Parliamentary Democracy with Martians: Robert Heinlein’s Double Star

Double Star may well be Heinlein’s best novel. It’s generally a useless argument to try to determine what is the very best, but even those people leaping up at this very moment to push the “comment” button to shout out names of other books would probably agree that this one is certainly a contender. It dates from when a book could be short and still be respected—it won a Hugo, but it’s barely an afternoon’s read. I have always loved it because it does everything right.

There’s a first person narrator, Laurence Smith, aka the Great Lorenzo, a vain out-of-work actor who is hired to go to Mars to impersonate a politician, Bonforte, in a complicated act of interplanetary diplomacy. Lorenzo writes in Heinlein’s confidential confident voice, beginning with the pronouncement: “If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman.” But the beauty of it is that Lorenzo is an unreliable narrator, he changes his mind as the story goes on, he is conned, he becomes not only the simulacrum but the reality of Bonforte. Within the 140 pages of the novel Lorenzo changes his mind about everything from Martians to royalty, all in that confident tone and without ever noticing that he has really changed. Everything in him changes except that most important maxim: “the show must go on”.

Double Star has a tight exciting plot that never stops moving, an interesting future solar system with aliens and intrigue, and down-and-dirty parliamentary politics that actually make sense. But it is as a character study that it excels. I always say that a good character brings everything else along with them—their world, because only their world could have made them, and plot, because they have to be doing something. Double Star illustrates this perfectly.

I also especially like the title. I have a weakness for titles that sound one kind of science fictional and turn out to be another kind. (When Gravity Fails is another favourite example.) “Double Star” refers of course to Lorenzo and Bonforte, not to astronomy.

The technology is interesting—as so often in 1950s books the spaceships are far ahead of the computers. The thing that made me blink was the tape spools small enough to slip into your handbag that could hold ten thousand words. How writers must have longed for them in 1955! How quaint they seem now, when last week a writer friend handed me a whole novel on a flashdrive small enough to get lost at the bottom of a handbag! But as is usual for Heinlein the explanation of what’s important about the “Farleyfile” still holds good, even though the technical details may have become obsolete. The same goes for the Martians—there are no Martians, but tolerance of diversity remains a good thing. I also especially commend Heinlein for seeing and noting the virtues and advantages of a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy—Heinlein was a proud American, but you can see here that he wasn’t blinkered by that.

I sometimes run across people who have read some random Heinlein book and can’t understand why he dominated the genre for so long. Double Star is what I always suggest they read if they want to understand it. Writers can sigh at the smooth incluing, the beautiful pacing, the subtlety of voice—if they can get the necessary distance to admire it without being drawn right in to it. If I don’t enjoy reading it now as much as when I was twelve, that’s only because it doesn’t hold any surprises any more.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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