Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Protostars (1971): P Sargent, D R Bunch, R Deeley & B Weissman

Here comes part three of our exhaustive look at Protostars, the anthology edited by David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin 50 years ago that I bought for 50 cents at the Second Story Book location on Dupont Circle.  The authors of today's four stories are Pamela Sargent, David R. Bunch, Roger Deeley and Barry Weissman.

Gerrold writes an introduction to each of these stories, but he doesn't really say much that is interesting in them; it is as if presenting some memorable intros in the first half of the book he is running out of steam. 

"Oasis" by Pamela Sargent

The main reason I took Protostars off the paperback anthology shelves of the MPorcius Library is that I had just read Sargent's story "Matthew" in the anthology Ten Tomorrows and thought it was pretty good, and wondered if I had any other Sargent stories on hand.  "Oasis" would go on to be translated into French, and was also included in the 1977 Sargent collection Starshadows.  

"Oasis" is a good horror story; its premise feels fresh and Sargent does a good job with all the descriptions and with how she doles out information to us and leads up to the big reveal.  I wouldn't say it has a surprise or twist ending, because everything flows logically from beginning to end, but things happen that I didn't expect, and our feelings for the various characters evolve, and when they do it provides the reader a satisfying jolt.  Thumbs up!

An American, Simon Atenn, is living in the desert in the Middle East, at an oasis.  We observe his special abilities in operation, and learn about the curse they have inflicted on him--this guy can sense, can experience, the feelings of living things that are nearby, like a tree's pleasure at the touch of sunlight, and its discomfort when its roots can find no water.  The feelings of a mammal, particularly a human being, affect him far more acutely, and a big contributor to the story's dark and pessimistic tone is that most human feelings are a reflection of human evil or degradation, and so the presence of other people near Atenn causes him pain.  When the Arab who delivers Atenn's supplies comes by with his camel, Atenn has to shoot up with morphine to endure his immersive sensing of this creep's greed and lust.

Later, a middle-aged American geologist staggers into the oasis--his jeep has broken down.  He is part of an American team in the Middle East working to stabilize and rebuild the place, which has been wrecked by a war between Israel and its enemies that saw the detonation of nuclear weapons.  This guy has to stay with Atenn, and the agony of experiencing the geologist's age-related aches and pains, the early stages of cancer in his lungs, and his nightmares when he sleeps, starts driving Atenn insane.  When Atenn goes over the edge he commits a terrible crime and we learn all about what he did back in the U.S.A. before he moved to this desert.

I've already got a list of fiction I want to read too long for me to complete before inevitable death strikes me down, but maybe I should slip more Sargent stories into the schedule. 

"Holdholtzer's Box" by David R. Bunch

Bunch's story is a bitter satire, a satire of a bunch of stuff people satirize all the time, I guess all of them fitting under the broad category of "capitalism."  Our narrator is a journalist, and relates how years ago he interviewed an inventor with a German-sounding name, the Holdholtzer of the title, a man who would go on to be such a great success that his workshop was since been turned into a monument.  The interview took place just before Holdholtzer achieved his success, when the narrator was sort of down on his luck, in a difficult marriage, and was desperate to interview Holdholtzer because he needed the money.

Holdholtzer, the narrator finds, has invented a large black box and is going to mass produce it--he assures the narrator that he will only employ union labor in his factories.  The boxes have mirrors and pretty lights inside, and Holdholtzer thinks he can charge people a thousand bucks ("people love to spend money") to take a "ride" in the box for 24-hours.  Nota bene: the box doesn't actually go anywhere.  Inside the box is a toilet, water and food.  Also, a means for the person stuck inside to commit suicide and thus contribute to solving the overpopulation problem.  When the journalist asks why anybody would pay for such an experience, Holdholtzer says advertising and publicity, novelty and the promise of challenge, will bring in the customers.  People who get out of the box alive will be authorized to wear some kind of medal or ribbon and brag to their friends, and, like a diploma or an honorable discharge form the military, this evidence of the ability to see a project through to completion will make the box survivor more attractive to employers. 

Barely acceptable.  Maybe if you miss the Soviet Union and have an insatiable appetite to see hackneyed criticisms of our market society thinly dramatized you will enjoy "Holdholtzer's Box" more than I did.  I will take issue with Bunch's style as well as his theme; while as the story goes on it becomes increasingly simple and obvious, it begins with obscure, long-winded and convoluted metaphors ostensibly meant to describe Holdholtzer's physical appearance and how it reflects his psychology.  Maybe those are a joke about how the journalist is a pretentious but sloppy writer?

