I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Tonight we take a detour to Mars with good old Bobby Heinlein. Please keep all hands and legs inside the rocket ship as we blast off for the next stop on our journey through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
Robert A. Heinlein
serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1956
published as a separate novel in 1957
Lorenzo Smythe – born Lawrence Smith, but what kind of a stage name is that? – buys a spacer a drink in a bar one day and the spacer offers him a job. Specifically, the job of impersonating the recently kidnapped John Bonforte, the Solar System’s most well-known politician. He has to do it well enough to convince a nest of Martians, who will kill him if he doesn’t – and long enough for the real Bonforte to be found!
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
Ah, Heinlein. Heinlein and I are on ambivalent terms, and I suspect we always will be. On the one hand, the man’s a pretty great writer. And his stories (usually) take risks – serious risks. Like, three people (of different sexes/genders) inhabiting the same body. Or cannibalism. He’s got imagination to spare, and he tells a good story (except for those times things are going smoothly and then the last quarter of the book just confuses the crap out of you and you have no idea what’s going on. I’m looking at you, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls). And no one can deny he’s had a serious impact on the genre.
On the other hand, there is that pesky problem of the stories losing all sense of coherency three-quarters of the way through. And then there’s Heinlein’s confusing blend of misogyny and feminism (Yes, both, often at the same time. The man makes my head hurt.)
So I started Double Star with a little trepidation, which was, as it turned out, unwarranted. The book is relatively inoffensive and…frankly, underwhelming.
Coming off of my previous travels in Heinleinland (“–All You Zombies–“, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and I Will Fear No Evil, listed in the order I read them), Double Star is positively pedestrian. No cannibalism. No orgies. No off-the-wall right-wing or left-wing philosophy. Not even any nudity, which would have been an improvement over the cover of the edition I read:
I mean, wow. Seriously. WOW. Boots, high-waisted underwear, a skullcap, and a suspenders-cape. I want to get in those granny panties. Bow-chicka-wow-wow….
Okay, I actually kind of love the cover. But you have to admit the fashion is seriously lacking.
Wardrobe faux pas aside, the story itself is…fine. Lorenzo is a likeable enough narrator, with personality to spare and a good dose of humor. Heinlein, through Lorenzo, does a very good job of drawing the reader into the story – there’s a kind of implied mutual understanding between the reader and the narrator that makes the reader feel quite at ease with both Lorenzo’s confidences and the technologically advanced setting. It’s got a sort of boys-swapping-stories vibe that works if you can contort your sense of self into the All-American-Male mentality (which I can’t, exactly, but I can don a surprisingly matronly “boys will be boys” 50s housewife kind of persona that works almost as well.) Lorenzo gets less flamboyant as the story progresses, which is a natural part of his character development but means the story gets less entertaining. You see the end coming miles in advance, but in a that’s-the-logical-conclusion kind of way, not a well-that-was-dissapointingly-expected kind of a way.
Meh. That’s really how I feel after reading it. Meh. It’s fine, I guess, but I sort of expect something more Earth-shattering from a Hugo winner. I want something to challenge my worldview or make me consider things from a new perspective. I want my brain to get a workout, not sit on the couch wondering idly when the story’s going to be over.
There’s really not much to say on this one, so we’ll head to the Social Equality Review:
Race: Lorenzo claims that he’s not racist, and has no problem with any man based on color, creed, or religion. I suppose that’s true, although since Heinlein only specifically identifies one (very minor) character as a POC, we don’t get a chance to verify this claim. Also Europeans rule the Solar System. Then there’s a few throw away comments by (presumably) white characters such as “‘My friend and I must make heap big smoke,'” which just sound stupid to modern ears (p12). Most problematic is Lorenzo’s utter hatred of Martians, which is apparently only a minor obstacle which can be conveniently hypnotized away in a few hours. The obvious parallels between species-ism and racism make this handling of the issue troubling. “Oh, dislike of [alien species/ethnic group/etc.] seems like a big problem, but a dash of the secretary’s perfume will clear that right up!” Sorry, Bobby, that’s not how prejudice works.
Gender/Sexuality: One female character, who is Heinlein’s usual blend of competent and submissive. I swear, it’s like he’s thinking, “Sure she’s got a brain, and I’ll even let her use it! But don’t forget, she also has ovaries and therefore illogical behavior will ensue.” No mention of any human sexuality other than hetero or gender other than cis, though the Martians apparently reproduce by fission. Which tells us nothing about their sexuality other than that it apparently isn’t related to procreation.
Other Groups: Meh. Not any mention of other marginalized groups that I noticed. The Martians were compared to Mormons once, but not derisively.
OVERALL RANKING: 5 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
All quotes and page numbers are from the Doubleday & Company Signet edition, published in 1957.