Double Star: The One-Man Stock Company

Illustration by Frank Kelly Freas. Source: http://www.sffaudio.com

The cast of Double Star includes daring space pilots, scheming politicians, deadly Martians, and an Emperor, but they are all effectively backdrop compared to the narrator and main character, Lorenzo “The Great Lorenzo” Smythe, an actor so good he literally becomes another person. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Lorenzo is one of the most fascinating sci-fi characters I’ve read about, which is weird, because his “base” personality is that of a selfish xenophobe who thoroughly believes his own hype despite the fact that he’s completely broke – in other words, about as basic as human beings get. But there are a number of contradictions baked into him from the beginning, and as the story moves along, those contradictions multiply. Lorenzo is a washed-up has-been who is also an amazing actor, a conniving louse whose noble qualities draw friends and allies to him, an unrepentant hater of Martians who spends his life fighting for their political rights.  He is Lorenzo Smythe, but not really, because he is actually Lawrence Smith, but not anymore, because now he’s John Joseph Bonforte. His identity is rewritten, folded up, torn to pieces, and taped back together into a form both totally familiar and unrecognizably alien. How could he be anything but fascinating? He is the ultimate thespian of the future, a character whose entire raison d’etre is the act of transformation. He is change incarnate.

Double Star’s very first scene is an exercise in the number of contradictory traits a human character can display. Lorenzo Smythe, nearly broke and hiding in a dark corner of a hotel bar to avoid catching the eye of anyone to whom he might owe money, notices a man – Captain Dak Broadbent – entering the room who is clearly more accustomed to being in space than being on Earth. With the last of his money, Smythe buys Broadbent a drink, considering it an investment. Smythe makes a traditional spaceman toast, but Broadbent demures, saying he isn’t a spaceman. Smythe immediately calls Broadbent out on this lie and informs him that his walk gives him away (kindly neglecting to mention that Broadbent is also dressed ridiculously, as spacemen do when they don’t know anything about current Earth fashion and allow themselves to be scammed by “tailors”).

“Don’t let it worry you,” Smythe assures Broadbent. “I doubt if anyone else noticed. But I see things other people don’t see.” He then gives Broadbent his card, “a little smugly, perhaps,” his high-minded thoughts about how there is only one Lorenzo Smythe only briefly derailed by his annoyance that Broadbent keeps the card, which cost money.

By the time Smythe performs an imitation of Broadbent’s walk for him, my copy of Double Star shows that we’re on page four. But only just. There is an unbelievable wealth of information about Smythe elegantly crammed into those first couple of pages, and almost all of it is contradictory. Smythe clearly considers himself an excellent actor, but we get no explanation for why, if he’s so good, he’s also so broke that he only has enough money for one drink. He’s hanging out in a dark corner of the bar to avoid his debtors, but he freely parts with the last of his cash to perform a generous act for a stranger. Of course, this particular generous act is performed for selfish reasons — because Smythe considers it an investment — but it is also performed because Smythe has an acute sense of courtesy and social appearances. He’s mostly worried about running into his debtors because of the embarrassment it would cause when he couldn’t pay them, and he does Broadbent the courtesy of explaining how he could be so easily identified as a space man. And yet, that explanation is directly in the service of promoting Smythe’s skill as an actor and his powers of perception. Moreover, Smythe’s courtesy is contradicted by the fact that he exposes Broadbent’s lie in the first place; Smythe’s internal narrative makes it clear that he knows he shouldn’t be prying, but he just can’t help himself. Then, despite the fact that he claims he’s hiding out just to avoid embarrassment, and despite the fact that he buys Broadbent the drink, he immediately displays miserly qualities by bemoaning the cost of the lost card.

As the book goes on and Smythe’s character is expounded upon, the reader can distill a few distinct qualities from this morass of contradictory motives and actions. Smythe is selfish, beyond a shadow of a doubt. He thinks about himself before anyone else. But that selfishness, combined with the fact that he is an actor, translates to a strong interest in how other people see him. He is constantly performing on his own behalf, which is where the courtesy comes in. He is selling himself, particularly when he’s unemployed, as he is when we meet him. He cares about money, though he is willing to spend a little in the present for the prospect of making more in the future, but it later becomes clear that money is far from being his driving motivation. What kind of actor knows he’s one of the best there is, but still manages to find himself so frequently out of work? An actor who cares more about acting than he does about getting paid for acting; who considers the art form (and the appreciation of an audience) before the profit. Smythe himself spells this out to Broadbent later on, and for all that he is an unreliable narrator, he has one very interesting quality that you don’t see often in fictional actors: Throughout the entirety of Double Star, Lorenzo Smythe never lies.

