Sunday, August 10, 2014

Consideration of Works Past: The Door into Summer/Double Star

(Pictures from here and here.)

My two favorite Heinlein novels have always been The Door into Summer (1957) and Double Star (1956).

The reasons for this have changed over the ears. TDIS was not one of his most popular novels-- one critic suggested that this was a novel where the commentary by the narrator was the best part. DS, on the other hand, has been roundly praised over the year and won Heinlein's first Hugo.

TDIS is about Dan Davis, an inventor and engineer who is bilked of his company, his livelihood and his fiance by is friend and... his fiance. The love of his life manages to swindle him out of everything. He's about had it and is planning to take the Long Sleep (suspended animation) for thirty years when he bucks up and confronts his partner and his partner's wife-- the fiance mentioned before. They drug him and manage to put him in cold sleep anyway and he wakes up thirty years later.

Davis likes the future and manages to make a place for himself. But he discovers he can go back in time and rectify the situation. He does and then returns back to his new home-- the future-- via a second cold sleep.

Double Star has a completely different story. DS is about Lawrence Smythe, known professionally as The Great Lorenzo. Turns out there is a popular politician that has a resemblance to him: John Bonforte. Said politician has been kidnapped on the eve of an important ceremony for the martians. The ceremony must go on (echoing the old "show must go on" theme) so they hire Smythe to impersonate Bonforte for the ceremony. Eventually, this turns into Mother Night: beware who you pretend to be for that is who you are.

I'm not going to go into the plat synopses in detail-- that's what Wikipedia is for.

The two works had an interesting history together. TDIS has never been one of Heinlein's popular novels. I'll quote Blish as quoted by Wikipedia: "It is surely an odd novel that is at its best when the author is openly editorializing...." Since normally I don't care for the odd Heinlein authorial intrusion but in this case they were fun. But they weren't true Heinlein editorializing. Davis is about as apolitical as a human being can be. He's a good engineer who is swindled precisely because he doesn't much take notice of things that are not interesting to him. Several of the "editorializing" happens when people explain things to him. Sort of like explaining things to Huck Finn in Twain's work. The author may have set it up but it's carried by the character.

Double Star, on the other hand, had significant acclaim and won Heinlein's first Hugo. Several have suggested it might be Heinlein's finest novel. Smythe is equally far from politics as TDIS's Davis, but in a different direction. Davis is a quintessential engineer. He treats the rest of the world with indifference graded to annoyance. Smythe is a consummate actor. He views the world as a stage and himself as the main character. He is flamboyant where Davis is self-contained. Outgoing where Davis is reserved. Curiously passive in what happens to him where Davis actively changes things around him. To quote Wikipedia quoting Blish again, Blish thought Smythe was "only first-person narrator Heinlein has created who is a living, completely independent human being."

From this I take that Blish knew a lot of actors and almost no engineers.

I want to be absolutely clear when I talk about the span of Heinlein's work that I stop in 1970. I don't know happened to RAH after that but it wasn't pretty and I quit reading him.

I think there is an Evil Heinlein and Good Heinlein. Good Heinlein has all of the good characterization, clever prose, humor and good ideas. Evil Heinlein pontificates on how the world ought to be, makes the women characters too stupid to breathe and takes itself very, very seriously. A work has considerable show with Good Heinlein at the helm but if Evil Heinlein gets its fingers inside there's no hope for it. After 1970, Evil Heinlein is ascendant.

So I feel differently from Blish. I tend to like Heinlein's first person narrators better than his other characters. (Podkayne excepted. See here.)  Or, rather, I think Heinlein is best when working under constraints. This is why those works considered "juvenile"-- Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky, Have Space Suit--Will Travel, Citizen of the Galaxy, etc.-- tend to have so much less Evil Heinlein in them. Since the point of view characters are essentially children or teenagers, the characters cannot be used to found Evil Heinlein wisdom. It is interesting in Tunnel in the Sky (Heinlein's answer to Lord of the Flies), the first and last chapters have Evil Heinlein in them but it is absent in the middle and largest part of the book. The middle part of the book is exclusively from pov's of the teens. A coincidence? I think not.

Double Star and TDIS have a similar constrained nature. Both protagonists are very limited in what they can perceive and understand. Because of this Heinlein is forced to treat them as human beings instead of possible channels for Evil Heinlein. Which brings Heinlein to use his powers for Good rather than Evil.

The books have both aged fairly well. As with most SF works from over fifty years ago they have to be viewed as more Alternate History than prediction. I wish we had bases on the moon in 1970. Both books have few female characters-- a place where Evil Heinlein particularly liked to get its claws wet-- so, for good or ill, that part of RAH is not fully expressed. There's a squishy bit at the end of TDIS that echoes the ending of an earlier juvenile, Time for the Stars that will make a modern reader cringe. One has to have a filter on to read a Heinlein novel with modern sensibility. I think it's still worth doing. Other mileages may differ. Double Star has no squishy bits.

Both of these books were written in the middle fifties. Heinlein was just breaking fifty himself. He'd had a really good ten years-- Heinlein's first published novel was in 1947 though he'd certainly been popular in the magazines before this. So you could say the novels between 1955 and 1961 were where he hit his stride. It's not surprising that these two books happened right then. Both were experiments in characterization. Both were experiments in narrative.

And both are my favorite Heinlein novels.

1 comment:

  1. Door Into Summer was one of my favorite Heinlein novels when I was a young teen, mostly because I liked the cat -- but also because of Heinlein's explicitness about the fate vs. free will conundrum that's inherent in all time travel stories. I found it just as enjoyable as an adult. It's fascinating that Heinlein expected us to have self-cleaning and -repairing clothing by now, but didn't anticipate anything like the Internet. I know a lot of people find Dan's relationship with Ricky creepy, but I like it. And I think "The Door Into Summer" is one of the best titles ever written.