GET YOUR ASS TO MARS!!!
In a career defining role, a down on his luck actor finds himself while impersonating someone else.
Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback, 224 Pages
Date: 12th September 2013 (First Published 1956)
Anyone who reads a Robert A. Heinlein novel today will likely find it next to impossible not to come to the conclusion that his work hasn’t aged very well. But in many ways this sense of “out-datedness” is invariably tied, one way or another, to either the characterisation or the setting within which Heinlein tells his story rather than the narrative itself. This is very much the case with regard to his Hugo Award winning novel, Double Star.
It may well be that during the fifties when the novel was written and published, the idea of alien civilisations existing on Mars and Venus might not have seemed quite so fanciful to the average reader. Today, however, our increased knowledge of the solar system makes the book’s setting (an interplanetary commonwealth in which human beings rub shoulders with aliens from Mars, Venus and further afield), about as plausible as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. With that said, Double Star is a Hugo winner so it probably goes without saying that it that it is slightly above the sci-fi pulp fiction of the early twentieth century. Although I don’t believe for a moment that it would be as lauded by critics if it were published for the first time, today. Its narrative is just too simple and unchallenging.
While many of Heinlein’s works have rather obvious political overtones, which has been frequently debated by fans and critics alike, Double Star, funnily enough, is notably the only one that can be said to be inherently about politics. More surprisingly than that, for an author seemingly as cynical about the nature of western politics, Heinlein does paint an uncharacteristically optimistic picture of the political process on this occasion. Though that’s not to say there is no dirty politics at play in the story.
The overtly political component of the story is not the only, or even principal way in which Double Star diverges from Heinlein’s other works. A cursory examination of Lorenzo Smythe, the stage name of the book’s Thespian protagonist, Lawrence Smith, reveals a character who is in no way the heroic everyman in the vein of “Johnny” Rico that many people have come to associate with the author. Lorenzo is egotistical and self-absorbed in equal measure; but these are the least of his flaws. He is ignorant and bigoted, which is illustrated by his extremely irrational prejudice against indigenous Martians. So it’s fair to state that Lorenzo is not exactly an admirable protagonist. At least, not initially.
As a character Lorenzo does evolve a great deal over the course of the story. It would not be an overstatement to say that the man introduced at the start of the book bears little resemblance to the man who remains at the end. The catalyst for this change is a “chance” encounter with a space pilot in a bar. The stranger approaches Lorenzo with the offer of a career defining acting job. A role so fraught with potential danger that his ego simply won’t allow him to turn it down; to travel to Mars and assume the identity of a kidnapped politician. Lorenzo accepts the job not fully realising that failure to pull off the impersonation could ignite a war, whereas success could mean the end of his acting career.
Stripping away all the political aspects of the story, Double Star, for all intents and purposes is an account of the transformative journey of a man who starts out as a pompous actor without an altruistic bone in his body, to a selfless hero prepared to sacrifice his entire life for an ideal. The change is certainly as rapid as it is drastic, though much of that is the by-product of Heinlein’s penchant for writing with an economy that generally favours swift story progression. Nonetheless it is a convincing transformation that never feels overly rushed.
Though Double Star’s plot is fast moving and exciting, the most interesting facet of the book is observing how and why Lorenzo changes. Once he assumes the persona of politician John Joseph Bonforte it becomes increasingly apparent that walking in the man’s metaphorical shoes is influencing him in a profound way. As he lives Bonforte’s life; learning about his beliefs and ideals, his aspirations and goals, his character and relationships, Lorenzo’s admiration for the man grows. This in turn increases his determination that the elaborate ruse is not discovered before the real Bonforte can be rescued then returned to his rightful position.
Without spoiling how the story ultimately plays out, Double Star has a number of twists and turns, all of which are entirely predictable, so no reader should fail to see the ending coming. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. In spite of the lack of genuine surprises, Double Star is an engaging adventure of self discovery for one of Heinlein’s more memorable protagonists.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.