Doubleday, 1956, 186 pages
Every stand-in dreamed of the starring role - but what actor would risk his life for the chance?
One minute, down-and-out actor Lorenzo Smythe is, as usual, in a bar, drinking away his troubles while watching his career circle the drain. Then a space pilot buys him a drink, and the next thing Smythe knows, he's shanghaied to Mars. Smythe suddenly finds himself agreeing to the most difficult role of his career: impersonating an important politician who has been kidnapped. Peace with the Martians is at stake, and failure to pull off the act could result in interplanetary war.
Smythe knows nothing of the issues concerning free interplanetary trade and equal rights for aliens and cares even less, but the handsome compensation is impossible to refuse. He soon realizes, however, that he faces a lifetime masquerade if the real politician never shows up.
This is one of Heinlein's early novels, which you can tell by the brevity and the lack of wankery. Also the fact that he just jumps straight into the story and never wastes much time on exposition.
This is in fact one of Heinlein's greatest strengths, and I think a major reason for his grandmaster status — he may be a bit out of fashion nowadays, and he often lost the plot in his later works, but he was first and foremost a storyteller. A spinner of yarns, a teller of tales, and if readers frequently read too much into the author's id because of what his characters did, that was their own lookout.
Double Star is typical of Heinlein SF. We get a fully sketched out (but barely described) interplanetary society, in which the United States still exists as a sovereign state, in cooperation with an Empire that governs across the solar system. Mars is its own planet, and the alien Martians coexist with humanity, with some on both sides wanting the two races to join together, while others are violent separatists. All of this plus the spacefaring technology, which is on the slightly soft side of hard SF, but presents nothing particularly outlandish for this rocket ships and BEM era story.
What makes Heinlein a master of his craft is that he drops us into this universe and makes it all perfectly understandable (the parts that aren't really explained don't matter), without devoting a single chapter, in fact barely a paragraph, to exposition. What exposition there is is all through character dialog, and it all happens through action rather than "As You Know Bob" conversations. Hence, our main character, Lorenzo Smythe, who is a Martianphobe who winds up having to impersonate a politician who is involved in an important formal ritual to become an honorary Martian, tells us everything we need to know about Martians between dodging murder attempts by a renegade faction of Martians (this happens in the first few pages of the book) and whining about how much he dislikes Martians on his hasty trip to go make friends with them.
Heinlein characters are always freakishly competent, which is why we're supposed to believe that Lorenzo is such a great actor that even though he was grabbed by a couple of shady men needing him to impersonate a famous politician at a moment's notice, he manages to fool almost everyone around his subject, from the Martians to the Emperor.
There are even some space politics in this book. Heinlein is blamed for soapboxing more than he actually did, and while there are hints of his usual rugged self-reliance and free trade philosophy, nothing is too obviously on the nose with regards to real-world politics. Are the Martians a metaphor for some Earthly Other? Maybe — you could read them that way, but sometimes a Martian is just a Martian. Likewise, the politician he is impersonating, one of those rare honest sorts who is trying to do the right thing for his nation and his constituents, could easily be read as a liberal or a conservative or any other sort of party member.
This fast-paced yarn about political conspiracies and diplomatic maneuvers could have easily been told without the sci-fi trappings. Heinlein added spaceships and Martians because that's the kind of story he wrote, but I'll bet non-SF readers would enjoy this story just as much if it had been written as a "mundane" conspiracy thriller.
Verdict: Double Star is not Heinlein's most exciting or imaginative work, but it is a good showcase of his early style, and his talents as a writer, and is still entertaining today, less dated than some of his other early SF novels. 7/10.
Also by Robert A. Heinlein: My reviews of Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones, I Will Fear No Evil, Farnham's Freehold, and Orphans of the Sky.
My complete list of book reviews.