As I mentioned in my Intro, my ignorance regarding classics of speculative fiction runs deep. My ignorance of the classics of science fiction, and science fiction in general, runs really deep. I was all about fantasy growing up and only started getting into science fiction in the last few years. And so it came to pass that I hadn’t read any of the Science Fiction Big Three. My first step in remedying that was to read Double Star by Robert Heinlein.
(Scheduling Note: I’m reading Jack Vance’s collection of short stories The Narrow Land now. I still need to read Skelos issue no. 1, and I will probably go ahead and post on Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories. It being election season and inspired by Double Star, I’m going to go ahead and read 1984 next (for the first time!). On the non-Throwback SF Thursday side, I also plan to read Malka Older’s Infomocracy and finally post a review of Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele. I have a couple more Heinlein books and will write posts on Predestination and the first Starship Troopers movie, but I’m going to take a break before returning to Heinlein.)
Double Star was well timed. First and foremost, there is the election. One of the crazier conspiracy theories floating around was a Clinton body double. The businessman who rules the dark side of the Moon with an iron fist in The Dark Side made use of a body double—a very small part of the book but one likely in deliberate homage to Double Star.
Lawrence (stage name Lorenzo) is an actor of considerable ego and considerably less liquid capital when he decides to risk his last bits buying a beer for an obvious spaceman. Who was looking for him anyway, and promptly recruits him into a scheme to impersonate John Joseph Bonforte, a powerful politician, political opposition leader, and one of the most popular and least popular men in the solar system. Bonforte, you see, has been kidnapped. Which would be bad enough, but is an existential threat on the eve of Bonforte’s acceptance into a Martian clan. The universe’s greatest formalists, Martians don’t accept excuses short of death for tardiness.
The story is told entirely from Lorenzo’s perspective. This works in part because he is an outsider to the political machinations. But it also allows Heinlein to dive as deeply into the acting as the politics (much more on that later). And while Lorenzo is hardly the first vainglorious actor character, he stands out in that he’s also good. He starts the books a bundle of contradictions—egotistical but largely a failure, petty but principled, cowardly with full knowledge that “the show must go on”—and that’s the heart of the first half or so of the book.
The whole thing has a square-jawed, Brylcreem’d, cigarette smoking astronauts vibe. Mad Men meets the original Twilight Zone. Classics 60s science fiction movies. Or at least what I imagine the 60s sci fi classics to look like, since I haven’t seen those either. If the name “Dak” conjures up images of anything other than a safety-smashing quarterback it’s just such a lantern-jawed spaceman. There is also a heavy dose of slang that sounds at once both futuristic and retro.
Heinlein is famous for his politics, and it certainly shows in Double Star. How could it not, in a book about an actor impersonating a political leader? It’s refreshing, as his sort of politics are deeply out of favor in the publishing and literary establishment and, sadly, in the public in general. You get lines like this,
“I was going to say that I don’t regard smuggling as a crime.”
“Who does? Except those who make money of the rest of us by limiting trade.”
on the eve of an election where both major party candidates strive to outdo each other with their opposition to trade. Brainwashing is a heinous sin, “something immoral and degrading in an absolute cosmic sense in tampering with a man’s personality,” the sort of thing practiced by Communists in “the Late Dark Ages.” History will judge Communism even more harshly than we do today, but Heinlein’s wit frequently retains its edge, as with Lorenzo, who “[l]ike most Americans . . . did not understand royalty, did not really approve of the institution in my heart—and had a sneaking, unadmitted awe of kings.”
Speaking of which, Heinlein has a very thought-provoking view of a feasible, almost utopian, solar-system spanning government. It’s one the reflects headier, more optimistic times. Planetary colonization without such a government seems a stretch, but it’s easy to be skeptical 60 years later looking at a United Nations and a European Union that are failures at worst and disappointments at best. Nor would many people today write that empire as a constitutional monarchy. It’s too Euro-centric for one, but constitutional monarchies get sold short these days. The constitutional monarchy is in many ways the mirror opposite of the modern strongman autocracy, the monarch provides stability and symbolism without being provided the power to actually screw things up. The strongman has all the power to harm, and provides no stability whatsoever. (We Americans get by on the strength of various other borrowed institutions, and our own built up after more than two centuries, but they’re more fragile than they look, and we remain too tempted to fill the void of royal adulation.) It’s also a parliamentary system, which adds a wrinkle to the political maneuvering that fills much of the second half of the book. (Where does America fit into all of this? We joined the empire with the explicit agreement that we retain our local institutions and Constitution, and the implicit agreement that “no member of the royal family would ever visit America.”)
It is, as I said, almost utopian. Heinlein, 10 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. would say it, clearly believed that the moral arc of the universe was long, but that it bent toward justice (but then Theodore Parker said the same in support of the abolitionist cause long before). Bonforte’s signature issue is bringing Martians into the democratic system. And, as the latter part of the book makes clear, he was willing to pay a political price for doing so, in part because he knew there could always be a comeback. It’s an almost Whiggish view of history. There would always be a reaction against progress, but it would fade, and then another step forward could be made. It’s a little simplistic, but only a little. And I do, indeed, believe that the moral arc of the universe bends toward just (albeit with an emphasis on the long). But the central idea is that politics should play second fiddle to principle, and the really big idea is that sometimes it’s worth paying a political price to further those principles. This very much cuts against the grain of human nature, let alone politician nature. It’s way too easy to convince yourself that you can only effect change in office, and that you can also do the right thing later, when you’re in that next office. We would do well today to take note. On the Right, many were more than happy to cast away as detritus the enormous strides of the last few decades on the basis that the Republican members of the House of Representatives had not physically stormed the White House and personally removed President Obama from office. On the other hand, Republican members of Congress didn’t seem to see any hill whatsoever as worthy of dying on. On the Left, a huge price was paid for passing Obamacare, costing the Democratic Party dearly in midterm elections in 2010 and 2014. But such is a thing worth (politically) dying for. Or it would be, if it were constitutional (it isn’t), if it worked (it doesn’t), and if that particular hill were the one worth dying on, and not one related to environmentalism or income inequality or equal rights.
The politics, as I said, is fascinating. (At the very least, my long, rambling stream-of-thought above shows that I thought they were fascinating.) The paucity of action hurt Double Star in my view when I first read it, but it gained half a star between setting it down for a week and writing this review. It’s not what happens with Bonforte that drives the story—it’s Lorenzo’s character arc. It’s the story of a man who goes from a Bonforte critic, hater of Martians, and political apathetic to a true believer.
I suddenly got a glimpse of what Bonforte was driving at. If there were ethical basics that transcended time and place, then they were true both for Martians and for men. They were true on any planet around any star—and if the human race did not behave accordingly they weren’t ever going to win to the stars because some better race would slap them down for double-dealing.
The price of expansion was virtue. “Never give a sucker an even break” was too narrow a philosophy to fit the broad reaches of space.
But Bonforte was not preaching sweetness and light. “I am not a pacifist. Pacifism is a shifty doctrine under which a man accepts the benefits of a social group without being willing to pay—and claims a halo for his dishonesty. Mr. Speaker, life belongs to those who do not fear to lose it. This bill must pass!” And with that he had got up and crossed the aisle in support of a military appropriation his own party had refused in caucus.
Or again: “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.”
2016 has been the most trying of election years. It’s refreshing to read an unabashed, full-throated defense of liberalism at a time when it is under attack on both sides from the Alt-Right and the Ctrl-Left. These dark times too may pass.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Double Star received the 1956 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Jo Walton on Double Star at Tor.com.