Image © Robert Heinlein and Barclay Shaw.
It’s been a while since I read this first Hugo-winning novel by Heinlein, one of my favorite writers, and I was interested to see how it would hold up to my memory of it. Quite well, is the answer. While clearly science fiction, at its core this is a story of politicial intrigue, an unusual topic for Heinlein, and one he handles brilliantly.
Out of work and struggling actor Lorenzo Smythe is trying to evade his creditors and raise a few Imperials when he’s contacted about a possible job. The arranged meeting is in a bar, and Lorenzo, narrating, picks up immediately that his contact, Dak Broadbent, is a spaceship pilot. The Martians at a nearby table may have picked it up, too, leading the contact to quickly arrange a meeting at his hotel later. At that meeting, Lorenzo learns the job is an impersonation of a prominent politician, Joseph Bonforte, who, for reasons not yet revealed, can’t be seen in public. Lorenzo is on the verge of turning down the job when a knock on the door makes it a moot point: the Martians enter with weapons blazing, killing one of the pilot’s comrades. Quck work by Dak and Lorenzo kills the Martians, and then the two of them dispose of the evidence in a most unpleasant but necessary way.
In too deep to back out now, Lorenzo is soon aboard a space ship bound for Mars, and on a whirlwind path of intrigue that will take him directly into the center of a power struggle over the direction of solar system government. Lorenzo must become Bonforte so completely even good friends will be fooled, and his own life will be at risk, especially at his first performance on Mars. There Bonforte is due to be adopted by a Martian tribe, paving the way for Martians to join the solar government as full members, and changing the balance of power. Naturally, those already in power are working hard against this, but Bonforte’s key inner circle rallies round the deception, hoping Lorenzo can pull it off and save the political opportunity.
In previous works by Heinlein that I’d read, he touched on politics only marginally, but in this one he shows an insider’s knowledge, and that surprised me when I first read it. Only in recent years has Heinlein’s own attempt to win political office (before he was a published writer) come to light, and with that background, the knowledge in this book makes sense. Heinlein’s characters are always fascinating, and through this novel we see a conceited, cowardly actor gradually take on the weight of expectations incumbent in his new role. And we see those around him gradually change their opinions of the man, too. It’s all handled deftly, almost effortlessly. The story is full of tension and excitement, as well as great ideas. Elements of Heinlein’s interest in Libertarian politics are present, but not overbearing or dogmatically emphasized. It’s a story first, not a tract, and a great read, one that for the most part seems very contemporary and not dated. Easy to see why it won the Hugo award, top honor in science fiction.
Image © Robert Heinlein and Richard Powers.
By the way, this is the original copy of the book in my library, I think the first paperback edition from 1957, with a cover by Richard Powers, known for his abstract and surrealist cover art. I started to reread this one, and realized the cheap pulp paper was too brittle and would likely fall apart on me, so I got a newer copy, and I like the newer cover by Barclay Shaw better. I highly recommend this book, as I would much of Heinlein’s work, especially that written before the 1970s. After that it’s more didactic and talky, slower going, but still worthwhile.