Monday, October 15, 2007

Review - Double Star

Double Star
by Robert Heinlein
1956 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Quick! Which one of these doesn't belong: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Double Star? I'll give you a hint, three of those are major works of science fiction that have received attention even beyond genre fans and are generally considered the greatest works of Robert Heinlein. The other is Double Star.

Which isn't to say that Double Star is bad, it's a mid-range Heinlein work which if you like Heinlein at all is worth a read. The problem is that among his record four wins for best novel there are three major works and one that is pretty much forgotten.

The plot is essentially cribbed from The Prisoner of Zenda (or Dave for those who are unaware of anything before 1990). Lorenzo Smythe is an actor who is hired to step into the shoes of the politician John Bonforte who has been kidnapped on the eve of a ceremony to join a tribe of Martians (aliens rather than humans who live on Mars since this was written in the 50's when Martians could still be used from time to time). The ceremony cannot be postponed and missing it would have grave consequences for the state of Bonforte's political party. Once it is over, though, circumstances conspire to have Lorenzo continue playing the role of Bonforte.

It's slight, it's simple, and the politics are laughable with their pure hearted politician Bonforte. Using a stand-in when it's vital that the Martians have someone there I can accept as the premise of the novel, but having the stand-in would go so far as to make major political decisions supplanting their own thoughts for what they think the original would do is pushing things. To have it done smoothly with hardly any complications with his handlers is just taking it too far.

By far the best thing thing about Double Star is the characterization of Lorenzo Smythe. The story is told from his point-of-view and he's an egotistical blow hard. It lends the book a particularly entertaining voice that helps it overcome the weaknesses of the plot.

As a special treat for those who hate Heinlein one of his fetishes make a particularly out of place early appearance here. At one point Smythe says to his secretary, "Stow it, Penny, or I'll spank your round fanny - at two gravities." In theory he should be in character as Bonforte at this point but this strikes me as awfully unprofessional even for 1956. Of course he is supposed to be a politician and we know it isn't that much of a stretch...

One thing I found odd is that the ruler of the solar system is King Willem of the House of Orange. That's right, the Dutch have conquered the universe. I like seeing futures where the world powers are ones different from what you might expect and seeing the Dutch in charge made for a quirky change. Apparently they run the world as a constitutional monarchy.

Double Star is a slight Heinlein work. If you read it with that in mind then it probably won't bother you, but it's fluff.