Friday, September 11, 2009

1956 Hugo – DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein’s back again! This is his first Hugo-award winner (remember, Farmer in the Sky won the 1951 Hugo in 2001…oh, Hugos, why do you confuse me so?)

The title and original cover artwork are a bit misleading. No, this novel is not about a binary star system, it’s about a “star” of the screen and stage. If you’re like me, you’ll imagine the narrator as Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian: “Acting!” (which I think may be what the guy on the cover is saying with his hand in the air).

The brilliant but pretentious (and out-of-work) actor Lorenzo Smythe is hired to impersonate a missing politician who is about to play a key role in a Martian civil rights movement. After much convincing, he agrees and slowly grows into the role of one of the human empire's most important politicians. He also grows as a person along the way, falls in love, yada yada yada. It’s all a bit cornball and way too easy. For instance, one of the key subplots in the early going is that Smythe hates Martians. He’s a flat-out, hardcore speciesist. Instead of organically overcoming this hatred, however, Smythe’s employers give him a quick round of hypnotherapy to make him love Martians. Smythe had been disgusted by the aliens' he thinks Martians smell like his crush's perfume.

Based on the theme and timing, there’s a fairly unsubtle civil rights parallel going on here. Will Martians get equal rights? Voting rights? Can Smythe-as-diplomat bridge the gap between the races…er…species? These are the questions Heinlein poses, but they’re not the most interesting questions. How do individuals move beyond racial hostility seems like a much more interesting conundrum. Apparently, Heinlein’s answer is hypnotherapy.

The book is also a tad short on conflict. Yes, it takes Lorenzo some time to warm to his role. But he’s too great an actor, and his beneficent employers are far too clever, for any of his enemies to ever come close to the truth once the acting begins.

Still, Double Star is very well-written and readable (as usual for Heinlein), and Smythe’s evolution from shallow and cocky thespian to heroic leader is interesting, even if some of the intervening steps are too artificial. Double Star is worth a look, but again, not a high priority. I’d start with Heinlein’s ‘60s work if you want to look into him (check back when we get to 1960s' winners).

Grade: B

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