Warning: this post contains spoilers for Robert A Heinlein’s science fiction novel Double Star
Science fiction seems to have faded. At least, when I go to a library, or a bookstore, or more likely browse the Amazon Kindle library, I find a lot more good, really original fantasy being put out by new names and in modern times than I do science fiction. I can’t claim to know why this might be, but I do know that it hasn’t always been this way; my dad has often said that when he was younger it was the opposite, with fantasy in a kind of rut, and science fiction the blossoming flower. This present situation is perhaps why I find that I read today much for fantasy than I do science fiction, which is really shame, since every time that I pick up one of these older science fiction novels I invariably enjoy it.
Heinlein was one of the fathers of science fiction, arguably in the same pantheon as giants Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradberry, and Arthur C Clarke, and Double Star was written at the peak of what is considered his “conventional” science fiction career, before he started to experiment more and explore more unusual topics with his novels. This is a little ironic, because Double Star is firmly in the soft science fiction camp. It’s so far to the soft side, in fact, that in a society that includes life on Mars, Venus, Ganymede, and Pluto, engineers are still using slide rules, and data is stored on “spools,” which presumably is some kind of magnetic tape. Society, too, is basically still 1950s America, complete with ubiquitous smoking. There just happen to be martians around.
However, its shortfalls in the future-prediction business so well-leveraged by some of its contemporaries in no way compromise the relevance of Double Star. In fact, they may even enhance it, particularly at the present juncture. This is an almost completely character driven story, and it tackles that topic that is sure to inspire all kinds of controversy and conversation, especially in an election year: politics. Science fiction has long used the lens of the future to make commentaries on modern issues, including political and social ones, with sometimes more veiling than other times. In Double Star, though, it’s really not about the major political delineations that are only ever vaguely described. It is more about the people of politics, and of course that most sincere form of flattery.
The premise of the book – an actor is recruited to stand in for a prominent political leader while said leader is indisposed, and through a series of further events finds himself imitating, and in essence becoming, that leader permanently – is not particularly tight, and the continuing sequence of events that keeps the protagonist in his doubling job does not seem especially probable, but probability is rather secondary to the point. The whole plot is, in some ways, secondary. To me, this whole book was about what it means to be an individual, and how in truly coming to understand someone else, we cannot help but see the world from their point of view. In many ways, it was a novel-length case study in my oft-repeated idea: “we are all of us the protagonists of our own stories.” That is, no one deliberately sets out to do evil without reason.
Coming in at just over 50,000 words, it might actually be generous to call Double Star a novel: in most speculative fiction circles these days, that would put it firmly in novella territory. Its brevity, though, is one of its many strengths, and does make for a quick read. I really encourage you to consider reading Double Star.