Signet, 1955, 256 pages
The first stop in my modest 2014 Heinlein-Hugo-Winning-Novel reading project is 1955’s Double Star. Written after Heinlein had become a first-rate SF writer but before he hit his all-time highs, it won the 1956 Hugo Award for best novel. In the list of top Heinlein novels, it usually gets forgotten behind Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Still, re-reading it today, roughly twenty years after I first encountered it, I’m struck at how well it exemplifies the best of early-era Heinlein and much of the SF genre at the time.
For one thing, it’s short: Written at a time when typewriters ruled and serial magazine publication was still very important, it barely exceeds 55,000 words. (Contemporary adult SF genre novels are around 100,000 words.) As a result, it can be read quickly and, perhaps most importantly, it can focus on the essentials of the story it wants to tell.
It’s not that original a story: In a now-alternate future where much of the Solar System has been colonized and humanity has encountered alien races on Mars and Venus, a down-on-his-luck actor gets hired for a very special job: impersonate an important politician for a crucial event, given how the real politician has been abducted. This “simple” assignment soon stretches out to include more political shenanigans when the real politician is found incapacitated even as an election campaign heats up. The conclusion is straight out of the classics (or subsequent homages), but isn’t less effective for it.
Told through evolving first-person narration (as in; our protagonist often changes his mind during the course of the novel, deliberately reflecting his growth as a person), Double Star straddles two or three worlds at once. It’s obviously about politics, just-as-obviously about acting but also (while this may be so obvious as to be invisible to genre readers) about fifties-SF notions of the future. By which I mean that the future explored in Double Star is a reasonably average one by SF’s mid-fifties standards. It has alien races within the solar system (because no one was certain, at the time, that we could exclude those), system-wide colonization, torch-ships and moon cities. Of course the technical details are charmingly quaint: video is available on spools of film, the empire has eight billion people scattered throughout the entire system (we recently went just above seven on just this planet) and there’s no information networks beyond news providers. While Heinlein does include a perfunctory bit of color in his cast of character, gender roles remain firmly steeped in fifties conventions: The only female character of note is the politician’s secretary, and she (of course) is in love with her boss and represents the emotional pole in the story. As infuriating as this can be, that’s the way most SF of the time envisioned the future.
So Double Star definitely speaks to a fifties Science-Fiction audience. But what it tells them is a treatise on reasonable government and the demands of acting as a profession, and that’s worth a few words of praise. For one thing, our narrator is very much an actor, in his instincts as much as his vocabulary. There are many clever passages in the novel in which the narrator describes his process “getting in character” either physically or mentally, and they offer a fascinating glimpse into the inner thoughts of an actor. The details through which he perceives the world are a bit different than the stock engineer/hero protagonist of so much fifties SF, leading to exemplary paragraphs like the following:
At turnover we got that one-gravity rest that Dak had promised. We never were in free fall, not for an instant; instead of putting out the torch, which I gather they hate to do while under way, the ship described what Dak called a 180-degree skew turn. It leaves the ship on boost the whole time and is done rather quickly, but it has an oddly disturbing effect on the sense of balance. The effect has a name something like Coriolanus. Coriolis?
The last two words are the point of the quote in which actor-meets-physics, but let’s also notice the confident let-me-explain-complicated-things tone of the entire paragraph, as good an example of the strengths of Heinlein’s writing, mixing technical knowledge (“180-degree skew turn”) with relatable details (“which I gather they hate to do”). Much of Double Star is written in the kind of prose that can be read effortlessly, from a first chapter that has a rollercoaster of pulp-style adventure plotting to a more wistful concluding chapter that reflects on a life fully lived.
What’s more interesting than the acting prose icing (and, frankly, what I’d forgotten in the twenty years since I’d read the book) is the political content. Like most people, our narrator starts with a mild loathing of politicians but, by dint of doing the job, comes to appreciate the details and complexity of it all. Heinlein does a fine job at portraying politics (which he calls “the only sport for grownups”) as a nuts-and-bolt team effort. There are enjoyable info-dumps along the way. It’s simplified, sure, but not as much as you’d think in 55,000 words. Surprisingly enough for some readers, Heinlein presents the empire as a Commonwealth-style parliamentary monarchy (a far better system than American-style politics, but then again I’m Canadian), and finds a respectable use for a king. Go ahead and square that with the rest of his best-known bibliography. At the very least, Double Star still offers something to think about, which isn’t bad nearly sixty years later.
Dramatically, there is a lot to like as well in the way Heinlein deals with his narrator. He starts the novel as a fairly unlikable self-important schmuck, but gradually evolves out of his own narrow limits to become a better man… by playing the role of a better man until he authentically assumes the personality. His puffery is replaced by earned confidence, his cheap rejection of complexity is replaced by hard-won experience and while that may sound like Drama 101, it’s relatively well-executed, especially within a mere 55,000 words. (Admittedly, some transitions do look easy: Hypnotism plays a big role in one of his fundamental evolutions, and another is driven by merely hitting the books for a few days.)
It all amounts to a remarkably effective novel even today. I propose it as a particularly polished example of fifties SF (indeed, it was selected as one of the nine representative novels of the genre and era by no less than the Library of America) and a good blend of influences within that genre. It’s an ideal approach vector for anyone interested in Heinlein: It doesn’t carry much of the baggage of his later novels, and has a better chance to seduce on length and wit alone. After re-reading it, I reaffirm its spot on my list of Alternate Hugo winners (or in this case, actual Hugo winners) and am feeling quite a bit better-disposed toward the next title in my Heinlein Re-Read Project.