Double Star: New Beginnings

Source: NASA/Casey Reed

Aaaaaaaaand we’re back!

If you’ve followed this blog even a little, or heard me constantly plug it on the Unspoiled: Dark Tower podcast, or even just had a thought, maybe one time, along the lines of “hey, I wonder if Miles is ever going to write anything new for Universes of the Mind again,” please accept my most sincere apologies. I am aware that we are rapidly approaching the first anniversary of this blog, and so far I have finished covering a grand total of three (3) Hugo-winning novels. I am also aware that I haven’t posted on this blog since March, meaning it’s been a solid six months since there was anything resembling new content here. And I am most certainly aware that the content I published in March was supposedly supplemental material about the Shannara series, which, as much as I love it, has never won a Hugo Award.

I am aware of all that, and I’m sorry, and I promise it won’t happen again. Mostly because I only plan on getting married the one time.

So, with apologies taken care of, let’s jump right back into the list of every novel to win the Hugo Award! Where were we again?

Let’s see…there was the one about murder in a telepathic society, that was really good…the one with all the book-burning isn’t good as everyone thinks, but it’s still okay…oh man, the one that probably got a Hugo because of scientology, that was terrible…ah, yes, here we are. The fucking promised land.

Half the reason I started this project was the sinking realization that, of all authors to have never read, I have never read Robert Heinlein. The man won FOUR Hugos, including one for the novel that inspired the best terrible sci-fi movie of my generation, and is considered one of the three or four most important figures in the history of the genre, and I’d never read a single word he put down. That was the moment I realized that I knew jack shit about science fiction, and resolved to change that.

And let me tell you, from the very first line (“If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman”) it’s clear that Double Star is a different kind of Hugo winner. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time directly comparing these books, but it’s worth doing so now just because the differences between what came before and what we’re presumably going be getting for the foreseeable future are so many and so stark.

The most obvious is that Double Star is the first Hugo winner to be written in the first person, and that’s extremely significant. Clifton jumped freely between the perspectives of different characters, sometimes on the same page. His novel was only slightly concerned with its characters, focusing instead of the exploration of ideas. Bester limited himself mostly to the POVs of two characters, and Bradbury stuck with Guy Montag the whole time, but neither of their books is really about the characters, either. The Demolished Man, the novel equivalent of clinging to the outside of a speeding train, moves too quickly to delve very deep into the people populating its pages. Its focus is plot. Fahrenheit 451 uses Montag as the lens through which its readers see the world of grinning firemen and houses made of TV screens, but it doesn’t care who Montag is. Its focus is message and symbolism.

Double Star is the first Hugo winner whose focus is character – and not just any character, but a totally unreliable narrator whose job is to impersonate a completely different character, and who succeeds so thoroughly that he actually becomes the subject of his impersonation. How the hell could you accomplish that without first person perspective? There’s no adjustment period between 1955 and 1956, no gradual move toward more complex character development between They’d Rather Be Right and Double Star. There’s boring-ass Joe Carter and his equally boring-ass entourage, babbling away in their pseudoscientific immortality jargon, and then there’s motherfucking Lorenzo Smythe, a man who spends his entire book as two people and whose transition from being fully one of them to fully the other is the central concern of the story. If there were nothing else to distinguish it from previous winners, this change alone would be world-shaking.

But Double Star isn’t just a character study. It’s also the first Hugo winner that isn’t set on Earth, which is wild to think about. The Demolished Man briefly ventured off-planet for its climactic set-piece, but almost all of it takes place on Earth, and the other two books never leave the surface of our home world at all. How insane is it that it took four novels in the science fiction genre before we got to one that actually happens in space? And has, like, Martians in it and stuff?

Furthermore, because Double Star takes place primarily in space and on Mars, the scope of Heinlein’s futurism is significantly broader than any of the other three. You can excuse Bradbury, because Fahrenheit 451 (as opposed to, say, The Martian Chronicles) was expressly intended as a cultural warning, and thus very much needed to be set in the not-too-distant future. Clifton’s novel is less a warning than a bizarre ideological promotional piece, but it, too, needed to be tied to an Earth much like our own to deliver its message. Bester at least posits the existence of specific future technologies, most notably a computerized justice system, but his big idea is the same one as Clifton’s: humans with psionic powers.

Heinlein, on the other hand, goes big by not staying home, imagining entire political and social structures as they might exist in the far future. They are realistic, complex, and fascinating to analyze, characteristic of an author who wrote an entire series called “Future History,” a full explanation of which was published in chart form in 1941.  But I find these institutions compelling in Double Star in part because their only real role is to fill in the cracks. They are made believable by the fact that the characters don’t need to explain them to one another, tangential in a story that’s mainly about character, but essential for that story to function on a basic level. In Double Star, Heinlein’s vision of humanity’s future is merely the mortar holding the character study together, and it’s still more compelling than any of the other three futures presented thus far. I suspect it won’t be long before we see what happens when Heinlein makes political and social structures the focus of a novel.

There’s one more significant difference between Double Star and its predecessors in the Hugo winner ranks. It’s steeped in the social hierarchies of the future, sure, and its conflicts (the external ones, at least) are mainly political in nature. The books challenges are solved more often by deft public speaking than by deadly sci-fi weaponry. And yet, it’s also a book about expert star pilots on a daring mission to salvage the hope of peace with an alien race. It’s so heavy on space intrigue that it includes a futuristic Farley file, but it’s also thick with Martians that look like “a tree trunk topped off by a sun helmet.” Heinlein has a reputation as being the ultimate Campbellian writer, but there are many elements of Double Star that seem pretty pulpy to me. It is, first and foremost, a fun book to read, which is something none of the first three can really say. The Demolished Man is tense, Fahrenheit 451 is troubling, They’d Rather Be Right is infuriating, but Double Star is fun.

And despite everything else, I credit that to the brilliantly swaggering persona of its main character, the Great Lorenzo himself. His is the rich, fully-developed voice that leads us triumphantly into the proper era of the Best Novel winners, and next time, we’ll take a deeper look into the reasons why.

Thanks for your patience. It’s good to be back.


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