Double Star

Robert A. Heinlein
Double Star Cover

Double Star (and My Heinlein Problem)

Scott Laz

To begin with a digression, I was never much of a Robert A. Heinlein fan. Growing up as a science fiction kid in the 1970s, I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about, but back then, being indifferent to Heinlein made me question my tastes. Everybody seemed to love Heinlein. He was one of the "big three" (and I was a fan of the other two--Asimov and Clarke). So I kept giving him a try. I quite liked The Past Through Tomorrow--the collection of his mostly early-career future history stories. I can definitely see that he was writing some of the best short fiction of the Forties. But the novels--The Puppet Masters, Starship Troopers, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land--I thought they were okay, but just okay. It's difficult to explain, but there always seemed to be something about each of his novels that rubbed my teenage self the wrong way. Then, in 1980, the first new (in my reading lifetime) Heinlein novel came out so, like all good SF fans in 1980, I made the mistake of reading The Number of the Beast, and swore off Heinlein forever. Based on what I've learned since, post-1960 Heinlein increasingly allowed his libertarian politics and "interesting" views regarding sexuality to overwhelm his storytelling (which could explain my half-remembered uneasy reaction to those novels), and most of the novels I tried were from this later period, so I've been meaning to take a look at an earlier novel at some point.

So, when Gary K. Wolfe, whose tastes I've come to respect based on his monthly book reviews in Locus, included Double Star (1956) in the Library of America's American Science Fiction collection, I figured it was time to give the guy one more try. After all, people still like Heinlein, and there's no denying his influence on subsequent SF writers, so there must be something there. If nothing else, maybe I could figure out why I never jumped on that bandwagon.

After reading Double Star, several things stand out about his approach to science fiction. Heinlein doesn't put the same importance on big SF ideas and wild concepts as did Asimov, Clarke, and my other preferred Golden Age writers. Instead, there is a realism that arises from the presentation of a "lived-in" future world. He tends to keep the futuristic technology in the background, serving the story. Instead of emphasizing the strangeness of the setting, he indicates that people will have many of the same concerns they do today (or, more accurately, as they did when the novel was written). In the case of Double Star, these concerns include politics, ethics, professionalism, and romance. That's not to say that a futuristic vision is unimportant to Heinlein. Rather, you get the impression that, to the people of the future, their present will be as mundane and problematic to them as ours is to us, but that, despite the fact that there will always be those who want to resist it, progress will continue. And, given the political ideas attributed to Heinlein later in his life, I found this vision of future progress to be surprisingly liberal.

"The people will take a certain amount of reform, then they want a rest. But the reforms stay. People don't really want change, any change at all--and xenophobia is very deep-rooted. But we progress, as we must--if we are to go out to the stars."

The plot concerns the political machinations within a future solar system where the main conflict is between a conservative xenophobic political party and the liberal Expansionist party, led by John Bonforte, a great statesmen working toward bringing the Martians into the human-dominated Grand Assembly--a sort of representative parliament that oversees the inhabited solar system. (Weirdly, future politics also has room for a figurehead Emperor of the Solar System, descended from the ruling Dutch House of Orange, who exercises his symbolic and advisory functions from a fabulous palace on the Moon.)

Attempting to sabotage a Martian ceremony that will make Bonforte an honorary Martian, his enemies kidnap him--a maneuver that the Expansionists cannot report, since Martian tradition allows no possible excuse for missing the ceremony. Instead, Bonforte's political team finds an actor with a resemblance to Bonforte and maneuvers him into accepting the job of impersonating the politician long enough to foil the anti-Expansionist plot and to recover Bonforte. The novel is narrated by this actor, Lorenzo Smythe ("the Great Lorenzo"), whose initial apolitical self-centeredness and anti-Martian bigotry is gradually broken down due to his putting himself into the Bonforte role, and getting to know (and coming to respect) the Expansionist political team.

The novel is short (about 150 pages in the Library of America edition) and clips along rapidly, with one plot twist or reversal after another. Within the first few pages, Smythe has been shanghaied by the Expansionists, attacked by the opposition, convinced to help dispose of three dead bodies, and smuggled onto a space cruiser headed for Mars, where he will take Bonforte's place at the adoption ceremony. Much of the enjoyment of the novel is plot-based, so I will reveal no more, but the unexpected twists and turns continue right to the end.

The characters reminded me of another aspect of Heinlein that I didn't particularly like--his tendency to present unbelievably accomplished heroes who know better than pretty much everyone around them. This problem isn't too noticeable in Double Star, however, which helped me enjoy the novel. (And, in fairness, not all readers will consider this a problem; it might be my problem.) Smythe does have a tendency toward know-it-all-ism, but he is not presented as likeable in the beginning, and is seen as earning his competence, to some extent. The more typical Heinlein hero is, in Double Star, a secondary character, manly man Dak Broadbent--expert space pilot, member of the General Assembly, Ph.D. in physics, irresistible to women, nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, etc., etc... And, as I recall is also usual with Heinlein, there is one important female character, Penny, who is presented as accomplished and competent in her own right, but who ultimately must take on the role of helper/secretary/wife, while needing the occasional talking-to when she lets her emotions get in the way of getting the job done. In this essay on the Library of America web site, Connie Willis defends Penny, writing that she "seems at first to be a very 1950s secretary-in-love-with-her-boss, but who (just like everyone else in the book) isn't quite what she seems." I didn't really see it that way, but in any case, Penny is certainly no worse than the female characters presented by other male SF writers of the Fifties. Remembering the social contexts in which these early SF novels were written and being willing to overlook some grating gender assumptions is an occupational hazard of investigating science fiction's history.

In the end, I wouldn't say that Double Star entirely rehabilitates Heinlein in my eyes, but the novel was certainly enjoyable overall. I can see why Wolfe would choose it among the novels presented as representative of the period, though to my taste it is one of the weaker selections in the Library of America volumes. Though the prose style is nothing special, the storytelling is first rate, the vision of the future, though necessarily dated now, is interesting to consider, and the characters are (mostly) tolerable. I may have to try a couple more of the Heinlein's Fifties novels (The Door into Summer also seems to have a good reputation), but, despite the author's importance in the development of science fiction (as Willis describes in the essay linked to above), and despite being someone who tends to defend older science fiction against modern critics who point out its flaws and claim its irrelevance, I still see Heinlein as less interesting than several other of his contemporaries (Simak and Sturgeon, to pick two examples) who are less well remembered today. That said, I would still recommend Double Star as a good entry point for anyone wanting to see what all the fuss is about.