Monday, November 4, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Double Star (1956, Best Novel)

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Dossier: Heinlein, Robert A. Double Star [Doubleday, 1956]

Filetype: Dossier

Executive Summary: Lorenzo Smythe is a washed up actor drowning his sorrows at a bar on earth, when he is approached by a group of spacemen with a mysterious proposition: can he commit to a mysterious impersonation, on Mars, for a handsome reward? Lorenzo says yes, and not even an immediate attack by a group of Martians in the bar makes him change his mind from the course that he's on. It's only when he discovers that the impersonation is of the leader of the Expansionist Party, Bonforte, who has been mysteriously kidnapped, that it starts to dawn on him that he might have committed himself to something that's going to take a bit more than confident monologuing about greasepaint to pull off - but Lorenzo is a Hero with an ego, and once he's in, he's in for the long haul. Getting acquainted with the small group of co-conspirators (including one woman, Penny, whose high-powered professionalism is regularly compromised by her romantic feelings towards her current boss which then makes it impossible not to also start fancying Lorenzo's impersonation)

The world Lorenzo inhabits is one where humans have spread out to the various planets in the solar system, and have encountered alien life on many, but where Earth remains the sole centre of political power and aliens are variously disenfranchised and marginalised, subject to human expansion and colonisation of their homes. Lorenzo himself has a specific, irrational hatred of Martians which the plot deploys some weird hypnosis pseudo-science to solve; Bonforte's more progressive party has been working to expand rights to aliens, particularly the Martians, and they stand in opposition to the more human-centric party currently in power.

As Lorenzo continues with his mostly successful impersonation, the real Bonforte is found in extremely poor health, having been deliberately administered with a drug overdose by his kidnappers (who the gang are relatively sure are some of his political rivals). This prolongs his tenure as an impersonator through the election campaign, and  as he continues to become more and more comfortable in the role, Lorenzo starts taking on more of the decisionmaking about how Bonforte "should" behave, almost invariably with successful, convincing results. Explorations of an interplanetary constitutional-monarchy-with-parliamentary-democracy ensue, complete with a significant political falling-out with the speechwriter and some close encounters with the Dutch Monarchy which apparently is now earth's entire government, and its up to Lorenzo to protect his ruse, bring the process to a close and work out what on earth he's going to do with his life after Bonforte returns.

Legacy: Ah, Heinlein. The author of whom I have heard it said most often, by people of my generation, that "maybe I should read him because he's historically important but... I don't want to?" Beloved by many who grew up with his books, Heinlein's decades-long career spanning both adult and "juvenile" (what we would now likely call YA) works makes his legacy in mid-20th century SF and the subsequent development of the genre near impossible to summarise. For a 21st century reader, however, the well-documented lack of three-dimensional female characters and the inevitable dating of plots and technology in his fairly extensive work means that Heinlein is inevitably less relevant to current genre conversations, and I've never read anything that genuinely engage with the question of where in his works to start for those embedded in the modern traditions. What I did have was a resolution to read some Heinlein for this project, and a memory of Rachel, from the Booktube channel Kalanadi, mentioning Double Star as a recommended read in her wrap-up of the Hugo and Nebula Award winners a couple of years ago.

Double Star is the first of Heinlein's four (non-retro - not that I would know if there's any retro ones) novel wins, and it's probably the least well known. The ballot for that year was rediscovered in 2017, and included Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity, and novels from previously-unknown-to-me authors C.M.  Kornbluth and Eric Frank Russell (who are both likely to remain unknown to me). It seems to have resurfaced in the public consciousness in the 2000s when a cover of the book was plagiarised by a Turner Prize nominee in one of their artworks, but otherwise it doesn't make the regular rounds of people's favourite Heinleins (Rachel's video is the only mention I've seen); nor has it more generally permeated the genre consciousness in the way of, say, Starship Troopers. Alas, it has also not given rise to a more general genre convention of making "constitutional monarchy run by the Dutch" into the dominant governing structure of Earth.

In Retrospect: So, how did I find Double Star as my first experience reading Heinlein? For the most part, this is a highly readable, entertaining adventure, which works through the various episodes of Lorenzo's impersonation in a lighthearted style which nevertheless maintains the pressure on Lorenzo keeping up the impersonation, despite relatively loosely sketched consequences for the Expansionist party's failure. The fact that the premise of disguise is carried out entirely in the form of makeup and the studying of mannerisms, rather than having any science fictional technology to shoulder that part of the narrative, certainly spins Double Star in a very different direction to how I'd imagine a story of impersonation and identity to be taken today, but its sort of charming despite being the most dated aspect of the story.

What I found fascinating about Lorenzo is the extent to which he resembles the protagonist of a particular kind of modern YA novel, both in terms of his inner life and in the way the narrative treats him. From early scenes where he casually goes off on a description about his own attractiveness for the benefit of the audience, to the relatively passive and almost accidental way in which he exercises his ability to take on the role of Bonforte (not to mention the presence of an abusive parental figure with whom he has a complicated personal and professional relationship), the only difference between Lorenzo and a modern YA fantasy ingenue seems to be the extent of his ego - there's no modesty here, although the talents he values and the talents other people value in him are clearly quite different. Moreover, Heinlein has no compunction of allowing Lorenzo be tactically ignorant and free of personal connections whenever the narrative requires him to be, generally for the benefit of delivering exposition. The result is a character who is simultaneously the kind of really unpleasant dude you'd go out of your way to avoid at a party, and a surprisingly enjoyable narrative voice. Whether this was the authorial intent, or we are supposed to have a straight reading of Lorenzo's self-belief, is unclear, but the result was entertaining all the same. Likewise, the supporting cast are relatively thin but all quite entertaining in their own ways - particularly Bonforte's beleagured speech writer. The unfortunate but unsurprising exception is Penny, the novel's sole female character, who is characterised entirely in terms of her relationship and feelings about the dudes around her.

The other big surprise here is that the science fictional narrative hinges very much on questions not of "hard" science, but of the social sciences, and specifically questions about politics and enfranchisement and political reform and the role of leadership in political movements. Double Star posits a world where a two-party parliamentary system has been transposed into the solar system, but where the mechanisms of that system operate on a pendulum of slow reform followed by backlash, against a backdrop of voters who are more or (in many cases, including Lorenzo) less interested in their workings. There's nothing here that's desperately new, but the fact is that with the exception of a relatively swift "hypnosis therapy" scene at the start of the book, and the presence of interstellar travel, this is quite definitely a book about those soft squishy non-sciences: how sentient beings organise themselves and the cultural implications behind those things.

Double Star isn't a particularly chewy book; its almost cosy conception of global constitutional monarchy feels so safe that I'm not sure if it ever would have been, and more recent fiction is likely to give a reader much more to think about when it comes to what makes up our identities and what it takes to change, either as a person or as a political entity. What Double Star is, over 60 years after its publication, is pretty good fun. If you want to try a Heinlein, this might not be the one that shows you what all the fuss is about, but it'll probably keep you entertained - if you can stomach the terrible female characterisation, at least.


For its time: 3.5/5
Read today: 3.5/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.