With Double Star, the Hugos Start to Shine

The original Grand Master brings us the first Hugo-winning novel truly worthy of the award. Hot jets, kiddies! It's Double Star, by Robert Anson Heinlein, from 1956.

A quick recap, for those of you just joining us: The first Hugo winner, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, was, in my humble opinion, possessed of some interesting ideas whose execution didn't do anything to elevate science fiction as a genre. The second, They'd Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, has more merit than it probably gets credit for — but that's not saying much.

But now — now we come to number three. And fittingly, one of SF's Big Three is at the helm this time, and it really is a charm.

I'm gushing. I am, actually, mildly giddy. It's because, I'm a mite abashed to admit, until I picked up Double Star last week, I hadn't read any R.A.H. in longer than I can recall.

And since I can't say too much about the book itself without spoiling it — it's not a complicated story, and to summarize the plot in even the bare-bonesiest way might ruin the action for those new to it, as I was (it will be more fun if you don't even read the flap copy, I promise) — let me first talk about the author, and why, for all the criticisms typically leveled against him, he deserves his place of primacy in the canon.

For starters, that voice. Now, assuredly, by the time you get to the end of his oeuvre, especially in the case of anything written in the first person, like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Heinlein's style and tone and general sensibility can seem more like an impediment than an asset — the problem being that every one of his protagonists sounds exactly the same. The journeyman Heinlein fan can pick up a single page torn from any piece of his fiction, whether they've read it before or not, and recognize it as such within seconds.

With Double Star, the Hugos Start to Shine

But there's also something very comforting about that. Some io9ers will remember that I am an inordinately die-hard U2 fan. I'm not about to make any serious comparison between them and Heinlein, except to say that slipping into Double Star, rediscovering him after a few years away, reminded me of the sensation I get when I go back to my favorite band: Oh, yes — I remember this. Even when it's a story I haven't read or a song I've never heard, the general feeling of familiarity is there, and when you don't overdose on it, it's awful pleasant.

Heinlein's voice, too, is deeply accessible. And I think that's really important for a Hugo winner. To me, SF's other big award, the Nebula, decided on by the genre's writers and not just its fans, has always struck me as slightly less concerned about approachability. (Slightly — there's a lot of crossover between the two. But still: Samuel Delany's and Gene Wolfe's novels ain't won no Hugos.) Whereas when I pick up a paperback with "Hugo" on the cover, I expect a text that will exercise my brain but never strain it.

Double Star does that. And although it's not technically one of Heinlein's "juveniles," it's hard to imagine it didn't draw many of their readers — which, given its pre-civil-rights-era publication date and not at all subtle anti-racism theme, can only have been a good thing. And it's on this point that, to me, he truly earned his spot in the pantheon.

He is not an author frequently associated with Star Trek. People think of Harlan Ellison, or Isaac Asimov, or even James Blish. But honestly, I can't think of a more well-known SF writer than Heinlein who consistently beat the drum for those values for which the show (and much of the SF I love best) is famous: Equality among not just humanity, but among all species. Justice and fair treatment of others. Confidence in science and reason, but never at the expense of our emotional capacities. An unwavering belief that, though eminently fallible, Homo sapiens has within itself the ability to attain untold heights.

That's not to say he's perfect in this regard. Double Star is a product of its time and features all of one female character. And we don't hear too much from her, but she's more or less the same female character he usually wrote.* Still, he improved on that front as the years went on. (While no Beverly Crusher, a late-era Heinlein heroine is a hell of a lot hardier than Lt. Uhura ever has been.)

In other ways, too, Double Star is no masterpiece. I called out The Demolished Man for a predictable end reveal, and the one here is even easier to guess at. However, I'll say that the final passage, written from a different perspective, time-wise (and even character-wise), than the rest of the book, compensates for it, and then some. It's not anything groundbreaking, but it's elegantly, even movingly executed, and a rather neat trick for Heinlein, relying as it does on as an awareness of that persistent, instantly recognizable voice that pervades everything leading up to it.

Heinlein would go on to earn three more Hugos for his novels, tying him for the most with — and maybe this is kinda fitting too, given the notes above about women — Lois McMaster Bujold. Double Star is probably the least known of his four winners, but it's nonetheless where the award becomes worth paying attention to.

*In Heinlein's defense, I will say that an SF editor once told me that same female character he always wrote was essentially a not-that-idealized version of his wife, Virginia, who apparently was as pretty and brainy and horny and able to shoot a gun as we're told. Also, again, he basically wrote the same male character over and over again, too, so.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber, from 1958.

Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found here.