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Double Star

by Robert A. Heinlein


This was the 3rd winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1956 at the 14th Worldcon, NyCon II, in New York, NY.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in March 2019.



I've mentioned before that my introduction to science fiction, almost four decades ago now, included the full set of Heinlein juveniles, along with Asimov's Lije Baley books and Simak's Way Station. That's a solid start to a genre (thank you, mum) and I've kept on exploring it ever since. What I haven't yet mentioned is that I followed up by diving even deeper into Heinlein's bibliography, quickly discovering a personal favourite in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a future Hugo winner for Best Novel. However, this one won first. It was the first such Hugo for Heinlein; in fact it was his first Hugo, period. He would go on to win four for Best Novel, along with seven Retro-Hugos, chosen much later to retrospectively cover years in which the Hugos were not awarded.

I read Double Star during that early period of exploration and enjoyed it, but it hadn't stood out above its peers at the time and it hadn't stayed with me over the years since. It was released in book form in between Tunnel in the Sky and Time for the Stars, two of his best juveniles, the former of which is one of the earliest books to change my way of thinking. Reading afresh, Double Star stands up wonderfully, even though it's an obvious science fiction take on Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda. It's short, it's effective and it ends well. What's more, it has a lot of depth if you sit back and think about it. It's a peach of a choice for a book club.

The title does not refer to the astronomical phenomenon that we might expect, as this is a character study and an attempt to explore the meaning of humanity and the ability of a human being to change. It refers instead to the two key characters, Lawrence Smith and John Joseph Bonforte, as the former becomes a double for the latter, initially for a brief period but, as time goes by, for longer and longer until he eventually effectively becomes Bonforte.

We're in our own solar system in the future, which is run by a democratic parliament housed on the Moon and a constitutional monarch reigning but not ruling over it all. It's a time of change, as the government is not entirely representative of the solar system as a whole. The native populace of Venus can vote, for instance, but that of Mars cannot. A change to this state of affairs is a key policy of the Expansionist Party, one opposed by the Humanity Party, which currently holds power. Bonforte leads the Expansionist Party, which is expected to win at the next elections and he's about to be honoured by the Martians by being adopted into their race, but a clever plot has placed the future in jeopardy. Bonforte has been kidnapped.

It's here that Heinlein's translation of 'The Prisoner of Zenda' comes into its own. The Martians think rather differently to humans and they don't comprehend lateness. We're told a famous story about a Martian named Kkkahgral the Younger, who was late for a similar ceremony to honour him, albeit through no fault of his own. The only thing to do was for him to be put to death for transgression of custom, but some elders wanted to cut him some slack as a young and promising Martian. He wouldn't have it though! He fought for the right to prosecute himself, did so and won, so guaranteeing his own execution.

With Bonforte about to be adopted into the very nest of Kkkahgral the Younger, you can see why he absolutely must be there on time. If they can't find him, it falls to his aides to come up with another solution and they do so by hiring Smith, a talented but out-of-work actor known as the Great Lorenzo, to impersonate Bonforte during his adoption ceremony. And with that, we're off and running.

Lorenzo is a fascinating character. He's a very talented actor but he's not good at staying in work. He seems to be a perfect choice to be Bonforte's temporary double, given that he's physically similar to start with and easily capable of addressing any mild differences through acting talent or simple make-up work. However, there are catches, far beyond the fact that the kidnappers are on their trail and willing to kill to keep their plot in motion. One is that Smith opposes everything that Bonforte stands for and another is that he does so because he's deeply prejudiced against Martians because of their odour.

This prejudice is solved by a psychiatrist who hypnotises him on the way and replaces their odour in his mind with the only perfume at hand, Jungle Lust, but everything else Smith changes himself. The Great Lorenzo changes so much over the relatively brief page count that we really ought to be shocked, but we're not because Heinlein has him change believably and consistently throughout, with a great deal of charm. After all, he's an actor who's used to taking on the personae of other characters, so it's not too much of a leap to take on the persona of a real person, especially when the situation moves further than expected and he has to continue in the role, studying Bonforte's Farley files as he does so, a perfect mechanism by which he can learn at the same time we do.

The sweep of the story is great fun but I think it's this change that stands out to me. Smith has the beliefs he has for a variety of reasons but, the more he actually pays attention to what's happening in the worlds, the more he changes those beliefs. It's a classic American concept for the public to stay informed so that they can take part in their democracy, but it's also a concept that's been mostly forgotten in a world of polarised thought, fake news and controlled Facebook feeds. I could believe that Smith is stuck on a particular side in our modern political culture, only for growing experience to show him that he really ought to be on the other.

I liked Heinlein's approach to parliament too. The reigning Emperor is of the House of Orange, a Dutch family of nobles, but the structure is quintessentially British. I followed it all easily because I grew up with it, merely with a queen instead of an emperor. It's fascinating to me to see an American author explore this territory and not just do it well but with an understanding of the why as much as the what. I don't just mean safe seats and all that malarkey, but the scene in which Smith, attempting to convince the Emperor, one of Bonforte's friends, that he's the man himself, passes over the expected selection of ministers and is given an enticing opportunity to change one.

I learned a lot of my beliefs on racial tolerance from Heinlein, whom I believe was notably ahead of his time on the subject, regardless of how some view him today. That's telling here too, not only in the treatment of Martians but in other details as well. For instance, the ministerial appointment to whom the Emperor raises an eyebrow is Lothar Braun, his clear preference being Angel Jesus de la Torre y Perez. For an American novel, it's hard for a reader to be patriotic when neither choice is American. Of course, Bonforte is and so is Smith.

What leapt out as inappropriate wasn't how Heinlein handled race here but how he handled women. There's but one in the story of any substance and she's Bonforte's secretary who's eventually elected to parliament in a safe seat. Heinlein could see equal treatment for races and even species, but he apparently failed to believe that a woman could be elected to office on her own merits. That's more than a little disappointing. That Penny is the only woman in a role of substance is disappointing too.

The other disappointment is technology, because Heinlein, like so many other science fiction writers of his era, failed to predict the insane growth in computing power. Jo Walton, in her commentary on the Hugos, highlights the tape spools that contain ten thousand characters and compares that to the thumbdrive she loses so often. Yet there's relatively simple travel between planets and the solar system is run from the Moon. How the one can be so far advanced and the other hardly at all is a real question for the era.

Double Star is a classic work of science fiction and the best Hugo winner for Best Novel thus far.


They'd Rather Be Right | The Big Time

Next month: another new book for me. I know Fritz Leiber's fantastic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, but I've never read The Big Time, which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1958. I'll catch up with it next month because 1957 was a skipped year. See you then!

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Last update: 17th November, 2019