Archive for March 28th, 2013

Great Hugo Read: Double Star

DoubleStarHere’s the gist of the story. Lawrence Smith, aka Lorenzo Smythe, aka The Great Lorenzo is an actor. At the front of the book he’s approached about a mysterious gig that promises to pay him whatever he might ask. He learns he’s been brought on board to serve as a stand-in for a human politician on Mars named Bonforte, the Opposition Leader in British terms, kidnapped on the eve of being inducted as an honorary Martian.

At a very high level it’s the plot of the political romance Dave, but transposed to Mars.

I’m not going to break down the plot, these posts are largely intended for people who have read the book. Instead, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to discuss my general dissatisfaction with the book. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book better than I liked The Forever Machine, but that’s a low bar to clear. I didn’t like it nearly as much as The Demolished Man, but that’s an extremely high bar to clear. The question is…where in that rather broad spectrum does the book fall?

Let’s start with my lesser issue with the book before moving on to my chief gripe. Lesser issue: the character of Penny. She’s probably the most realized female character of the Hugo books thus far, but…damn, I need a better cliché than how high bars are to clear. Demolished Man had several secondary female characters, but most of them served for just one or two scenes. The Forever Machine features its techno-magically de-aged female character. Double Star’s main female character, only female character, is Penny. She’s opposition leader Bonforte’s girl Friday with very clear romantic feelings for her boss.

This follows a pattern in Heinlein novels of younger female characters in love with men of authority. It’s certainly not a quirk only of Heinlein, or even only of fiction. Power is a fine aphrodisiac. It’s certainly not daughters begging their father to impregnate them, a plot point of Farnham’s Freehold. Is is a pattern I’ve seen in the few Heinlein books I’ve read, and a pattern I’m going to keep an eye on as we read a lot more Heinlein as part of the Hugo Read.

My broader problem with Penny is not this power aphrodisiac issue. It’s that we’re told at several points in the novel that she is a very capable administrator, has advanced degrees, and even a spot in the shadow cabinet maintained by Bonforte. However, her job when on camera is to faint, cry, and be generally comforted by Lorenzo. Who falls rapidly in love with her, and the male in power falling in love with his female underling is no less troubling of a trope.Alright, a book from the 1950s has some less than ideal gender politics and poorly realized female characters. While I don’t entirely want to excuse Double Star as just a product of its time, it’s also harder to hold it to a modern standard.

So let’s leave Penny behind and sit down with my broader issue with the novel: Where’s the drama?

There are two potentials for conflict. Both of them lie with Lorenzo. Which is appropriate, as he’s the first person narrator of the novel. Conflict one: does he take the job and does he continue with it when it becomes clear he’ll be taking on the role of Bonforte longer and longer. Conflict two: will anyone figure him out?

Conflict one is appropriately handled. There’s a thin line walked by a first person narrator when he is exploring his own motivations for acting. Consider it too little and the character feels dragged around on a leash. Consider it too much and the character becomes wishy-washy and spends too much of the novel navel gazing. Double Star perhaps leans a little towards the Lorenzo-on-a-leash possibility, but at each point that the character is asked to re-up his commitment to doubling Bonforte, he does spend some time considering the possibilities. This worked. However, it’s not a conflict source that can carry an entire book.

Did I mention the emperor is a huge fan of Lorenzo’s? No? Because of course he is.

Conflict two. Ah. Here’s the real problem. There is a frequently mentioned dread that someone may figure out that Lorenzo isn’t Bonforte, and that the whole charade will crumble to pieces. This conflict comes to a head exactly twice in the novel. In the first instance he’s sniffed out by the constitutional monarch of the human empire. Lorenzo screws up a shibboleth by not knowing how formal or informal to act with the emperor in private. The upshot of this? The emperor agrees with the need for a stand-in and sends him about his way. The second instance is late in the book when one of the insiders of the scheme is left without a position when the new government is drawn up, and chooses to expose Lorenzo during a meeting. The upshot of this? Learning that the conspiracy had long ago replaced Bonforte’s biometrics on file with Lorenzo’s.


Glad that worked out so easily.

The problem is…I don’t want things to work out so easily within the fiction I read. I don’t want the emperor to figure out what’s going on then be fine with it. I don’t want half a chapter’s worry that the gig is up just to find out everything was fixed off-screen weeks before.

There’s some political intrigue, most of which goes on in spite of Lorenzo, not because of it. And…that’s perhaps the biggest problem with the book. A lot of it goes on in spite of Lorenzo, not because of him. His job is to make various speeches. His job isn’t the high stakes rescue of Bonforte. Or, with only minor exception, crafting political machinations. He is, at least, a character with opinions about what’s going on around him, and even an evolving viewpoint on the politics of the man he is meant to stand in for. I don’t need car chases (there actually is on), gunfights, or giant space battles. I just wish…there had been maybe a little more for him to do to balance out the number of things he had to think about.

That wraps up the first three months of the Great Hugo Read. Three months down, 105 to go. The past winners are going on hiatus for a few months to be replaced by the 2013 nominees, which will be announced this Saturday, March 30th, at 4pm eastern time. Check out the Hugo blog for details about how to watch the nominee announcement live. I’ll get a post up by no later than Sunday night with a recommended order for the nominees. For those only interested in the catch-up read, we’ll get back to that in September when we read Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time with a secondary read, Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop. For those interested in the secondary reads, I’ll have an announcement in about a week with some books being added to that schedule, including a complete read of all five nominees from 1966 in the second half of next year, and where I end up slipping the first five books of the Song of Ice and Fire into the schedule.


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