Bill Ward's Reviews > Double Star

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
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May 18, 2011

bookshelves: sf-review

Before Stranger in a Strange Land, before Starship Troopers, and before The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, there was Double Star, Heinlein’s first, and least known, Hugo Award wining novel. It isn’t a big idea novel, you aren’t going to see people throwing around words they don’t understand, like ‘fascist,’ when they talk about it. In a way, Double Star — which has nothing to do with binary star systems, if you were thinking it did — is sort of a hybrid of a Heinlein juvenile and one of his idea books. It’s short and uncomplicated, fast-paced and fun, but also takes its central message seriously and presents us with one of Heinlein’s most memorable characters.

Lorenzo Smythe — or Larry Smith if you check his birth certificate — is an actor. As ‘The Great Lorenzo’ he’s a one man stock company, a “Pantomimist and Mimicry Artist Extraordinary.” He’s also flat broke and completely full of himself. An apparently chance encounter with a spacer, man-of-action Captain Dak Broadbent, changes all that and Larry — excuse me, The Great Lorenzo — finds himself on the way to Mars and in the midst of the acting challenge of a lifetime.

On Mars, Lorenzo’s assignment is to perfectly mimic one of the most famous political figures in the Solar Empire, a man named John Joseph Bonforte, head of the Loyal Opposition to His Majesty’s Government and leader of the Expansionist Party. The real Bonforte, in a plot reminiscent of The Prisoner of Zenda, has been kidnapped by his political enemies — removed from action so that he cannot attend a crucial ceremony that would see him adopted into a Martian nest.

I get a bit of sympathetic nostalgia about science fiction of this era, the time when you could have Martians and Venusians (or, Venerians as Heinlein would have them) rubbing shoulders with spacers from earth, confident men who steered their atomic rockets between the planets with naught but a slide rule to guide them. It was a different time, and a different aesthetic, and Double Star reflects it. It was also a very different time politically and socially, and science fiction was just starting to move beyond its ray-guns and rockets roots to take on social and political issues — something Heinlein would become famous (or infamous) for.

And Double Star does play with some of these issues, most notably racism. Lorenzo hates Martians, he’s scared of them, but as Bonforte he must deal closely with them. After a bit of hypnotic conditioning he’s able to suppress his fear — and that’s enough for him to start to see the Martians for the extraordinary beings they are, rather than just obsess about their otherness. Racism could be seen as one of the primary differences between Bonforte’s party and that of his rivals, the Humanity Party, who want to exclude non-human races from mankind’s empire. All of this is fairly casually laid into the story, which isn’t anything like as political as, say, Starship Troopers, but it’s a clear and unambiguous denouncement of racism written in a time prior to the Civil Rights movement.

But the real strength of the story lies in its central character, who also narrates. At first glance Lorenzo doesn’t seem anything like the typical Heinlein Competent Man protagonist — he’s fussy, relatively cowardly, extremely arrogant, not very practical, shallow, immature, and xenophobic. But as an actor, mimic, and student of human nature, he’s a genius, and Heinlein paints a compelling, if not exactly believable, picture of Lorenzo’s transformation into a perfect copy of Bonforte. The various behavioral minutia Lorenzo adopts and the schemes of his handlers to avoid detection all make for an entertaining read.

What was supposed to turn into a brief stint as Bonforte’s replacement becomes a great deal longer, due to injuries the real Bonforte suffered at the hands of his kidnappers. And here is the real transformation of Lorenzo’s — and the true heart of the book — because the mimic becomes the subject. Lorenzo tries on another’s skin as a challenge and retains it as a duty — a concept he could only have learned when he stopped being Lorenzo. Double Star is really about taking responsibility as a fully-fledged adult, as our feckless and selfish narrator transforms into a a genuinely dedicated, and even wise, leader of the people. It’s all done so skillfully in-between the breathless pace of events that it has a way of sneaking up on the reader, just as it did on Lorenzo.

Double Star is a fun and undemanding book that prefigures Heinlein’s great idea novels, but itself doesn’t contain anything especially controversial. Even by today’s PC standards, Double Star comes across more as quaint than offensive; such as in the case of the shrinking violet of a female lead, Bonforte’s love-struck and childlike secretary, who is sketched with such innocence it’s hard to take her emptiness seriously. The book is certainly the product of the fifties, with some dated idioms, Leave It To Beaver style sexual politics, black-and-white morality, and some notions about the future that will of course appear dated today. But it holds up despite all this, and is worth reading for the quirky narrator and Heinlein’s phenomenal ability to tell a story.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out my review site, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND
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