Sunday, 30 April 2017

“Double Star” 1956, by Robert Heinlein

For the past month, prompted by my reading of William Paterson’s highly readable biography of Heinlein “Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue with his Century” (2010), I have been re-reading my Heinlein. By way of background, for the 70s and 80s H was one of my “go to” authors. When in search of a book to reread he was always a starting point. By the 90s my tastes had changed and I looked to new fields of reading enlightenment, however, after a quarter of a century it is now time for renewed interest! 

Let me say upfront, though I cannot agree with his libertarian justifications for violence, his casual acceptance of poverty, nor libertarianism itself, I do regard H as truly being one of the greats of science fiction, and a man who respected liberty and freedom, but only in a narrow sense.

This short novel “Double Star” was written in 1956, and tells of the transformation of an apparently talented actor, but one with an empty even bigoted life into a larger, farsighted and better person, who will go on to play a crucial role in human history. As with everything H writes the story background is rife with surprises and turns of fate. This future world is of a settled and colonised solar system. A world peopled with Martians and Venusians, and of course humans (for all of his imagination Heinlein could never relegate humans to second rate status), however, the ruler of this varied mix is the Holy Roman Emperor. I will say that again: Holy. Roman. Emperor! Wow.

When I first read this in the 70s I was wallowing in the learning of history, my prime academic interest still. The very idea that the Hasburgs could return as constitutional monarchs of the far future floored me. It still does. Holy. Roman. Emperor! Wow.

Heinlein manages to squeeze everything and more out of a scene. The simplest act generates images, story, and details. For example, in the few pages describing the act of meeting the emperor H gives us a history lesson that introduces and explains the nature of monarchy, and justifies a future constitutional monarchy. Of course, H the scientist and engineer never misses the opportunity to explain science and engineering. Hard and semi-soft SF!

Governments and politics, in Heinlein’s earlier writing career, not long after his own abortive though dramatic joust with the political system, are portrayed moderately well. In “Double Star” hints of H’s own days as a campaigner shine through. The political wrangling that goes on in the novel has the flavour of direct experience. A small joke about the negatives of political life is countered with the statement that political involvement is the most exciting and worthwhile activity one can pursue. The democratic, parliamentary system of the novel is portrayed as somewhat efficient and overall beneficial.  Also that politics is noble, and a worthwhile and necessary endeavour. Beliefs that would slowly fade from H’s writing as the years progressed.

To return to the details of the story, an out of work, yet talented minor actor is hired to stand in for the kidnapped opposition leader of the imperial parliament. Is that plausible? Maybe, stranger things have happened. Anyway, with some reluctance at first Lorenzo Smythe “the Great Lorenzo” masterfully impersonates the Right Honourable John Joseph Bonforte. His first act is to stand in for Bonforte who is up for adoption by a Marian clan. An adoption with huge political meaning, as Bonforte wishes to grant the Martians full citizen rights in the human dominated government. This impersonation is pulled off with great style and success. Next the imposter meets the emperor and is detected, but is allowed to continue in his deception by the emperor. Ethical? 

The denouement is the death of the original, and the decision by the actor to continue his role, and work for political reform that is ultimately successful. The final scene is a flashback from the end of his successful political career where the ‘aliens’ have full citizenship in the empire, and trade is free (naturally). Heinlein concludes the novel with a few words on the innate worth of human life.

Having said this, I will discuss one point that disturbs me—the acceptance of casual psychical abuse, Pavlovian, as a means of 'educating' children. The protagonist several times mentions that his father, also an actor, physical beat him in order to teach him his acting skills. As a teacher I find this a disgraceful portrayal of education, and an approach to teaching that is counterproductive. Conditioning teaches nothing, and creates adults who are unimaginative, obedient to authority figures, and resort quickly to violence to solve problems. To what extent this background item reflects Heinlein's true beliefs I do not know, but I found it the one main disturbing feature of this novel.

Again, I greatly enjoyed rereading this novel. My recollection was accurate, the details are all there—Heinlein packs a lot in—and the captivating story. As I made clear in my introduction, the theme is not the mechanics of the novel, but the transformation of a man, from a failure to a ‘real’ man.

Again, an engaging novel, I keep wanting to write “surprisingly so”. Essentially, the story is of the simplest with only a few scenes, heavy with exposition. It is Heinlein’s skill as a story teller that makes this shine. Worth a read.

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