Double Star: All the right elements

Double Star by Robert A. HeinleinDouble Star by Robert A. HeinleinDouble Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Most of Robert A. Heinlein’s adult novels have interesting ideas or premises but many lack likeable characters and/or fun quickly-moving plots. Fortunately Double Star has all the right elements and is entertaining from start to finish. It’s one of Heinlein’s best novels, I think, and I must not be alone in that opinion since it won the Hugo Award in 1956 and was nominated for Locus’ All-Time Best Science Fiction Novels. Double Star is a character-based novel that explores some important political issues without getting preachy.

Lorenzo Smythe, who styles himself “The Great Lorenzo,” is a down-and-out actor who has a lot more self-esteem than he has job offers. In fact, he’s a pompous ass and nobody wants to hire him. Just after he’s spent his last penny, he’s offered an acting job that pays a lot more money than he’s ever been offered before. He will be playing the double of a famous politician on Mars. Lorenzo fancies himself an artist, so even though he disagrees with the man’s politics, he gives the role everything he’s got. All he really cares about is giving a great show.

Lorenzo studies diligently for his new role as the popular, hard-working and ethical politician and it changes his life. Not only is this fun to watch, but the story made me think about the mutability of personality and how someone might become a better person simply by acquiring the habit of acting like a better person. It also made me think about how we often misunderstand and malign people whose politics or religion we don’t agree with. If we really got to know them and to understand what they believe and why, we might find ourselves understanding and admiring them despite our differences in opinion. Another theme in Double Star is the sense of self and what it means to lose that sense. I don’t want to say too much so as not to ruin the plot, but I found myself thinking about this — struggling with it, actually — long after I finished the book.

Heinlein loves to talk politics and this story is the perfect set-up for him to explore moral issues such as pacifism, racism and, of course, taxes. Most of the plot involves political campaigning and I was amused by how differently this is done today compared to 1956 when Double Star was published. If this story was updated for 2013, the political campaigning process is what would require the most editing!

I listened to audiobook version narrated by Lloyd James and produced by Blackstone Audio. James did a great job with Lorenzo. If you’re an audiobook reader, I recommend this version.

~Kat Hooper


In Double Star, a 1956 Robert Heinlein novella, Lawrence Smith (aka “Lorenzo Smythe” or “The Great Lorenzo”) an out-of-work actor, accepts a job to impersonate a man for a few days, without, perhaps, asking as many questions about the job as he should have. Larry promptly finds himself whisked off to the planet Mars, standing in for the Honorable John Bonforte, one of the most important political figures in the solar system, who has been kidnapped. His first task: double for Bonforte during a vitally important Martian adoption ceremony, where failure to appear is not an option unless you’re dead. But somehow one appearance as a double leads to another, and another…

My (self-imposed) mission was to find a Robert Heinlein story where the enjoyment of the tale isn’t swamped by the offensive content for which Heinlein is, unfortunately, well known. Double Star, I think, does the job pretty well. There are a few instances of eyebrow-raising dialogue, and the women mostly have secretarial-type jobs, but nothing was too far out of line, and it’s par for what you’d normally expect to see in 1950’s books (even science fiction books; the imaginations of mid-century SF authors had their limits).

Robert Heinlein gets on his soapbox a little about personal freedoms and politics, but it’s all good since the main message is equality for all races, including Martians and Venerians (aliens from Venus). A few outdated technologies like microfilm and slide rules appear alongside the spaceships and ray guns, but it doesn’t ruin the fun. It’s actually pretty amusing in a retro kind of way.

This is a quick and humorous read, not terribly challenging, but enjoyable. There are some interesting and worthwhile ideas about how acting a role can change you as a person, the importance of the political process, and the impact one person can have.

~Tadiana Jones

Double Star — (1956) Publisher: One minute, down and out actor Lorenzo Smythe was — as usual — in a bar, drinking away his troubles as he watched his career go down the tubes. Then a space pilot bought him a drink, and the next thing Smythe knew, he was shanghaied to Mars. Suddenly he found himself agreeing to the most difficult role of his career: impersonating an important politician who had been kidnapped. Peace with the Martians was at stake — failure to pull off the act could result in interplanetary war. And Smythe’s own life was on the line — for if he wasn’t assassinated, there was always the possibility that he might be trapped in his new role forever!

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    I remember really liking this one, too, Kat. Thanks for reminding me of why….

  2. This was always one of my favorites, among many well-liked Heinleins.

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