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).
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.