"Holdholtzer's Box" does not seem to have ever been reprinted; I guess nobody at The Daily Worker (which I guess by 1971 had been renamed The Daily World) read Protostars. 

"The Five-Dimensional Sugar Cube" by Roger Deeley   

This is a lame wish-fulfillment fantasy that feels quite long and offers no tension or excitement.  Our hero is a middle-class Londoner who commutes to work on the train everyday.  He has fallen in love with an attractive young woman he regularly sees on the train, but is too shy to speak to her.  Our hero is also a smart guy interested in recondite theoretical physics, a guy who reads books about things like the fifth dimension and infinity and who has developed his own theories about them.  The story's absurd passages about how the fifth dimension is the human mind or whatever are just a foundation for the story's real plot.

The hero figures out how to control his dreams, and then how to enter the dreams of others and control them, and the story's true plot is how he uses this power to court that woman from the train.  He jumps into her dreams, and tries to win her affection, and she playfully resists his advances; in a way that is not really explained, the protagonist has given her the power to control things in the dream as well.  So there are silly surreal scenes in which each summons up environments and objects with which to challenge the other; she makes a menacing jaguar appear and he summons a weapon with which to neutralize it, he keeps making a bed appear and inviting her to share it with him, and so on.  Eventually he wins her over and they become a happy couple.

The science speculations in the story take up lots of ink but are just boring nonsense--Deeley would have been better off making this a fantasy story about a wizard who falls for a noblewoman he saw at court or, if he wanted to be transgressive, like Clark Ashton Smith or Tanith Lee, a demoness or some kind of monster.  The protagonist's pursuit of the love interest is just page after page of lame scenes; Deeley doesn't put interesting obstacles in the hero's way or give the hero clever or exciting means of overcoming the obstacles--it wasn't even clear what he had done to overcome the woman's initial resistance.  (It seems the woman was always attracted to him and all this dream stuff is superfluous.)  A good writer, one able to arouse the reader's emotions, conjure up compelling images, and conceive obstacles and means of overcoming them that are either novel and thus surprising or authentic and thus something with which readers can identify, could build a fun or even moving story around this plot, but Deeley apparently lacks the abilities to do so.

Thumbs down!

This is another story which has never seen print outside of Protostars.

"And Watch the Smog Roll In..." by Barry Weissman

And here's yet another.  Weissman has only four stories listed at isfdb, and this is the fourth and final one.

"And Watch the Smog Roll In..." is a competent satire about bureaucracy and pollution and government corruption and incompetence, set in the Los Angeles of the future, where the smog is so bad that people wear oxygen masks and the streets are a battlefield where gangs fight it out with each other, and with the police, and casualty figures in the dozens are not unheard of.  

Jerry's beloved grandfather takes a walk every afternoon.  One day he doesn't return, so Jerry's Dad calls the cops.  Before looking for Grandpa, the boys in blue require that Jerry's Dad fill out an extensive form, but Dad doesn't remember such essential data as his father's library card number and date of high school graduation, and so he cannot complete the form.   The fuzz can't begin the search for Grandpa without a completed form in hand, so it is not until the next morning that Jerry's grandfather is found--dead, some ne'er-do-well having stolen Grandpa's oxygen mask, leaving him vulnerable to the deadly smog.

The cops bring the corpse to Jerry's family's house, and Jerry's Dad tries to hire the services of a funeral home to have his father buried, but the undertakers have the same sorts of forms the police have, and can't bury Grandpa without the provision of long forgotten official information only obtainable from long lost official records.  Should Jerry take matters into his own hands?  Can he cut the Gordian knot presented by his grandfather's rotting corpse without himself running afoul of the esoteric regulations of the corrupt local government?

"And Watch the Smog Roll In..." moves at a brisk pace and the jokes are not original but they work; I'll give this one a mild recommendation. 


Sargent's story has some originality and is well crafted.  Bunch, Weissman and Deeley handle material that is sort of obvious and traditional, but Deeley does so incompetently while Bunch does so in an idiosyncratic and passable manner and Weissman in a straightforwardly effective fashion.  

We finish up with Protostars in our next episode.  Wait with bated breath!  

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