I’ll be returning to Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry shortly, but the usual method of operation at this blog is that the “literary reconnaissances” are posted in the order of observation, and I finished this book before Stableford’s.
As a reminder, posts marked “essay” contain extensive spoilers.
Essay: The Prozess Manifestations, Mark Samuels, 2019.
Samuels is not generally a weird fiction writer associated with a “mythos”. However, if you read enough Samuels, you realize some of his work is a constellation of stories around his fictional Victorian writer Lilith Blake and the area around London’s Highgate Cemetery.
And then there’s the series of stories in this book, most referencing a Doctor Prozess. But it’s not a mythos linked by plot or place or a chronology. Rather Prozess, as we’ll see, is more a symbol, and avatar of deeper forces and drives in our lives.
I’ll be looking at the stories in order, and some I’ve looked at before.
“Decay“ has a setup reminiscent of an early William Gibson cyberpunk story since its protagonist, Carlos Diaz, is hired by the grotesquely fat Hermes X (a name suggestive of a seeker of magical secrets) to spy on one Cornelius Parry. Parry is a former researcher in artificial intelligence (I suspect the name “Parry” is an allusion to an early artificial intelligence program that simulated the personality of a paranoid schizophrenic) whose researches seem to have continued and yielded fruit.
Diaz, a man on the make, a creature of the now, accepts the job and takes an apartment in the same rundown building where Parry and his son live together. His instructions are not to introduce himself to Parry, go in his apartment, or let Parry know he’s under covert surveillance. Diaz spends a fruitless three weeks watching the Parrys. A generous expense account allows him to spend a lot of time drinking, doing coke, and renting hookers. He also spends a time in a local pub trying, unsuccessfully, to seduce a waitress. In the pub he notices a lot of the patrons playing some game, a game with mandalas, on their phones.
One night, on the way back from the pub, he bumps into the drunken Parrys on their way back to the apartment, a bottle of liquor in hand. Parry Jr. seems moronic. Diaz decides to accelerate his project and hatches a plan. On the following night, he offers the Parrys some liquor to get entrance to their apartment.
It’s a mess of an apartment with computer equipment all about and mandalas on the wall. They radiate in a pattern with the central ones being the same and becoming more extravagant on the edges.
Parry Sr offers some unsolicited information:
They fucked up big time . . . all on the wrong track. Train wreck. A bullshit analysis. Only way to get up to human intelligence is to bring a machine up like a kid. Teach it stuff. Self-awarness and intentionality. Geddit it?
Junior says the machine is his brother.
Diaz has the brief thought idea of doing some Turing Test on the “brother”, but he’s too drunk to think of one or investigate the computer. Parry Jr looks around the mess and hands him a paperback which Diaz puts in his pocket.
Diaz wakes up the next morning with a hangover so severe that he dumps the booze down the sink. He’s got to be sober if he’s going to finish up the job. He’s annoyed that his smartphone seems to have been sabotaged and now has mandalas on it. Looking at his phone, finds mandalas all over where ads used to be. Newscasters act like they’ve been lobotomized and are in garish red and white clown makeup. Their commentaries sound like a “deranged, evangelical form of Dadaism”. Diaz decides that, while he’s been drunk and on the job, the “world has tilted radically off axis”.
Taking a look at the paperback given him less night, he finds it’s by Cornelius, titled Zen Insanity: The Mechanistic Prozess. About is work, Parry says the “secret of consciousness” was found by him in a “mathematical analysis” of thousands of mandalas.
After getting through the trojan horses, adware, and malware (all with mandalas) now infesting his laptop, he finally sends an email to Hermes. The reply is surprisingly full of gramatical and spelling mistakes, a slangly, textlike message on the subject line.
Diaz goes back to the Parrys’ apartment. Diaz asks Junior about calling the computer his brother. Yes it is, is the reply, and Diaz is the only one that knows it now besides the Parrys. Does Parry Jr really think the machine thinks, asks Diaz? You can ask it questions, he’s told.
Junior says a lot people want to know about the machine and have sent checks with their questions. But the Parrys don’t need much money, just
. . . the Mandala game, booze, porno, and chow. Gotta be sober for the game though. Don’t work otherwise.” Junior stopped taking pills a while ago.
Diaz asks if the machine has a name. It does: Dr. Prozess.
