Double Star: Heinlein and Humanism


The last time I wrote about Double Star, I ended it with these words: “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.”

I’m gonna be honest – that was like a year and a half ago, and I have no idea what I was planning to write. I mean, clearly I was planning something very specific, but as to what it actually was…yeah, no clue. Whatever it was, I got about a paragraph in and then hit a block, and then many, many many life things happened and I had to let this entire series drop for a while.  Fortunately, I’m now attempting to get back into it, and the first step in that process is to finish writing about this stupid 243-page novel, so please enjoy my final thoughts about the political ideas held by Double Star, as well as its author.


“No, I do not regret it, even though I was happier then – at least I slept better. But there is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people. Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt.”

As opposed to the words that ended my last piece on Double Star, those are the words that end Double Star itself. They are the words of John Joseph Bonforte, formerly the actor Lorenzo Smythe, admitting that sacrificing his old life for the benefit of a larger whole was worth it, solely because helping those who are suffering is the right thing to do. If you told someone who was familiar with science fiction that those words and that message were delivered by Robert Heinlein, they might not believe you. Heinlein is the pro-military fascist who wrote Starship Troopers, after all. Now, having not yet read Starship Troopers, I’m hardly in a position to compare the two, but given all I’d heard of the man and his politics, I was surprised to find that his first Hugo-winning novel contained not only a humanist message broad enough to be applied to non-humans, but also a celebratory exploration of a futuristic parliamentary democracy in which America is no more than a glorified member state of the space-faring British Empire. Moreover, the civilian government of Double Star is in some ways the hero of the book – the Great Lorenzo’s character arc, beyond his literal transformation from one person to another, involves him learning the importance of caring about and engaging in politics, and at no point is the existing system challenged or questioned as a responsible form of government. Around the middle of the book, while being lectured about the political system by the intelligent and ethical Roger Clifton, Lorenzo blurts out that “politics is a dirty game.” To which Clifton responds, “There is no such thing as a dirty game. But you sometimes run into dirty players.”

Researching the evolution of Heinlein’s politics is a fascinating exercise, and helps to contextualize Double Star within the broader scope of the author’s work. There’s some controversy about what Heinlein’s politics actually were – his novels have seemingly contradictory themes, and while Heinlein himself considered his views to have been consistent throughout his life, there is evidence of a right-wing shift as the years went on. His socialist politics got him blacklisted from the Navy during World War II, but the Cold War seemed to spook him. In 1932 he married a fellow socialist and activist named Leslyn; by 1947 their marriage had fallen apart, and he married the conservative Virginia Gerstenfeld the following year. In the 1930s, Heinlein was active in trying to push the Democratic party leftwards, even working for the California gubernatorial campaign to elect Upton Sinclair in 1934; 20 years later, he had accused several Democratic friends of being Russian puppets and withdrawn from the Democratic party.

The major shift in Heinlein’s storytelling occurred in 1957 – the year he turned 50, the year Sputnik was launched, and the year after Double Star was published. Jeet Heer, who I came to trust as a source during my research on the Puppy movement, wrote that after 1957, “Heinlein’s books were no longer progressive explorations of the future but hectoring diatribes lamenting the decadence of modernity.” Heer does not claim that Heinlein’s messages were consistently conservative after 1957 – the writer’s commitment to sexual radicalism endured throughout his career, and 1961’s Stranger in a Strange Land (which I also have yet to read) is considered a seminal text for the free love movement – but he does find a linking idea that connects Heinlein’s later work.

“All these books share one trait,” Heer says. “They ignore the consequences of people’s actions. Starship Troopers gives us war without PTSD and guilt over slaughter (the aliens are Bugs, so can be exterminated without remorse) just as Stranger in a Strange Land is a vision of sex without strings (‘grokking’ means never having to say sorry). In other books, Heinlein gave us incest without trauma.”

Double Star, coming in just before the dividing line in Heinlein’s novel career, is not completely immune from the author’s shifting political ideas. There is a parliamentary democracy, yes, but it remains under the oversight of a constitutional monarchy. Merely the fact that the story takes place within a political system that found both responsibility and functionality within the institution of the British Empire, as opposed to America, might say something about Heinlein’s view of American democracy at the time. Lorenzo himself is American, and thus ignorant of politics until his British employers arrive to enlighten him, though it must be noted that the unquestionably admirable Bonforte is American, as well. Still, Bonforte is a great leader of men – and of course, male himself – while those who are not great male leaders of men get a slightly different treatment via lines like this: “In any case, it is notorious that ‘democratic’ American women are more quiveringly anxious to be presented at court than is anybody else.”

That last line implies that American citizens, while claiming to value freedom and independence, secretly long to bask in the aura of elite power that comes from royalty. It’s not a huge leap from that point to “regular people secretly long to be ruled by the elite and the powerful,” and it’s an even smaller leap from there to believing that authoritarian government is best for everyone. “I am not a pacifist,” Bonforte says during one speech in the book (this is the real Bonforte, not Lorenzo taking his place, but since the book is about the latter becoming the former, it hardly matters thematically). “Pacifism is a shifty doctrine under which a man accepts the benefits of the social group without being willing to pay – and claims a halo for his dishonesty.” I know enough about Starship Troopers to know that this idea is quite similar to that book’s notions of only veterans being allowed to vote. The power of Bonforte’s beliefs are eventually enough to end Lorenzo’s racism for good – thanks to a realization that ethics apply to everyone, not just an alteration to his sense of smell – and they do convince him to spend his life helping others, and helping humanity to advance farther into space through the virtues of equality and decency. But even that closing quote has just the slightest authoritarian edge to it – “their lives have no cosmic significance,” after all, so we find satisfaction in helping them not because of their inherent dignity as living beings, but because “they can hurt.”

I remain largely appreciative of the messages in Double Star, and it’s a damn good story. Given what I know about what’s to come, however, I can’t stop thinking of it as perhaps one of the last gasps of Heinlein’s humanism. I really want to go back and read his old stories from the ‘30s and ‘40s, because it’s sad to me to think of such a brilliant mind being corrupted by faithlessness and fear, but that will have to wait. Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all lie ahead, and I look forward to returning to this conversation after reading them. Before that, however, we have the next book on the Hugo Best Novel reading list: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber.

You know, at some point.


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