Retro Review: Double Star

25 Apr

I have never regretted my lost profession. In a way, I have not lost it; Willem was right. There is other applause besides handclapping and there is always the warm glow of a good performance. I have tried, I suppose, to create the perfect work of art. Perhaps I have not fully succeeded – but I think my father would rate it as a ‘good performance.’

No, I do not regret it, even though I was happier then – at least I slept better. But there is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people. Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt.

Heinlein, like many early science-fiction writers, knew relatively little about the solar system and its (lack of) inhabitants. Indeed, most of his early works included inhabited versions of both Mars and Venus that simply never existed. Mars, in Heinlein’s works, was inhabited by two different races; the super-advanced intelligences of The Rolling Stones and Stranger in a Strange Land and the older, but considerably less advanced Martians of Double Star. It is these Martians who provide the catalyst for a very human crisis that threatens to undo everything mankind had achieved over the last few hundred years.

Double Star is focused on Lawrence Smith (aka ‘The Great Lorenzo), a man who happens to be a brilliant actor and mimic. Unfortunately, Lorenzo is also a self-absorbed racist (in the sense he is prejudiced against aliens, Martians in particular) and, when the story opens, he is very much down on his luck. Desperate for work, he is hired to impersonate one of the most prominent politicians in the solar system, John Bonforte. The real Bonforte has been kidnapped and his political allies are desperate to keep this hidden while they conduct a quiet search for the man. Complicating matters is that Bonforte is going to be adopted into a Martian family – and being late for it will be seen, at best, as immensely insulting.

Lorenzo, somehow, manages to play the role well enough to go through the adoption ceremony, only to discover that Bonforte has been released … with a damaged mind. Worse, the previous government has resigned, forcing Bonforte to take the reins until an election can be held. Lorenzo finds himself playing the role again and again, as each successive crisis pushes him further and further away from his true identity. When Bonforte finally dies, after ‘winning’ an election, Lorenzo reluctantly embraces the role permanently and gives up his old self. Twenty-five years later, as he notes in the postscript, no one outside the original group knows the truth …

… But it doesn’t matter, as Lorenzo has abandoned his old beliefs and grown into the role.

Double Star is a very character-focused story, to the point that – while there are few true surprises in the storyline – it doesn’t matter. The real story is focused on Lorenzo’s slow change from narcissistic racist to a genuine reform politician, from reluctantly accepting the role and planning to give it up as soon as possible to embracing it and putting his past self to rest. (He snidely notes that the ‘Great Lorenzo’ was found dead in a boarding house, after being unable to find any more roles.) At the start, Lorenzo’s only true virtue is his belief that the show must go on; later, he understands the importance of his role in a way I wish more modern politicians grasped. Bonforte is not a wishy-washy man who allows the media to dictate his every move, but someone who works hard to be decisive. In his own words:

“Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong – but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong! Heaven save us from poltroons who fear to make a choice. Let us stand up and be counted.”

Heinlein manages to take some pokes at racism along the way. Lorenzo has an almost physical reaction to Martians, a reaction that requires hypnosis to suppress and eventually overcome. It takes time for Lorenzo to come to realise that the Martians may be primitive, but they have a strikingly advanced culture in their own right. Sadly, for better or worse, Heinlein doesn’t dwell on this as much as he could have done. Mars is the backdrop for a political crisis that threatens to start a war, either against the Martians or a human civil war.

We get fewer details on this crisis than we might have wished, although we do get enough for Heinlein to make a number of points. One faction wishes to give Martians equal rights, another – either paternalistic or evil – wishes to provide ‘guidance’ instead. Heinlein spares no punches here, comparing this to the slaveholders of the past … who claimed to love their slaves while punishing them for daring to want to be free. The conflict between those who want to control others – for their own good, of course – and those who just want to be free runs through plenty of Heinlein’s novels, but it is rarely enunciated as clearly as it is here.

Heinlein – through Lorenzo – also makes the point that the public has a limited tolerance for ‘reforms,’ however defined. Each period of reform is followed by instability and reaction, for want of a better term; there are limits to how much change you can demand, in a very short space of time, without alienating vast numbers of people. It is an interesting point, although I know people who will insist that injustice must be rectified immediately. And yet, it is difficult to end one injustice without creating more.

Double Star is less successful with its supporting cast. Some of them are very well drawn indeed, including the Emperor (who is the only person to see through the deception) and some of the staff. Others, however, are weaker; there is only one female character of any note in the book, as far as I can tell, and she is effectively nothing more than a stereotypical 1950s secretary with a crush on her boss. (She eventually ends up marrying Lorenzo, who has settled into his role by then.) A handful of roles continue Heinlein’s tradition of ‘quiet diversity;’ one man, mentioned in passing, is specifically described as coloured. It’s amusing to realise that space travel, and contact with non-human races, might have finally put an end to human-on-human racism.

It does lead to some jarring moments. One of the staffers – a man called Bill – feels constantly slighted by being passed over for important roles. After being rejected one final time, he leaves and tries to betray the secret. It’s an odd point, because Lorenzo – who talked about resentful underlings in the past – should have been able to see it coming and deal with it, not least because there are no apparent reasons to deny the staffer a promotion. That said, it might also have been a reflection of both just how far Lorenzo had come by that point and, perhaps worse, of the complacency that had been affecting the staffers. Bill’s resentment should have been handled before it became dangerous.

Like most of Heinlein’s books, his technological predictions were way off. Interplanetary spaceships coexist with record spools, rather than computers. There’s no suggestion of forging a digital face, rather than hiring a live actor, but a CGI impersonation couldn’t shake hands and kiss babies. But, also like most of Heinlein’s books, it doesn’t matter. There is something timeless about the story, even though – in some ways – it is an adaption of a far older story.

But never mind that. On the whole, and putting aside the problem with technological development, Double Star is one of Heinlein’s best works.

7 Responses to “Retro Review: Double Star”

  1. Charles April 25, 2018 at 8:21 pm #

    This was one of the first “adult” science fiction stories I read. I still have a copy.

  2. Daniel April 25, 2018 at 8:50 pm #

    I completely agree. Double Star stands out as one of RAH’s best!
    I highly recommend the Lloyd James audiobook version it’s also a masterwork

  3. Yanai Siegel April 25, 2018 at 8:51 pm #

    Double Star was published in 1956.

    By the early 1960’s I remember reading somewhere that up to ten or twelve major cities nationwide might benefit from having a computer. Databases were on cards, or tapes, sequential access only. Random Access Memory was only available for core processing memory. CGI wasn’t even science fiction then.

  4. George Phillies April 27, 2018 at 12:47 am #

    Do you have a timeline for your Heinlein — An Appreciation book? I suggest taking your time about it.

  5. William Ameling April 27, 2018 at 11:26 am #

    What Super Advanced Intelligences on Mars in Rolling Stones?? I do not remember ANY in that book.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 27, 2018 at 2:40 pm #

      It’s more implied IMO.

      There are “alien” Martians on Mars in that story and humans on Mars are very careful in dealing with them.

  6. William Ameling April 27, 2018 at 11:37 am #

    In the early 1970s, a major research computer at Major research university that I went to (Case Institute of Technology of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA) had a quarter Mega Byte of Magnetic Core memory. I did not see my first scientific hand calculator, an HP-35 (with ONE memory register plus a stack of 4 registers),until the later part of my sophmore year, i.e. spring of 1973. So I was still using log and trig tables (printed books or parts there of) and slide rules that year. I learned to program computers in ALGOL using punch cards to load my programs and data.

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