Double Star by Robert A Heinlein

The first sci-fi novel I ever read by Robert A. Heinlein got me from the very first:

If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman. It is a logical necessity. His profession makes him feel like boss of all creation; when he sets foot dirtside he is slumming among the peasants.

Our protagonist is the actor Lorenzo, a man whose narrative voice is immediately appealing partially because of how strongly defined it is, and in part because you can’t help but suspect Heinlein is having a go at a certain class of refined folks who project erudition yet are facile beyond belief; take the following quote, upon our protagonist observing a pair of new acquaintances almost come to blows: “I had no thought of interfering. Every man is entitled to elect the time and manner of his own destruction”. A good line, yet I can’t help there’s a little something pointed at our fancy thespian. Self-titled the “Great,” Lorenzo is indeed a most skilled actor, but also a foul human being, racist as anything you’ve ever seen:

Nobody could accuse me of race prejudice. I didn’t care what a man’s color, race, or religion was. But men were men, whereas Martians were things. They weren’t even animals to my way of thinking. I’d rather have had a wart hog around me any day. Permitting them in restaurants and bars used by men struck me as outrageous. But there was the Treaty, of course, so what could I do?

Here I’ll freely admit, Heinlein easily won me over, since he turns this character deficiency into criticism—and without any subtlety, which I am fond of. Subtlety has its time and place, which I would argue is not applicable in combating racism—and that, as it turns out, is a motif near and dear to Heinlein’s heart. Though he was something of a political zig-zagger throughout his life, and a libertarian, he was staunchly anti-racist and of the three Hugo books I’ve read at the time of writing this, his is the most socially progressive sci-fi of the fifties.

But let’s return to Lorenzo for another minute. His character development helps propel you through Double Star; it’s very appealing, seeing massive growth from a starting point best defined by thoughts that go a little like: “Unfortunately my aristocratic features are entirely too distinguished, too handsome—a regrettable handicap for a character actor.” Our actor is a humble one, alright. This lack of humility will serve Lorenzo well when he is contracted to play the part of one of the most influential politicians of his day, the progressive John Joseph Bonforte, known as Chief to his coterie of followers. The Chief is leader of the opposition Expansionisty party, part classical liberal, part civil rights leader intent on political change—the beneficiaries of this change are not human racial minorities but the Martians, hated passionately by some backwards-thinking “peasants,” as the smooth-talking spacer Captain Dak calls them. Lorenzo himself, we find out, feels respulsed by the Martians during their acrid smell, a physiological reaction easily changed through hypnosis. This change allows our intrepid actor to rethink his prejudices and see so much where before he was blinded by prejudice.

The play Lorenzo pulls is, itself, a delight to follow, and not at all free of complications that force him to live deeper and deeper into Bonforte’s persona. Policies that are at first loathsome to the actor eventually become his own, and the distance between thespian and role increasingly shortens.

There are some wonderful asides, like this quote about the way language works:

“It is nevertheless the case,” I answered, “that a line which looks okay in print may not dellver well. Mr. Bonforte is a great orator, I have already learned. He belongs with Webster, Churchill, and Demosthenes-a rolling grandeur expressed in simple words. Now take this word ‘intransigent,’ which you have used twice. I might say that, but I have a weakness for polysyllables; I like to exhibit my literary erudition. But Mr. Bonforte would stay ‘stubborn’ or ‘mulish’ or ‘pigheaded.’ The reason he would is, naturally, that they convey emotion much more effectively.”

This is a great point—Anglo-Saxon words resonate better emotionally than words whose origins rest in either Latin or French. Another favourite of mine is the following exchange about the nature of politics:

“Politics is a dirty game!” “No,” Clifton answered insistently. “There is no such thing as a dirty game. But you sometimes run into dirty players.” “I don’t see the difference.” “There is a world of difference. Quiroga [opposition politician] is a third-rater and a stooge-in my opinion, a stooge for villains. But there is nothing third-rate about John Joseph Bonforte and he has never, ever been a stooge for anyone. As a follower, he believed in the cause; as the leader, he has led from conviction!”

It’s also a book I feel I’ve learned a great deal from—I never knew before what a Farley file was, for example. One point of contention is that Heinlein’s view on women in the future isn’t much more advanced than Bestler’s—though there is at least a major female character, Penelope, she’s still relegated to the role of secretary. Now, she is insanely capable and the reason Lorenzo doesn’t fall apart several times over; but you’ll still find certain elements of her portrayal which leave something to be desired.

Double Star is a clear favourite for my favourite character-driven sci-fi of the fifties so far. It’s flowed the easiest across all the 1950s Hugo winners, and I’m eager to see how it compares to the other Heinlein novels that earned the award—it’s an easy enough recommendation to make. Having read Starship Trooper since, I also think this is by far the superior novel—but that is a discussion for another time!

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