Robert A. Heinlein’s Political Novel, “Double Star”

I came late to science fiction.   I was 20 when a friend introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  Over the years, I have have enjoyed many SF novels.  I tend to stick to SF classics by award-winning writers like Doris Lessing, Pat Murphy, William Gibson, and Gene Wolfe.

Two years ago I finally read Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land–the first SF book to make The New York Times best-seller list.  It is literally a cult classic, in the sense that the hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a man from Mars, founds a church/cult on Earth based on a ’60s-style philosophy of brotherhood and free love. It actually influenced the counterculture philosophy of the ’60s.  (You can read my post on it at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu.)

I recently read Heinlein’s Double Star, which won the Hugo Award in 1956.  (The SF writer Jo Walton  recommends it in her excellent book, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000.)  Although Double Star is less complex than Stranger, it is an obvious predecessor:  Heinlein explores an idealist’s struggles to change society  and his work against a group of fascists who want to dominate the peoples of other planets (like Martians).  Heinlein is a master of plot but he is mainly a novelist of ideas.  In this novel, he attacks racism and white supremacy and weighs the effect of politics on morality and philosophy (political parties do make a difference).  The odd thing is that Heinlein does it at one remove–the star of the novel is an impersonator of a politician.

Actors and politics–they go together.  Aren’t all politicians actors?  In Double Star, the narrator, Lawrence Smythe, aka The Great Lorenzo, is an actor who is down on his luck.  After he buys a drink for Dak Broadbent, an American spaceman, he is offered an acting job. Dak asks if Lorenzo can impersonate someone.  You bet he can.  But Lorenzo doesn’t understand the risks until a Martian tries to assassinate them (and kills one of their partners) and they are on the run.

When they are on a spaceship headed for Mars, Lorenzo learns that he has been hired to impersonate a famous politician, John Joseph Bonforte, head of the Expansionist coalition “and the most loved (and hated!) man on the planet.”   Bonforte has been kidnapped, and there is a crisis in interplanetary relations; if Bonforte isn’t present at a meeting, the disaster could last for centuries. Lorenzo has always hated politics:  he  doesn’t even vote.  But  Dak’s idealism persuades Lorenzo to go through with the job.

Lorenzo tells us a lot about the art of impersonation (or acting).  Lorenzo and Bonforte already look alike.  Naturally, makeup is involved, but manner and posture are key. And to begin with, he has to make sure no one realizes he is the Great Lorenzo.

There are several ways to keep a… face from being recognized. The simplest is misdirection. Place a man in uniform and his face is not likely to be noticed—do you recall the face of the last policeman you encountered? Could you identify him if you saw him next in mufti? On the same principle is the attention-getting special feature. Equip a man with an enormous nose, disfigured perhaps with acne rosacea; the vulgar will stare in fascination at the nose itself, the polite will turn away—but neither will see the face.

The job of impersonating Bonforte requires hours of watching tapes so he can master the politician’s walk, style, and copy cadences of his voice and learn catchphrases.  But the most horrifying thing?  He has to attend a Martian assembly where he (or rather Bonforte) will be admitted into a brotherhood of Martians.  And Lorenzo hates Martians.  He has to learn to accept them.

Later, when things get really bad (with humans, not Martians), Lorenzo begins to understand politics and empathize with Bonforte, who opposes the so-called Humanity Party, essentially a group of white supremacists who want to extend their racism to controlling people of other planets.

Ideas and plot drive Heinlein’s writing.  The style is simple and sometimes clumsy, but somehow it doesn’t matter much here.

I came to appreciate Lorenzo’s philosophy.  He might not be the noblest, but he becomes a better man.

“The show must go on.” I had always believed that and lived by it. But why must the show go on?—seeing that some shows are pretty terrible. Well, because you agreed to do it, because there is an audience out there; they have paid and each one of them is entitled to the best you can give. You owe it to them. You owe it also to stagehands and managers and producers and other members of the company—and to those who taught you your trade, and to others stretching back in history to open-air theaters and stone seats and even to storytellers squatting in a marketplace. Noblesse oblige.

A really good read!