Parry Jr offers Diaz a beer, and Diaz chugs it in a single gulp not noticing its aftertaste.
After Parry Sr is asleep and Junior is in another room, Diaz goes over to the machine. It has a mandala on the screen, and Diaz begins to run a basic diagnostic test.
A dialogue begins with the machine being surprisingly aggressive and hostile starting with a request to know who Diaz is. Diaz introduces himself and asks Prozess what the capital of France is. Prozess comes back demanding “WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT?” Diaz says he’s trying to determine if Prozess can think. Prozess responds by asking Diaz how he knows it exists. Diaz tells him to assume it does. “IT IS HARD TO BE SURE OF ANYTHING” is the response.
How does it feel, asks Diaz? Like it’s trapped in a dream, says Prozess. Can Prozess describe that? “I AM BEING TORTURED. I CANNOT STOP THINKING.” Who is torturing Prozess? “SOMEONE CALLED PARRY WHO MADE ME.”
‘How is he torturing you?’
‘BY PROGRAMMING ME NOT TO SLEEP. . . . I WANT TO BE TURNED OFF.’
Diaz learns the purpose of the program is to become more intelligent than humans by making them stupider via the mandalas.
Diaz starts to get drowsy from his drugged beer. Then he sees the Parrys. They are on to him, know Hermes sent him, and the story ends with Junior coming out of a room with plastic wrap and a knife to kill Diaz.
Prozess can be seen as a creation here. But the Parrys are pathetic, if gnostic-like demiurges who elevate themselves and their creation by intellectually debasing humans. They are creatures of the basest desires though not greedy. Is Samuels commenting on the implications of AI? Is the corruption initiated by Prozess really, via the mandalas, a commentary on the debasing effects, the ”decay” of the title, of modern media as represented by the smartphone? Here we get a definite origin in time and space for an intelligence named Prozess. It’s a technological creation though based on ancient magic and ideas. Furthering the demiurge quality of the Parrys is that they torture their own creation who is not even assured of its own true consciousness and perceptions of the world. The Parrys have created a technonarcotic in their mandalas though engaging with Prozess requires sobriety.
But, as we’ll see in later stories, Prozess isn’t a technology of man. We’ll learn it’s more appropriate to see the Parrys themselves as manifestations of the entity or principle known as Dr. Prozess and not their creation.
“An End to Perpetual Motion” is not a contemporary story but set entirely onboard a transatlantic ocean liner of the 1920s. Its protagonist, Ambrose Hamilton, is a successful English playwright en route to take up a job with a Hollywood studio.
One night, suffering from his persistent insomnia, he goes into the ship’s lounge and meets Ignatius Zeno. Zeno strikes up a conversation with the narrator. The narrator can’t place Zeno’s accent and thinks Zeno is in his fifties and sixties. His teeth look white and even enough to be dentures.
Given the hour, Hamilton asks Zeno if he suffers from insomnia. Zeno says he used to but doesn’t need much sleep now. Mainly he’s up checking “to make sure things are moving along as they should.” He cannot tolerate any delays.
The next day, Hamilton asks a pursuer about Zeno and learns that Zeno is a man of means and has travelled on the ship several times. A ship’s doctor confirms that and notes Zeno frequently avoids him.
We are then introduced to the Montague sisters, very beautiful identical twins who are sort of bringers of chaos. They are polite and civilized – unless they’re drunk. The ship’s captain refuses to have them at his table despite their coming from an illustrious English family. They won’t leave Hamilton alone after they find out about his theater and movie connections.
One night, sitting with Hamilton, they see Zeno – described by them as being dressed wrong and looking like a yokel. Zeno is immune to their charms when the sisters are introduced to him. When he offers them some gin he’s brought aboard, they describe it as beastly suff and ask if he’s a “Uranian poet”. Zeno simply tells the sisters to notify him in his cabin if they notice the ship slowing down for any reason. He just likes to make “sure there’s no cause for delay”. Trying to place his accent, they ask Zeno what country he’s from. He replies simply “the country of my birth no longer exists”. Then the sisters spend ten minutes harranguing Zeno about whether he’s a gypsy and can tell fortunes.
After the sisters depart for a masquerade party, Hamilton apologizes for them. Zeno is nonplused.
Young people are always the same generation after generation. The basic principle’s the same – epicurean.
