Many of Heinlein’s fans consider the novels he wrote in the fifties amongst the author’s strongest work; when he was at the peak of his talents. Double Star is considered by many to be the finest of his titles. Brian Aldiss called it his “most enjoyable novel.”
Whether it is the simplicity of a lively tale, the complexity of the situation, or the depth of characterization, the book has developed a loyal following. It also won Heinlein his first Hugo.
The story revolves around Lawrence Smith—also known as “Lorenzo the Great”—a down-and-out actor wasting the remainder of his life in bars.
When he encounters a space-pilot who offers him a drink, before he knows what is going on, he is on Mars involved in a deep conspiracy with global consequences. He is given a mission where failure would not only mean his own death, it would almost certainly mean an all-out planetary war.
“Heinlein’s novels of the 1940s and 50s shaped every single science fiction writer of my generation and everyone currently writing science fiction. Or making science fiction movies … and Double Star is an excellent example of all the reasons why.”—Connie Willis
Title: Double Star | Author: Robert Heinlein | Publisher: Doubleday | Pub. Date: 1956 | Pages: 172 | ASIN: B016TSE6OW | Genre: Science Fiction | Language: English | Source: Purchased | Unstarred Review
Double Star Reading
The 1956 Hugo awards failed to announce which works were considered, again, choosing to only announce the winner in various categories. Double Star by Heinlein won in the category of best novel. Jo Walton’s indispensable “An INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE HUGOS” once again provides context.
Double Star stands on a foundation next to several other tales. The Prince and the Pauper and the movie Dave bracket it fairly well. All three diverge to tell their stories but the core McGuffin is shared. The poor sap is picked to stand-in for someone famous and things go south. Heinlein’s sap, Lorenzo Smyth, tells his story firsthand and is an irritating man suffering from narcissism and insecurity. Frankly, the first-person point of view made much of the first half almost unreadable to me and found me wondering if Heinlein was at that time such a young ham-fisted writer that he thought the perspective was honest. It got better.
The story is classic early Heinlein, space travel, an alien race or two, and lots of quick action. It also is not a long work, thus reading goes fairly quickly. I am sure I read Double Star when I was a boy though I really had no lasting impression. I would like to chalk up my lack of memory to the passage of years, but having just finished a re-read the work is just so predictable. Wikipedia tells me that “Anthony Boucher nevertheless concluded that Heinlein was simply creating an agreeably entertaining light novel, and in that task, he succeeds admirably.” I think that is exactly right. High praise, indeed.
Nothing in the work is bad or disappointing per se. But I have much more affection for several of those other novels Walton mentioned, including Heinlein’s own “Tunnel in the Sky.” Frankly, I cannot understand Jo Walton’s high praise, but we each have our own tastes.
Having read and reviewed the first three Hugo winners for Best Novel I am going to try out a rating system. Three categories thus far, with room for a fourth at the top once I hit an example.
Read This – The Demolished Man fits this bill. A work that holds up over time. Maybe an all-time classic or just something to recommend, this will probably be the largest group.
Meh – Double Star. Its OK. I didn’t hate reading it. I wouldn’t hide that I read it. I would never just decide to reread it (unless I’d forgotten too many details and had to write a review.)
Run Away – They’d Rather Be Right. Do not recommend this book to any friends. You may not want to admit to having read it. I expect there will be very few if any additions to this group.
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While the “man standing in for someone else” story has long roots, its modern run probably is owing to Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda,” from 1894, in which an Englishman serves as a double for the King of Ruritania.
Thanks Brian – I wasn’t familiar with that! bill