Thu
Jul 22 2010 4:05pm

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.

21 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
[quote][i]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]
Heinlein was a true SF author. Combined with his interest in politics, this allowed him to explore a lot of different methods of governing. It's one of the reasons he so often gets tagged as a fill-in-the-blank-ist. People look at one book and assume he's advocating the form he's examining, when he's really just looking at the implications.

I've never really warmed to Double Star for some reason. Maybe it's Lorenzo's narrative voice, I don't know. This one has just never really worked for me. But the producers of Dave really should have paid his estate royalties.
j p
2. sps49
I can't understand any denigration of Heinlein. Well, his later stuff, okay; but you had better have read his great stuff before you say anything.

Maybe the outdated science in the fiction puts some people out, but I started in the 70s, and even if "piles" don't work that way and the Nazis didn't make it to the moon, Rocket Ship Galileo still rocks. No jungles on Venus, but Space Cadet, Podkayne of Mars, and Between Planets are still excellent works. Pluto has no wind, and isn't even a planet now, but Have Space Suit, Will Travel has two American youths defending the planet against three galaxies! without being ridiculous.
Del C
3. del
DemetriosX, there's a fellow called Anthony Hope on the phone, and he wants a word with you.
René Walling
5. cybernetic_nomad
Heinlein just leaves me cold, I can vaguely understand why he's so big, but I just don't get him the way so many people seem to (and, yes I escaped anything and everything written in the 70s and later, so according to most people I on;y read the "good" Heinlein).

The only novels of his I've bothered to re-read are Starship Trooper, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (my contender for the best Heinlein book) and Double Star which I re-read because it was the first Heinlein I had ever read and I wanted to see if it was as I remembered it. I'll probably wait another 30 years to re-read it, not that it was bad, just wasn't exciting enough to get the me I am today to give any others a try or to want to flip the book over and start it again. nest time I want to read Heinlein, I'll just crack open Harsh Mistress since it's the only book of his I go back to knowing I'll enjoy it
Christopher Key
6. Artanian
It's interesting - I first read this novel in high school from a Sci-Fi Book Club omnibus that contained Double Star, The Door Into Summer, and The Puppet Masters. And of the three, it was my least favorite, with Puppet Masters being my favorite.

Science fiction has its canon - those works that pretty much every modern SF author assumes that his readers are familiar with, limiting the ideas that need to be actively explained. For Heinlein, I'd list three of his novels as canon, but this isn't one of them. The three I'd list are Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Nicholas Waller
7. Nicholas Waller
I remember reading this in my school library in the 70s, and enjoying it. But the last page was missing.
Nicholas Waller
8. B. Durbin
Another theme I enjoy in Double Star is the idea of "you become who you pretend to be." It's hopeful and a warning at the same time.
Mitch Wagner
9. MitchWagner
Nicholas Weller (#7): The hero is also a ghost. Oh, damn, was that a spoiler?
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Artanian: I agree, it isn't one of Heinlein's canonical books or one of his most influential. I just think it's one of his most successful as a novel. I'm surprised how many people don't like it.

Mitch: Don't you mean a Martian?
Bob Blough
11. Bob
Jo,

I agree. This was the Heinlein highlight for me. After just re-reading Stranger and Double Star - Double Star still has the magic while Stranger trails into another Jubal rant. As an actor, this one has always been my favorite.
David Levinson
12. DemetriosX
Odd. I replied to del@3, pointing out that in Zenda the hero doesn't get the girl and ends the book essentially unchanged, unlike here or in Dave. I also linked to the Wikipedia article for The Prince and the Pauper and said that Twain would like to have a word with Mr. Hope. It appears to still be awaiting approval for some reason. (It's the missing #4 up there.)
Nicholas Waller
13. Brian2
Double Star is my favorite Heinlein novel as well. That and some of his fantasies, such as "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag."

It wasn't quite clear to me whether you were implying that Heinlein invented the Farley file, but in any case they've been around, under that name, since FDR (and, in one form or another, for millenia).
Clark Myers
14. ClarkEMyers
Farley File - two words - is an iPhone app. Not a commercial post just a note on what lasts and what changes with technology.

The name appears not only on the post office named for him but also on the respective cornerstones of many post offices built during his time in office.
Nicholas Waller
15. Dholton
I confess I've only read Double Star once, and it was many years ago. But in reading this review, I was surprised at how of it actually came back to me. Your mention of the "Farleyfiles" reminded how this novel was my first introduction into the real nuts and bolts of professional politics.

Smith's lesson in how disguise (or acting) is not in makeup but in body language and expression has also always stuck with me, as has his description of an old Charlie Chaplin routine...dang, it's amazing how much is coming back to me.

That being said, I have to say that I think the Heinlein novel that affected me most, so much so that I've never had the guts to go back and read it again, was Orphans in the Sky. Now, this is no doubt because I read it in Junior High, and was expecting another of his juveniles (not that I knew them as such), and the cognitive dissonance left me drooling on my desk with my brains leaking out of my ears. But the concept of a generation starship descending into barbarism on it's interstellar journey certainly made an impression on me.
Nicholas Waller
16. James Davis Nicoll
. But the concept of a generation starship descending into barbarism on it's interstellar journey certainly made an impression on me.

And almost every SF author who wrote about generation ships after Orphans of the Sky came out. It's a very rare generation ship that makes it to its destination without suffering some culture-wrecking,potentially mission-killing social break-down. Pamela Sargent's Earthseed features a successful generation ship but she cheats by not having the colonist children decanted until they are relatively near their destination.

It may be something about the idea of long voyages - Leinster's 1935 short "Proxima Centauri" only featured a seven year journey and even it had a mutiny in mid-voyage.
Nicholas Waller
17. R. Emrys
I'm not sure if this is my favorite (I love Moon, but I think it might be his best. Lorenzo isn't either one of his hypercompetent heroes or one of his obstructive NPCs, and it gives the book some extra nuance. I love the behind-the-scenes politics, and the careful cross-cultural negotiations with the Martians.
Nicholas Waller
18. Dholton
@16

Oh, I wasn't by any means saying the story was unique, it was just the first time I had been introduced to the idea. He structured the story as beginning after the "Fall", and gives the reader the info from the viewpoints and legends of the inhabitants. Thus, my poor 13 year old brain was twisted into new and interesting shapes (and better!) by having to piece this new concept together from the clues he gave.
Nicholas Waller
19. OtterB
I haven't reread this one in a long time. It must be on the bookshelf somewhere; I'll have to look for it. I remember enjoying it, and especially the character growth.
Steven desJardins
20. stevendj
Plug: Antal Szerb's Oliver VII, written several years before Double Star but only recently translated from Hungarian. It's like a Ruritanian version of Double Star, only the con man impersonating the exiled king is actually the exiled king impersonating a con man. Delightfully light and whimsical.
Nicholas Waller
21. hapax
Holy cow. Another book that I had read a million times, adored, then COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN until a Jo Walton post pings the calcified memory files, and I have to run and find a copy, so I can push it on my own personal fourteen year old boy, saying "Just. Read. It."

Nicholas Waller
22. Neil in Chicago
Heinlein's now long enough ago that it's easy not to know the contexts he was writing in, and the other work being done at the same time.
There's a classic joke about someone who was dragged to a Shakespeare play, after having not seen one his whole life, whose reaction was, "It's just a bunch of cliches strung together!"
One of the things "science fiction" is is a prolonged conversation, and more people are conversing with Heinlein than perhaps any other writer.

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