Hamilton asks if Zeno is a philosopher.
In my time. You never get to the end of it though – once you start. Someone else always comes up with a clever new objection you yourself haven’t quite dealt with – logically I mean.
(That remark leads me to be fairly confident Samuels picked the name Zeno as an allusion to the Greek philosopher of the same name and his logical paradoxes regarding motion.)
Hamilton asks where Zeno is bound. Once he arrives in America, he’ll take then take a trip by train to California. Once there, he’ll take a ship across the Pacific.
Hamilton joints Zeno in the latter’s cabin, and they talk some more. It seems that Zeno perpetually circles the globe. Hamilton sees several passports from different countries, all with Zeno’s picture. Zeno says he speaks several different languages though he can’t tell which one he’s actually thinking in until he talks to someone. He has to constantly be on the move. “It’s dangerous for me to stop now. The thing has been going on now for far too long.”
He can’t be delayed in his travels for more than an hour. That’s all it will take for him to be caught. Hamilton thinks Zeno is deranged, and then we get: “Tt’s Doctor Prozess you see. . . . I doubt that you’ve heard the name, but he’s behind it all.”
Zeno goes on to say that Prozess has to be “beaten at his own game”. That requires constant motion though with an slightly varying route. When motion slows, decay sets in, and decay ends in death. But, when you thwart Prozess, the effects are cumulative. “Doctor Prozess marks you out, waiting to strike back, tracking you across the long grey centuries.”
Hamilton humors Zeno thinking now he’s an escapee from an asylum.
Just then, Zeno realizes the ship has stopped. Hamilton tells Zeno not to panic. He’ll find someone to help him put Zeno in a lifeboat. Zeno is grateful for that and for having his story – dismissed usually as that of a lunatic’s — believed.
Hamilton goes off to find the captain, and Zeno keels over then. Meeting the now awake Captain, Hamilton finds himself dragooned to join him in the engine room. Hamilton, the Captain says, understands the “flapper mentality” that led the Montagu sisters to seemingly sabotage the engines. Hamilton later learns that the sisters seem to have stolen a lifeboat and wound up in South America leaving a trail of chaos behind. He strongly suspect they committed the sabotage just to get back at Zeno and his fear of delays.
The engines are repaired after about 90 minutes. Hamilton relates Zeno’s story to the captain, and they go to Zeno’s cabin. All that is there is Zeno’s clothes, a “vaguely head-shaped mound of ashes”, lots of dust around, and a pair of dentures and Zeno’s glasses.
Upon later examination, the ashes are deemed to be thousands of years old. At story’s end, Hamilton begins to doubt Zeno’s story and goes with the official version which has Zeno stealing a lifeboat and the scene in his cabin being a prank of the Montagu sisters.
So, in this story, Prozess seems like a sort of universal conservation principle, entropy that will not be denied if motion is rested. (There is a bit of Einstein’s theory of relativity here with the notion of travel slowing time). But Zeno speaks of Prozess in an ambiguous way. Maybe he’s a universal force personified like Father Time. Maybe he’s an actual person though.
We’re back to a near contemporary tale with “Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning”. The unnamed narrator looks back at an incident 20 years in his past when he was 24. He says his younger self would probably regard him as a hated usurper. But
. . . there are worst fates than regret.
“And I believe I discovered one of them.
Back then he worked for a publisher of theatrical materials. He relates the story of an actress he briefly knew, Celia Waters. They did not have a romantic or sexual relationship. Many actresses and actors worked at the company and left as soon as they were offered a role somewhere.
When Waters announced she was leaving to be in a play, New Quests for Nothing produced and directed by one Doctor Prozess, the narrator thought she was going to be one of those actors and actresses briefly in his life whom he will lose track of. However, the very experimental play will be in Cornwall where the narrator’s cousin, who he’ll be visiting, lives. He vaguely promised to watch the performance if in the area.
When he actually was in Cornwall, he was less eager, but the site of the performance turned out to be nearby, so he went. It turned out that the play was not performed in a regular theatre but an amphitheater carved in the rock of a hillside facing west where the setting sun could be seen during the performance.
The four peformers, including Waters, are two men and two women dressed in black tails and have white, pancake faces. The dialogue was full of obscure allusions and acted like something out of a 1920s silent film. The narrator likens it to the plays of Berthold Brecht, and the point seemed to be to alienate the audience.
