Double Star.

My latest Insider post covers Mike Leake’s contract with St. Louis. I don’t think I’ll be able to chat this week, but will get the word out if that changes.

I picked up Robert Heinlein’s short 1956 novel Double Star just before Thanksgiving when the e-book was on sale for $1.99, but it was already on my to-do list since it won Heinlein the first of his four Hugo Awards for Best Novel. While it wasn’t among his first novels, Double Star was only his third novel geared toward the adult audience rather than the juvenile readers of most of his early work, and presaged his turn around 1959’s Starship Troopers toward this sort of more serious literature.

Double Star is the fictional memoir of the actor Lawrence Smith, a.k.a. Lorenzo Smythe, who is coerced or tricked into a job – or perhaps he just took it because he was desperate, and concocted the reasons later – that involves serving as a stand-in for a major opposition politician in the solar system-wide government, a constitutional monarchy similar to that of the United Kingdom. The politician is indisposed for at least a few days, and Smythe needs to stand in for him at a major function on Mars, after which he’s to be paid and sent back to wherever he wants, but as you can easily predict, the job lasts longer than Smythe expects.

Although Heinlein’s milieu was science fiction, with Double Star taking place on Mars, the Moon, and various ships, the science aspects of the novel are almost irrelevant to the plot itself, and often serve as a distraction. The only meaningful addition from the sci-fi setting is the hostility between humans and Martians (described in the book as an intelligent if rather horrifying-looking species), which seems like a strong metaphor for ethnocentric policies in the racially and politically divided human world, such as the nascent civil rights movement in the United States at the time Heinlein was writing the book. Most of the other science fiction elements could go by the wayside without affecting the core story; some seem patently ridiculous now (Heinlein loved to depict settlement and/or native life on Venus) or incongruous (he was fine writing about travel as far as Pluto, but has characters doing tabulations by hand rather than on computers).

Instead, Double Star is a character study that happens to have a sci-fi backdrop. Smythe/Smith is a fatuous, egotistical actor of only modest success, down on his luck when he’s first approached about the job, yet playing the prima donna in all negotiations with his employers/captors. He’s the stereotypical method actor, inhabiting the part rather than just playing it, but also manages to grow somewhat even as he’s spending less and less time being himself. The fool we laugh at in the book’s first half becomes a modest hero in the second half, as he’s asked to do things that would stretch even the strongest personalities. With Heinlein often saying that readers shouldn’t look for metaphor or subtext in his work – I don’t buy that, but hey, it’s his writing – I do think his own argument for Double Star would have been built around the character first and the story second. Here’s a cleverly crafted individual, well-rounded, capable of growth, put in a situation that starts out as difficult and ends up nearly impossible.

It’s only about 140 pages, barely even novel-length, and since most of the sci-fi stuff feels tacked on or superfluous I’m not sure about this as Hugo-worthy, although I’d guess the competition at the time was mostly pulp anyway. I’m not terribly fit to judge the book in Heinlein’s canon, though, since I still have two more of his Hugo winners, the more widely acclaimed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, left to read.

Next up: Almost done with Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.


  1. Keith,

    I read at ten years old (circa 1961) everything that Heinlein had written and then all his later work. It inspired me to read, think and later to write. Isn’t that what an author should do?

    Thanks for refreshing the memories.

  2. Heinlein was profoundly anti-racist; it was a matter of faith for him that people should be judged as individuals and not by categories. The anti-xenophobia message in Double Star was not incidental, and it showed up often in his juveniles. The book also draws on Heinlein’s time in California politics, which came between the Navy and writing – it’s not well known that he was a socialist back then.

    Since you recently read Starship Troopers, I’m sure you noticed that it was revealed in the final pages that protagonist was Filipino. Non-white protagonists were not something expected back in ’50s-era sci-fi. He had done it before, but no one noticed. In his juvenile Tunnel in the Sky (1955) there seemed to be romantic feelings between the hero and a Zulu girl, and the other characters seem to think they’ll end up together. Even though they don’t, some readers complained about miscegenation. Heinlein thought he had left sufficient clues that the hero was himself black, but that possibility just didn’t seem to occur to anyone. He decided to be more explicit with the reveal at the end of ST.

    He also broke ground with a female protagonist in Podkayne of Mars a few years later, which wasn’t meant as a juvenile but got mistaken for one because of her age and the fact that they made him nerf the ending, where originally she died.

    Sorry about the info dump, but his commitment to equality I think is his best feature. It’s a central theme of his best late-period novel, Friday (1982).

  3. Dave ~ Heinlein also, unfortunately, wrote some pretty overtly racist works such as Fifth Column and Farnham’s Freehold which were very hostile to Asian and Africans respectively. And, well, taste is obviously personal, but Friday was written to pay his wife’s medical bills and in my opinion was pretty obviously done quickly and without much development of character just trying to hit us over the head with the idea that genetically altered people are people.

    I read Double Star after having earlier read the John Varley’s “Golden Globe.” Upon reflection, Varley’s Sparky Valentine seemed based loosely on Smith / Smythe, the method actor beaten by his father as a training method becoming more than what was expected. Varley’s sci-fi is more essential to the story than is Heinlein’s in Double Star, but the former does what good science fiction does – adds to the story rather than driving it.

  4. Well, I guess opinions vary.

    Heinlein considered himself to have toned down the original racism in Sixth Column by portraying it on both sides, as well as introducing a nisei hero. (The original story was by Campbell, but it was a mess. Since he wasn’t allowed to sell to himself anymore he asked Heinlein to make it work, and Heinlein wasn’t at a point in his career where he could turn down a guaranteed sale.) And he tried to undermine stereotypes by flipping them in Farnham’s Freehold. You could argue that he failed artistically and it was still racism, but I’ve read about half his published work and I can promise you his efforts to try to combat it were sincere and career-long.

    There’s a great (two volume!) biography of Heinlein that came out recently, by William Patterson, that I highly recommend. His life up until he became an established writer (basically volume 1) was fascinating. And he was never a guy who felt any great artistic compulsion to write; he was a life-long sci-fi fan but he only tried it himself when he was at loose ends and needed a way to make a living. It was always to pay the bills.

    He incidentally was also totally committed to women’s equality professionally, but he often is accused of chauvinism because of his attitudes on social relations…. and that hits closer to the mark. Don’t get me started on Glory Road.

  5. Keith,

    You do understand that anytime you cancel your chat, baby Jesus cries, right?

  6. Sam Nekrosius

    Keith–just as a heads up in case you hadn’t seen already, Simmons’ Hyperion is part of a series–the last two books are pretty terrible, but if you at all like Hyperion, it’s definitely worth reading Fall of Hyperion, as it brings all the pilgrims’ stories to a close. I always liked Hyperion and its sequel (though not much else Simmons wrote)–it’s creative and ambitious and fun. Looking forward to your review.