of Guardians) was not in it! It didn’t help that there was no Walter Slovotsky, either, but still, it was a terrible reason not to read the book.

What I do remember thinking about Ties  before setting it down was that in some way I had expected Rosenberg to do another take on the gamers-in-game, but this time with Traveller or Star Frontiers instead of D&D. I thought how neat it would be for the author to pull that trick again.

What I didn’t notice at the time was that such a “trick” would likely have been a disaster. Rosenberg was not a gamer: it was not his expertise. As clever as the kernel of the game trope was in The Guardians, it also presents a significant number of caltrops that end up getting in the way of the overarching theme of the fight for freedom. (The novels dabble, but not in a satisfying way, in questioning the potential for freedom in “naturally” unfree systems, but all this does is get in the way of the passionate and deeper lessons of the price of freedom and the passion necessary to fan its flames.)

What I had missed was a corollary of Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is the observation that, about every two years, the number of  transistors in an integrated circuit doubles. Put more simply (if more roughly) the Law indicates that processors double their speed about every two years. The obvious corollary is that if Moore’s Law holds true then the inefficiency of software is likely to quintuple every four years. The more space you give a programmer to fill, the more likely he’s going to pack it with junk code.

So, in my head, I had a “cooler” version of Rosenberg’s Ties of Blood and Silver based on the “technology” of his patented gamers-in-game idea, but all that was was trash software that interfered with Rosenberg’s natural abilities with bigger fantasy/sci-fi concepts like freedom and weaponry. Sometimes, the technological (or in this case, literary) innovation is not going to harmonize with human nature.

We are much better off with authors who heed their “cellar doors” and exercise their strengths instead.

*NOTE:  The basic concept of The Guardians of the Flame is that a group of 80s gamers (D&D in everything but name) are transported–as their player characters–into “This Side” of the game. The series started on a dispute: a friend of Rosenberg’s mentioned how fun it would be to “enter” a tabletop game as an alternate reality. Rosenberg – who was never a gamer – thought it would be a horrible experience, and set out to prove it. He succeeded in doing so in the opening pages of the novel.

  • Jeffro says:

    Nitpick: Traveller has two l’s if you’re talking about the game…!

    Books about entering into game worlds were kind of a thing in the early to mid-eighties, with Tron probably being the sine qua non of them all. Yeah, they’re very Alice in Wonderland-ish.

    Kevin J. Anderson’s Gamearth series springs to mind.

  • Daniel Eness says:

    I never saw Tron, so I can’t speak to that, although I would think that “entering a video game” movie would be significantly different from “entering a role-playing game” book. I found Guardians to be far less Alice in Wonderland and far more shocking for its realism.

  • VD says:

    Amusing. My first attempt at writing a novel was about Traveller players going into a Traveller world, starting with Death Station.

    When I told Joel about it, he laughed heartily.

    • Jeffro says:

      Woah, that’s one of my favorites. It’s reminiscent of Alien and anticipates the Firefly episode “Bushwacked.” That sort of scenario is perfect for a good convention game.

    • Daniel says:

      There are about five irritatingly good things in that little comment, but I’d definitely read that book, as long as it dealt with the Deighton (Dungeon Master) concept to somewhat more apparent satisfaction.

      I believe that The Guardians’ Deighton had something to do with the magic hinted at in The Sleeping Dragon, when he has some player (I can’t remember which player, probably Karl) “roll up” Lucius, who is the archrival of the great wizard…but I’m absolutely not convinced that it is significant, or if it is, what the heck it means.

      Looks like I have to do a little re-reading one of these days…

  • Jill says:

    Too many caltrops to reach the cellar door… Well, to open the cellar door to the world would be to allow an invasion in the quiet, hidden regions of the soul. It’s not just “numinously” beautiful. It’s peaceful, too.

    • Daniel says:

      Well, sometimes quietude demands the caltrops. They tend to inspire reflection and meditation among unexpected interlopers because they staple shut the mouths of the noisy.

      If it weren’t for cluttered thinking, I wouldn’t think at all.

    • Daniel says:

      …and I should mention that the earlier quote (last week) about the Numinous not taking long to unhinge the mind, was written by a character who went completely mad on conspiracy and took to hiding out in museums after hours…

      I may have placed it in far too subtle (to the point of non-existence) a light, rendering it innocuous and wholly positive. That was never my intention.

      If there is one thing I’ve learned from Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman” it is that not everything that breathes in proximity of a cellar door is beautiful.

  • Mark Butterworth says:

    Since finishing my SF novel, Aryndell (a lovely word), I’ve been doing some research in the Celtic world and the Welsh and Tolkien’s right. There are many “cellar doors” in Welsh.

    Interestingly enough, I was listening to some Irish speaking Gaelic and it sounds somewhat like German. Not a melodic tongue, I would say. Not as much as Welsh may be.

    I used to think English was harsh, too, but not so much anymore but it can depend on what poet you read.

    French really is lovely, though, the best sounding romance language, I think.

  • Larry Reddecliff says:

    I read all the Guardian of the Flames books as I was in high school when they first came out as well as playing dungeons and dragons every week. Funny thing this past February, I decided to read the books again as they are one of my favorite series of books. And to my delight I have read on the net, and I sure hope it happens that they will make a tv series on them.

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