by Robert A. Heinlein, published 1956
This is my first time reading Heinlein. I was naturally curious what this noted author had to offer. When I discovered that Phoenix Pick sells a selection of his novels in an ethical ePub format, I had the perfect excuse to dive in.How I read is almost as important as what I read. My ideal scenario is one where I buy eBooks directly from the author from their website. EBooks should be sold without cumbersome Digital Rights Management restrictions that are hostile to people who simply want to own and read books. I go into more detail here.
I came to Double Star with an open mind. Some of the language and characters haven’t aged well, but I read stories as a product of their time. Heinlein was an influential writer in the mid-20th century. Double Star won a Hugo Award in 1956. The author coined the word “grok” just a few years later as a way to describe the experience of understanding. The word has become a favorite of mine. So his mainstream acceptance has resonated through the decades.
But the ideas in this book are not particularly novel or entertaining. Combine this with caricatures of actors, politicians, and space cowboys and we have a pretty flat experience. Take this example of Rog, one of the book’s more entertaining supporting characters:
Dak was bending over a slide rule at Rog’s side; Rog had a big sheet of paper laid out in some complicated weighting formula of his own. A dozen or more of the giant metal brains through the Solar System were doing the same thing that night, but Rog preferred his own guesses. He told me once that he could walk through a district, “sniffing” it, and come within two percent of its results. I think he could.
Dak and Rog are essentially street smart space cowboys who work unconventionally to game the system. The book goes no deeper on anything quoted here. No insights into the unique nature of interplanetary politics. No speculation on the future of slide rules and solar system-spanning mainframes. No digging into the motivations or shortcomings of Rog or Dak. In this scene, Penny, their subservient female counterpart, is making sure all the men are well hydrated. This is typical Heinlein, as far as I understand.“Penny was moving around, pushing straight things crooked and vice versa and fetching us drinks. She never seemed to look directly at [me].”
It’s difficult for me to enjoy this book even in the context of era it was written. Consider Arthur C. Clarke’s contemporary novel Childhood’s End (1953) (which I briefly review here). Clarke offers a distinct vision of a unique species, novel forms of government, and a story with dramatic twists and turns. Heinlein’s award-winning best just doesn’t have much to offer.