Unless you count the acting, that is. Smythe has an interesting relationship with his profession, one that is, again, full of contradictions. It’s clear that he became an actor because his father was an actor, but it’s also clear that his father was at least somewhat abusive and didn’t think little Lawrence had any acting talent whatsoever. In fact, the question of whether Smythe is a “good” actor is one that we get contradictory perspectives on. Objectively, he must be a good actor – a great actor, no less – in order to do what he does over the course of the book. He masterfully studies his subject, John Joseph Bonforte, well enough to fool people Bonforte has known for years, and well enough that he can engage in delicate interspecies political negotiations without anyone being the wiser. The text makes it clear that this deception is not the work of any sort of advanced physical transformation, but is accomplished strictly through Smythe’s ability to imitate Bonforte’s mannerisms and way of speaking. Even after the real Bonforte is rescued, his ordeal leaves him mentally crippled and unable to appear in public. Smythe ends up playing the role of Bonforte through an entire political campaign, immersing himself so thoroughly in the character that it becomes something of a struggle to return to his original self. And when Bonforte unexpectedly dies moments after winning the election, Smythe assumes the role once more, this time for the rest of his life.

Looking back at the end, Smythe – now having fully transformed into Bonforte – acknowledges his past self in the third person, saying “He was never a success as an actor, not really – though I think he was sometimes touched with the true madness.” But while his unemployed status at the start of the novel is testament to his lack of financial success, I think even the future version of Smythe is downplaying his own incredible accomplishment. There are hints in the book to support the idea that he is an uncommonly good actor – the other characters are consistently amazed at his ability to completely transform himself using only movement and demeanor, and when he his forced to reveal his true identity to Emperor Willem, the monarch proclaims himself one of Smythe’s biggest fans, and even asks for an autograph before he leaves. These are clues more than they are evidence, certainly, but given the wealth of contradictions that make up the Great Lorenzo, it makes sense for Heinlein to plant the seeds for him being a great actor who is never recognized as such, not even by himself.

If there’s one thing Lorenzo’s acting ability can’t adjust for, however, it’s the fact that he hates Martians. Just plain doesn’t like ‘em. We learn this almost at the very beginning of the novel, and while Smythe makes it clear that he has no problem with humans of different races, “men were men, whereas Martians were things. They weren’t even animals to my way of thinking. I’d rather have had a wart hog around me any day.” Of course, making this distinction is itself yet another paradox of Smythe’s existence; those who feel the need to clarify to others that they aren’t actually racist are, in general, racist (or in this case, speciest). But what’s really interesting about Smythe’s hatred of Martians is that less than a third of the way into the novel, he gets the racism brainwashed out of him.

I don’t usually quote this extensively from the books I read, but that might change if I continue analyzing scenes as fascinating as this one, which takes place immediately after Lorenzo has been hypnotized by Dr. Capek, brought out of hypnosis, and then shown some pictures of Martians.

He switched them on and I watched and wondered. Martians were not disgusting, if one looked at the without prejudice; they weren’t even ugly. In fact, they possessed the same quaint grace as a Chinese pagoda. True, they were not human in form, but neither is a bird of paradise – and birds of paradise are the loveliest things alive.

I began to realize, too, that their pseudo limbs could be very expressive; their awkward gestures showed some of the bumbling friendliness of puppies. I knew now that I had looked at Martians all my life through the dark glasses of hate and fear.

Of course, I mused, their stench would still take getting used to, but – and then I suddenly realized that I was smelling them, the unmistakable odor – and I didn’t mind it a bit! In fact, I liked it. “Doctor,” I said urgently. “This machine has a ‘smellie’ attachment – doesn’t it?”

“Eh? I believe not. No, I’m sure it hasn’t – too much parasitic weight for a yacht.”

“But it must. I can smell them very plainly.”

“Oh, yes.” He looked slightly shamefaced. “Bub, I did one thing to you that I hope will cause you no inconvenience.

