While I’m making an effort to read the oldest books on the Hugo Novel list first, the 1953 and 1955 winners are not available as eBooks or, for a reasonable price, as “new” books. I placed an order at AbeBooks for five of the early novels on the list unavailable on my Kindle and those should be winging their way to me soon. In the meantime, I got started with the earliest novel that was available for the Kindle, which turned out to be the 1956 Winner, Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein.
As the smart reader can probably guess from the title of this post, I hadn’t read any Heinlein before. (I know there are people out there who would say I can’t call myself a Sci-Fi fan without having read any Heinlein, but I don’t really care and besides it’s kind of the point of this whole venture, catching up on the classics.) Anyway, while I’ve seen the Starship Troopers movie more than once, I hadn’t actually gotten around to reading it or anything else of his. (Starship Troopers is coming, it won in 1960.) Double Star is the story of actor Lorenzo Smythe (nee Lawrence Smith) who accepts a job as a double without knowing who he’ll be doubling or why his services are needed. (I’m going to go ahead and be a bit spoilery as the book is 56 years old, I’ll try not to give away the whole plot.) After a fairly lengthy talk with his would-be employers, they are interrupted by a Martian and a human who attempt to kill everyone in the room and, as often happens, end up getting themselves killed instead. Smythe helps his employer, Captain Dak Broadbent, clean up and they hightail to Dak’s ship. It’s not until they’re on the rendezvous ship and heading to Mars that Lorenzo finally gets the full story.
Smythe has been hired to “play” The Right Honorable John Joseph Bonforte, a major political player in the Expansionist Party. Bonforte is to be “adopted” into a Martian family, a ritual is to be performed in just 2 days, and the opposing Humanity Party has kidnapped Bonforte. Unfortunately, the Martian’s notion of “propriety” is such that if anything but death were to keep Bonforte from his appointment, he would need to submit to death rather than shame himself and his proposed family. (This is, of course, why he was kidnapped in the first place instead of being killed outright.) Smythe is needed to perform the ritual in Bonforte’s absence to avert war. He studies up and does his duty. While performing the ritual, Dak and the others who know about the kidnapping find Bonforte, brainwashed and ill and Smythe is asked to step in for what ends up being considerably longer.
I know enough about Heinlein to know that many of his books have an overtly political bent to them, and this one is no exception. The point seems to be no matter how hard you try to avoid it, politics will get you in the end, as poor Smythe never even registered to vote before being pulled into the this conspiracy.
“I had never meddled in politics. My father had warned against it. ‘Stay out of it, Larry,’ he had told me solemnly. ‘The publicity you get that way is bad publicity. The peasants don’t like it.” (Kindle Location 654)
There is also a point to be made about the power one charismatic man (or woman, says I) can have to provoke change if he wields it well. Certainly a point that is as true today as it was then.
Speaking of “then”, I knew going into this that some of the older books were sure to have ideas and rhetoric that were out-dated and foreign to me. It was still something of a shock to me when in the very first chapter Smythe worried that Dak might be interested in him sexually. Having just finished reading the 2012 Hugo nominees, wherein at least half of the stories included a LGBT, omni-sexual or, in one case, hydro-sexual character with little to no comment, the idea that such blatant homophobia could still exist in the future was jarring. (There was also a huge amount of cigarette smoking – or, deathsticks as I like to call them (pretty much the only thing I like in Attack of the Clones). But it was the rampant misogynism that bothered me the most. Here are just a few examples:
“Stow it, Penny, or I’ll spank your round fanny – at two gravities.” (Kindle Location 726)
“I took hold of her chin and tilted her face up. ‘I know why you find it so hard to have me here, in his place. You love him. But I’m doing the best job for him I know how. Confound it, woman! Do you have to make my job six times harder by treating me like dirt?‘” (Kindle Location 957)
“Penny sighed softly and fainted again.” (Kindle Location 2577)
And that wasn’t all. Pretty much every scene with Penny in it (the only woman, an epic Bechdel Test fail) had men condescending to her or threatening her (or both). While I realize that it was a “different time” in 1956, but it’s obvious that the idea that women might be equals in the future obviously didn’t even cross Heinlein’s mind, even as he wrote a story about accepting alien races as a part of the human empire.
In the end, I actually did enjoy the book. It was a good story and by the end I had come to like the bombastic blowhard Lorenzo Smythe. I’d definitely recommend this book to someone looking to read more classic sci-fi, just be ready for a future that, in some ways, is socially mired in the past.
Bechdel Test: 0 of 3