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Double Star

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Robert A. Heinlein won his first Hugo in 1956, Double Star being only the third novel so honored. There are parts that are among my favorite scenes in all of RAH's work, others that show a less sophisticated approach, but that is in keeping with the majority of what was going on in the genre during that period. One thing that is different than most is it was a novel of character more than plot. Heinlein is known for a lot of first-person narratives, and few are as well developed as this one. Laurence Smith, aka Lorenzo Smythe, aka "The Great Lorenzo," is fully realized and totally consistent throughout. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the concept is not original, relying on a long literary tradition, with Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda being the most prominent predecessor.

Taken at his word, Lorenzo is an accomplished actor, just down on his luck because he's not the right type for the most rewarding of parts. He is nursing a drink in a seedy bar, and trying to hide from creditors, when he is approached by a stranger he immediately identifies as a "spacer." Smith/Smythe is not only a good actor, he's a keen observer of human behavior and actions, and he startles the other man with this observation. That the stranger initially denies the accusation should have been a warning, but Smith is persuaded to consider the man's proposal because he is desperate for money. Meeting with the spaceman later at his hotel, Smith gets into a situation way over his head, and yet he has already agreed to do the job, and he is nothing if not a man of his word. "The show must go on," as they say.

Smuggled off Earth and bound for Mars, Smith starts to have major doubts when he realizes who he has been hired to impersonate. John Joseph Bonforte is a very prominent politician, head of the Expansionist Party, currently out of power but likely to be back on top after the next election in the constitutional monarchy/parliamentary system in this future scenario. Bonforte is very popular in certain circles, reviled and hated in others. Not only does Smith figure he is being set up to take a bullet in an assassination attempt, the matter is made worse by the fact that he does not agree with Bonforte's agenda, which is the inclusion of non-human species in the political process of the Solar System. This is another example of early SF which preceded knowledge of our planetary neighbors, and Heinlein is not the only writer to populate Mars (as well as Venus and other planets) with alien beings. He utilized this in other novels too, but the descriptions of the aliens varies from book to book, which can be explained away by referencing his later "multiverse" tales. The Martians in Double Star somewhat resemble the way they were described in Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, whereas in Podkayne of Mars the Martians were long extinct. It doesn't really matter in this instance, since the Martians are just the McGuffin in this story, as a mystery writer would term it.

Smith is assured that assassination is nothing to worry about, in fact it is the least likely thing to happen. Bonforte is scheduled to be adopted into a Martian family nest, and his political opponents do not want this to happen since it would surely force a vote of confidence in the Parliament shortly thereafter, a vote they fear they will lose. Bonforte has been kidnapped to forestall this happening, but his aides are under the gun and up against the clock, because the adoption ceremony has to occur at the appointed time or else Bonforte becomes a persona non grata in all Martian nests. His opponents can't kill him because that would initiate a reprisal from the Martians, likely to result in the deaths of all humans on Mars, if not an all-out war between the two planets.

As mentioned earlier, the strength of this novel is not in the plot, but in the exploration of character, not only of Smith the actor but also Bonforte the politician. Smith immerses himself in the role, learning as much as he can about Bonforte in the short period of time he has before the adoption ceremony. He surprises himself when he starts to change his opinion of the politician, at first explaining it away by the fact an actor must become the other person as much as possible, and if you don't like yourself then you might as well give up living. Bonforte is a man of conviction and purpose, something with which Smith can easily identify, and he is continually reminded of things his father taught him about duty and honor and sense of purpose. Smith also comes to genuinely like the people who work for Bonforte (with one exception), and he surmises that a person who has chosen these particular people to work for him is a person to be trusted. In turn, he gets increased respect from them (also with that one exception), not only for the excellent impersonation, but also his honorable actions on his own.

Heinlein also intersperses the narrative with details of the political process, and I think the first time I read it is when I started thinking the system as described was a better one than the United States implemented. Not the monarch part of course, but the parliamentary approach to continual accountability, and most particularly the short campaign time. We do have the recall and impeachment processes, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who has thought it would be nice if we could call a vote to depose someone whenever we felt confident we could win. Then again, with our current political climate that might happen all too frequently to get any work done in Washington. Enough of that though. The question at hand is if Double Star is worth your time. It won't surprise anyone that my answer is a resounding yes! Long live The Great Lorenzo!

 

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Author
Robert A. Heinlein

Published
1955

Awards
Hugo

Available from amazon.com