“Sir?”

“While we were digging around inside your skull it became evident that a lot of your neurotic orientation about Martians was triggered by their body odor. I didn’t have time to do a deep job so I had to offset it. I asked Penny – that’s the youngster who was in here before – for a loan of some of the perfume she uses. I’m afraid that from here on out, bub, Martians are going to smell like a Parisian house of joy to you. If I had had time I would have used some homelier pleasant odor, like ripe strawberries or hot cakes and syrup. But I had to improvise.”

I sniffed. Yes, it did smell like a heavy and expensive perfume – and yet, damn it, it was unmistakably the reek of Martians. “I like it.”

“You can’t help liking it.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I think that once again, almost everything can be framed in terms of contradictions. The question of whether it was okay to screw around with Smythe’s brain to make him see Martians as people is a straight-up “individual rights vs. collective good” ethical dilemma. What if we could alter a person’s mind, remove those “dark glasses of hate and fear,” and force them to see humanity in others who didn’t look like them? Smythe seems to enter into the process willingly, for the most part, but what if such anti-racist technology could be imposed on someone? Would it be morally justifiable to violate a person’s individuality for their own good, and for the good of society as a whole? Heinlein is very clear that Smythe is much improved as a person after undergoing Dr. Capek’s hypnosis, but he also seems to have a rather odd vision of racism as a concept. Smythe seems almost reluctant much of the time in his dislike of Martians, often saying something to the effect of, “I can’t help it, I just don’t like them,” as though prejudice is an inherited character trait. Capek’s hypnosis is essentially an act of surgery, the removal of the tumor of prejudice from the brain. The narrative heavily implies that hating Martians is a bad thing, but it’s a bad thing with a quick-and-easy fix. Racism, Heinlein could be read as saying, has more to with individual reactions (even simply to smell) than it does with entrenched systems of oppression. In the future, anyway.

There’s much more to say about Heinlein’s politics and messages – so much that it’s going to be its own post. But we have to talk about this thing that happens with Lorenzo’s sense of smell. As mentioned, Smythe seems perfectly okay with most of this, but he definitely hadn’t signed on for Dr. Capek to rearrange the way his olfactory sensors process information. And that fact that Smythe (as Bonforte) eventually marries Penny makes the whole thing both weird, and of course, contradictory, in a chicken-and-the-egg sort of way. Before the hypnosis, Smythe hadn’t noticed Penny’s perfume at all, and in fact, had barely noticed Penny herself. Afterward, not only does Smythe associate the perfume with the smell of Martians, but as Capek says, somewhat chillingly, Smythe “can’t help liking it.” Did Capek’s ministrations influence Lorenzo’s future relationship with Penny? And if so, did he facilitate their love, or invalidate it?

Of course, perfume or no perfume, the Lorenzo/Penny “love story” has a boatload of problems. As female characters go, Penny is a slight improvement over, say, Millie Montag, being that she’s a parliamentarian with a fiercely loyal personality. But that personality is defined almost entirely in the context of her being in love with Bonforte, and in the mean time she’s the victim of casual sexism from basically every other character. She’s the only woman in the story, she exists solely to be the main character’s love interest, and the fact that she initially resents Smythe but eventually comes to like and accept him doesn’t alter the vague creep factor of her winding up married to the new Bonforte. There will come a day when we get to the first true instance of positive female representation in Hugo-winning novels, but it is not this day.

As for the other characters, their most notable traits are that they each stand out so well despite having so little in the way of character development. Dak Broadbent is the prototypical daring space man, though the reader is as surprised as Smythe himself to learn that Dak is also a member of parliament. Roger Clifton is careful, thorough, and poised, the definition of the cerebral politician, while Bill Corpsman is slimy and slick, Heinlein’s caricature of a political speechwriter. Probably the best of the supporting cast is the Emperor himself, Willem of Orange, who brilliantly turns tropes of royalty on their heads with his everyman appeal and his train collection.

That said, the only other character who really matters is Bonforte himself, whose politics Lorenzo Smythe eventually adopts as his own. But to talk about Bonforte is to talk about his policies, and to talk about his policies is to talk about the futuristic world of Double Star. So come back next time for some Martian culture shock, a bizarre presidential system, and a possible explanation for why everyone in this book uses British slang.

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