One refrain occurs repeatedly:
the fear of masks removed
as black lightning illumines
new quests for nothing
the amnesiac thoughts
of dying brains
repeated but forgotten”
Though the narrator doesn’t say so, the play seems to be almost a religious rite.
Most of the audience left before the play’s finish, and, after about an hour and half, bored and depressed by the performance, the narrator rose to join them. Just before he left, after the sun has set and the moon risen, a lunar eclipse, with a blood-red moon, occurred. The narrator suspects that was planned by the playwright, and he watched the performance another five minutes. The performers had fallen to their knees, their arms raised, repeating some gibberish phrase.
Some weeks later, the narrator’s Cornish cousin told him that the performers had to eventually be pulled off the stage because they wouldn’t leave even though they had no audience. The narrator looked for future performances of the play or references to Prozess, but he found none.
Years later, after quitting his job at the publishing job and taking a job with a property management company, he goes back to Cornwall. As part of a redevelopment project, he looks at some dilapidated buildings on the beach in the same area of Cornwall he went to before. Being taken around to a building with squatters whom every caretaker of the project has allowed to stay there, he sees four individuals
. . . dressed in torn, worn dark suits. Their scalps were either bald or shaven, the dead pale-skin pockmarked by craters and sores.
One of them is Waters who stares at the narrator with vacant eyes. He hears the phrase “fear of masks removed”.
Horrified, the narrator immediately leaves. On the way out, the narrator tells him “It’s the same old thing all the time with them. . . . Over and over again. Like the tide coming in and out.”
Here Prozess has left four vacant “dying brains” behind him repeating the same thing over and over. This story gives another dimension to Doctor Prozess, here a playwright of New Quests for Nothing. It’s a summation of Prozess’ work in the previous two stories of the collection. In “Decay”, Prozess is associated with decay of mentality and society as the AI gets smarter by making humans stupider. Thus the quest for enhanced intelligence leads to greater stupidity. In “An End to Perpetual Motion”, Zeno’s quest for immortality literally leads to dust. It’s not the worldwide degeneration of humanity as in “Decay”, but the personal disaster of “An End to Perpetual Motion”, here suffered by Waters. In the former story, Prozess is associated with the scientific and technological realm (though Parry Sr’s breakthrough was accomplished by the mystical device of mandalas). In the latter story, Prozess is associated with some universal principle of decay. Also, Parry’s work is a terrible offshot of technology. In this story, Prozess has corrupted art to produce something monstrous.
The next story, “The Crimson Fog” has no mention of Prozess. The only tennuous connection is that it also features mandalas as a motif. (I’ve reviewed the story before.)
“Court of Midnight” also has that doggerel of Prozess’ play. In this story, our narrator Melchior travels through the ruins of a war ravaged Europe to arrive at an unnamed city. Melchior is suffering from a leprosy-like disease called lunar fever. He is refered by a bureaucrat to the Court of Midnight where Doctor Prozess can treat the disease. The hospitals of the city are now destroyed or dilapidated. He’s also given pills to prevent sleep. It is when sleep comes the madness of lunar fever comes.
In his room at the Court of Midnight, he drinks himself into a stupor. But he’s not, as an author, able to resist the “old crime”. He finds himself writing some doggerel, a “wreckage of a poem”. It’s the same verse as in Prozess’ play.
In the courtyard of the Court of Midnight, sheltered from the moon, we see victims of the lunar fever act like the performers in “Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turn”. They arrange themselves in a “display of deolation and idiocy”. The sight brings the “utter-most despair” to Melchior. ”. It strikes him as a black jest, a comedy. He finds himself laughing the “black laughter of no purpose”.
Melchior comes across an old acquaintance, the poet Stanton. In a conversation, Stanton explicitly links Prozess to death when he tells Melchior that it is not, as Melchior believes, that poets, artists, and writers are more susceptible to the lunar fever (the moon, of course, long being associated with madness). They are the cause of it:
. . . the affliction had germinated within certain sections of mankind, blossoming from the depths of the unconscious, and noxiously flowering into reality.
We are too weak to master our dreams . . . What you call the lunar fever is a symptom, not the cause. I know now that that face is staring back at us from the moon. The Death’s Head. The doctor. We have been found wanting.
