Saturday, June 16, 2012

Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Published: Astounding Science Fiction (Analog), 1956
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“One minute, down and out actor Lorenzo Smythe was -- as usual -- in a bar, drinking away his troubles as he watched his career go down the tubes. Then a space pilot bought him a drink, and the next thing Smythe knew, he was shanghaied to Mars.
Suddenly he found himself agreeing to the most difficult role of his career: impersonating an important politician who had been kidnapped. Peace with the Martians was at stake -- failure to pull off the act could result in interplanetary war. And Smythe's own life was on the line -- for if he wasn't assassinated, there was always the possibility that he might be trapped in his new role forever!”

I’ve read a fair amount of Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and various short stories), and I enjoyed Double Star. It seemed much lighter and action-focused than other Heinlein novels I’ve read so far.

My Thoughts:

Double Star is a pretty short, fast-paced novel, with a kind of light, not-too-terribly-serious tone that made it a lot of fun to read. I don’t think that Double Star really comedic sci-fi, but it just has an enthusiastic, good-natured attitude that really makes it easy to get caught up in the story.  The novel focuses on the actor ‘Lorenzo Smythe’, the highly skilled—and incredibly conceited—man who gets caught up in the great impersonation.  At first, I thought I would find his narration irritating, since he spends an awful lot of time thinking very highly of himself, or alluding to great works of theatre.  However, his whole character seems to be treated with a certain amount of humor.  Rather than making me roll my eyes, his pomposity seemed to invite laughter.  I also really enjoyed the way his character develops throughout the story.

While I thought Smythe was a surprisingly fun lead, not many of the other characters in the story are very thoroughly fleshed out.  One of the most memorable was the politician’s secretary, Penny.  Penny is the only female in the story, and she’s portrayed as emotional, childish, petulant, and almost entirely motivated by her crush on her employer.  Her colleagues treat her with a kind of friendly condescension, once even playfully threatening to spank her if she didn’t behave.  This was a little irritating to read, but it didn’t bother me as much as some other 1950’s portrayals of women.  For one thing, Penny’s work is actually valuable to her political team, and Smythe’s impersonation would have likely been doomed from the start without her help. For another thing, I have to admit that many of the characters in the story are shown to be more than a little ridiculous.  In this light, Penny seemed silly, as other characters were silly, rather than offensive.

The story was exciting and quickly paced, and I felt that it built tension well. There were some very tense occasions where a failure on Smythe’s part could have been disastrous or even fatal.  I appreciated that Heinlein did not derail the tension with lengthy political discussion, even though the story was about politicians. The politician Smythe impersonates, John Joseph Bonforte, has a strong presence in the story despite his physical absence, and it is through Smythe’s studies of his role that we are shown some of his views.  The main message one could take from this story would be against racism.  This being science fiction, Heinlein did use Martians and other aliens as the ‘other’, but racism is an issue involved both in Smythe’s personal life and in Bonforte’s politics.  Given its temporal proximity to the Civil Right’s Movement, it seems like Double Star must have been particularly relevant to the political environment of the time period in which it was written.

My Rating: 4/5

I think Double Star might be my favorite Heinlein novel to date.  It seems to lean more towards the juvenile end of the Heinlein spectrum, but it still engages with some political issues that were likely especially relevant at the time of its publication.  The story is ridiculous at times, but it is fast-paced and I found it very easy to get caught up in the excitement.  Some character portrayals, such as the childish secretary Penny, are a bit tiresome, but they never seem mean-spirited.  Like most novels, Double Star is a product of time period, but I think it still offers a fun experience for modern-day science fiction readers.


  1. Double Star might be your new fave Heinlein? Then I definitely need to read it! The plot sounds light and fun, and funny, and just the thing for hot summer days.

  2. I hope you like it! I'm afraid I might have played up the humor a bit too much--It does have some rather serious parts, such as the circumstances that made an impersonation necessary in the first place. It was a lot of fun, though, and Smythe seemed very interestingly atypical for the kinds of protagonists I've seen Heinlein write. :)

  3. I agree that this book departs a bit from Heinlein's usual, and I think it's better for it. It's one of my favorites of Heinlein too for the pace and light-heartedness. "The Great Lorenzo" reminds me a lot of the Stainless Steel Rat's "Slippery Jim Degriz" which makes him one of my all-time favorites!

    1. I have not read "Stainless Steel Rat", but your comparison is making me interested :).

  4. Oh my, I'm certainly in the minority. This is my least favorite Heinlein. The pacing was excellent but it lacked a sense of wonder. I found it very dated, although the Martians were quite cool. No, after recently reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Double Star seems a much weaker novel. But that's Heinlein :)

    1. Thanks for the dissenting opinion :)! I can't argue with it being dated, but that ended up being part of the charm for me. I think because of that and because "Double Star" was not an especially serious novel, I was willing to suspend my disbelief a fair bit more than I would otherwise. I feel like the writing in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" was more mature, but I wasn't as interested in the protagonist and some other plot devices irked me (e.g. the computer) . Anyhow, there's certainly plenty of different Heinlein novels out there to read, and it's interesting to see such different reactions to the same books!

    2. @Emil - I think The Moon is a Harsh Mistress will always take the cake for me, but still liked Double Star quite a lot. Maybe not the wonder but I certainly thought it had a very similar energy.

      I didn't know you had read TMHM. I want to hear all about it :)