Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

1978: Algorithm (Gawron, Jean Mark)

Linguistic and mathematical foray stuns/stumps reader (3/5)

I can’t remember the impetus which impelled me to buy the hardback novel named Dream of Glass (1993) because taking one look at the cover, I should have instantly been repelled by the irksome Trapper Keeper-like cover. Regardless, I knew it contained some elements of cyberpunk, so after reading William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), I was eager to explore a bit more in that blossoming sub-genre. However, the plot and/or meaning of Dream of Glass was hidden under an opaque dome of its own glass; Gawron’s attempt at a cyberpunk novel was lost is a menagerie of unfathomable digressions. I couldn’t even muster enough will to read it again, it was just so convoluted.

Dream of Glass is Gawron’s third novel, which has been just as unsuccessful as his first two: An Apology for Rain (1974) and Algorithm (1978). I decided to give the author another shot, but I had an uneasy feeling about the cover of his 1978 paperback novel—way too kitsch. I was in the mood for a challenging read and this certainly tested the limits of taxed neurons.

It’s pertinent to know that Gawron is a linguist in the scientific sense (with a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley). Thankfully, I have some experience in the science of linguistics because of the research I did from my graduate thesis (“Analyzing mission statements in Thailand’s international schools: A mixed methodology”) earlier this year. The 120-page snore-fest included a few citations for the linguistic content I analyzed, namely, Readings for Applied Linguistics: Vol. 1. The Edinburgh Course in Applied Linguistics (1966) and Language and Learning: Vol. 3. Language, Context, and Text: Aspects of Language in a Social-semiotic Perspective (1985). You may understand the words “context” and “grammar” until to read the two words in a linguistic sense. Your head will spin. Mine has been spun, and re-spun thanks to Gawron.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The Novak Transformation had altered the very shape of the universe and left proud Earth an outcast, a sleazy pleasure-colony at the outer edge of the Federation of planets ‘Way Up There.’ But the Federation must expand or die: first came the starship jammed with mercenaries from seven worlds; then came the Assassin…”


It’s impossible to paraphrase a novel which resides at the precipice of one’s understanding. I may not be able to fully describe the background/foreground elemtns of the novel, but I can sense the chasm off the cliff, the ideas causing gusts of wind which buffet my awareness of the themes therein. I rely on a number of excerpts which reflect my understanding of the montage of themes, diversity, and subtleties.

Algorithm has a very similar feel as Delany's Dhalgren (1975) and The Fall of the Towers (1970), which isn't much of a surprise because Gawron is known to be an expert in Delany's work. Algorithm is just as finicky, just as detailed, and as nebulous as Delany's work.


The first half is undoubtedly difficult to follow because there’s no foundation for the reader to build comprehension; there’s a weak scaffolding of a literal or metaphorical assassin, a system of mathematics several levels beyond calculus known as the Novak Transformations, and noir society of poets/bikers that have an affiliation with the ex-mercenary protagonist and his motley crew. So, the central focus of the reader rests on what the assassin is, what implications the assassin has on society, and how the assassin manifests itself. Everything is relevant to the assassin’s agenda, but like a kaleidoscope, it’s impossible to see each color individually without losing focus of the fractal whole; while the blue-hued facets are unrelated to the yellow-hued features, the actually form a larger, more complex picture. The mosaic in Algorithm is complicated, but still fathomable.

Contrariwise to the possibly understandable plot is the author’s incoherent rambling of linguistics:

[A] grammar is only a grammar is only a grammar when traced through the framework of its home system. Failure to recognize a change of systems leads to apprehension by an old and inadequate grammar, to systematically produced nonsense. This is the grammar of the paranoid, who performs the same transformations on linguistic input that we all do on sensory, translating words into feeling of words, making every image of the outside world an image of that image. This reinvents semantics; this leaves the paranoid mute and afraid in a nightmare world of nothing but meaning. Frequently, common-sense logic, with its propositions, its names for sentences and ideas, leaves us in the same world, the name of the nightmare being, paradox. (16)

If you understand that linguistic tirade on a more fundamental basis that I, then you might be interested in the other tidbits of academia which dot this mosaic. The excerpt above is part of Gawron’s fictional set of Novak’s Equations which “lay bare our logical systems” (16) and impels new truths from them: “the equations integrate two systems in to a third system with new axioms. This process of stressing one system with another was later called abstraction. Now, in abstraction, contradiction is defined as an operation; perform it and contradiction is clear” (123).

This is the best synopses of the fictional equations that I could glean from the text. If you don’t understand yet, perhaps Gawron’s gratuitous offerings of explanation will finally set firm the deciphering of his linguistic/mathematic madness:

In a sense one of the major tasks of Novakian Theory is to bridge this strange gap between micro and macro systems, to understand that transformations that make the small so elusive. One example of an important microsystem is an individual in a society, and here we are at home base. For all his impact, the assassin is only a particle ... Such momentary links between the fearfully large and the frightfully small may be more common than we think, may be built into the scheme of a redundant universe. (125)

Therein lies the Equation’s link to the Assassin—a nameless entity, a rouge individual—within the larger context of society, who have to abide by the madman’s game with their own individual emotion and, also, their collection emotion. The awareness of the assassin’s existence sets everyone into either a frenzy or calm anticipation, each unknown of the assassin’s movement bringing together a climax which no one can predict: “Would the assassin strike as per instructions? Is, as some seemed to think, he was a mathematical entity, an alternate syntax, an indeterminate component in a suddenly altered system, then we would” (65). And while the twenty-five faces of the assassin’s possible victims are known to all, now one exactly know who the assassin is: “The assassin might be anyone … After anyone, for any reason” (106). This set of unknowns in each anticipating individual results in an isomorphic result: an electric uneasiness which unsettles the individual so much that it upsets the whole of society.

For some reason, the existence of the assassin was foretold by the Novakian Equations which seem to predict the course of social history in terms more definite than percentages of probability. The crisis with the assassin “was determined predictable … the most extreme act of manipulation ever, the most visible, the most definite, the one that put manipulation into our thoughts for all time … he [the assassin] looks exactly like the future that is coming to us” (154-155). So, because the assassin has mathematic origins and physical repercussions, the citizens of the otherworldly city of Monotony must decide whether the assassin is a figment of their imagination, a figment of their collective imagination, or a realized fear manifested as a madman bent on social disorder. The essence of the victim selection is actually “crystallizations of the fluid state of victimhood” (186) or a seemingly random selection based on the ignorance of the population’s preconceptions of what victimhood entails. For those who are chosen, the stigmata of haven been selected for possible assassination stymies their sense of self-importance or self-worth: “Perhaps I am only another victim of the assassination syndrome … Voices? Yes, there were voices, but with me there are always voices, and only voices, and nothing but voices” (188). Doubt infiltrates the assigned targets, a craziness sets firm in the reason for their selection.


I’m the first to admit I have a peripheral understanding of the novel. Much may have been lost on my unreceptive mind, but I think the linguistic and mathematical themes are supposed to affect the individual and social elements… that being a generalization which needs validation from the oft-quoted section above. If a reader, aside from Gawron himself, could grasp the intricacies of Gawron’s brainchild of a novel, I’m sure there is something more to savor than the cursory enjoyment I experienced at times. Also, if the reader can stubbornly trudge through the first half in suspended ignorance, the last half of the novel offers more illuminating matters.

Whereas Dream of Glass found its way to the secondhand bookstore, Algorithm finds a place on my shelves and may actually be read a second time later this year. If I could just peer over that precipice of understanding/ignorance…

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