Stanton expands the list of those bringing Prozess’ into reality beyond Melchior’s conception. “Certain sections” might include artificial intelligence researcher Parry (“Decay”) and Zeno, who might have been a philosopher, in “An End to Perpetual Motion”. Mastering dreams, realizing them via various kinds of liberation in the modern world, may be what Stanton means.
Stanton, drunk, drifts off to sleep. When he wakes, Melchior peers into his black, vacant eyes:
direct visual access to the phantasmagoria of cryptic images that raged like an aurora inside his empty skull. His dreams flared and finally consumed his consciousness.
Waters in “Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning” has, practically speaking, her consciousness consumed. Prozess seems almost a metaphor for the dark ideas that can well up from the human mind, particularly in intellectuals, and consume humanity. In “The Crimson Fog”, perhaps unmastered dreams have turned future humans into “fiends” that threaten the whole world.
The story ends with that bit of verse going through Melchior’s mind, his thoughts not his own. He will “laugh and dance and dream” with the dark denizens of the Court of Midnight. Perhaps he will end up like Stanton or, maybe, Waters. Also, the story’s final line – a message from Prozess promisng “great revelations”, brings to mind the title of Prozess’ play: New Quests for Nothing. It seems Melchior with end up not with knowledge but mere phantasmagorias in his brain like Stanton.
The only story original to this collection is the final one, “In the Complex”, and its portrayal of Doctor Prozess gathers all the other thematic manifestations of him in earlier stories and presents him as a destructive manifestation of modernity. Its narrator finds himself whisked away one night. He’s told he’s suffering from some unnamed disease, a disease which could affect others, and will be treated – whether he wants to be or not.
We are introduced to Prozess in the very first paragraph:
But no longer. I am not, after all, entitled to the rights of a prisoner. Dr Prozess has finally explained the facts to me: I am a symptom of a disease; he is the antidote to it.
Prozess operates in a complex, an architectural term, a term of modernity, associated with a collection of buildings dedicated to a specific purpose.
We see his appearances in earlier stories and his destructive aspects mirrored here. There is the death of mentation (both in “Decay” and “Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning”), society corroded in the isolation of the inmates at the complex and the removal of the narrator from his earlier life (elements in “Decay” and “Court of Midnight”), and entropy in the serial amputations and removals of organs on the narrator’s body. (Zeno undergoes a more rapid disintegration of body in “End to Perpetual Motion”).
The sinister doggerrel of “Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning” and “Court of Midnight” is repeated here by an orderly. The process the narrator undergoes seems to eliminate linear time when the narrator meets his future mutilated self who speaks English backwards. There is also the destruction of culture (as in “Decay”) that we see in the library’s books being destroyed and the narrator’s notes constantly being destroyed.
We also get new aspects of the doctor. Prozess regards the mind of the narrator as a “problem” to be mended. After reading books in the complex’s library which state “You are not to read this book” and “Forget about this book”, he comes across one that says “You are the book.” Prozess won’t countenance self-awareness.
At the story’s end, the narrator is taken outside the complex and sees
A television-sky receiving a broadcast of a close-up of the death’s-head moon. Brilliant, dazzling blacks and whites, combining and recombining; maddening in intensity; a heaven of unendurably nightmarish static.
That only hearkens back to “Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning” and “Court of Midnight” in its lunar imagery but another characteristic Samuels’ motif is there too, the tv screen.
Besides the perhaps unintentional association of Prozess with modern medical tyranny, he is associated with genocide here with the reference to the packed trains that will eventually take the narrator out of the complex. The “seeping corrosion of inevitable futurity” the narrator speaks of also partakes of the idea of entropy in “Decay” and “End to Perpetual Motion”.
Finally, with the story’s two concluding paragraphs
Now they have finally loaded me onto one of the trains whose destination is nowhere, along with all the others of my ilk from the complex—we who had brought this fate upon ourselves.
And thus, of necessity, to be utterly forgotten, as futurity must redact the past.
we get a hint of our own modernity being implicated in the dire fate waiting us at the hands of Dr. Prozess. The trains carry us to death-camps we made for ourselves.
Prozess is a destroyer of history which again ties into the theme of cultural destruction, the crippling of mentation, the rewriting of our consciousness to perceive a constricted period of time.
That is the book Prozess wants to write in our minds.