First Person Singular   Leave a comment

Until you try it, writing fiction from a first-person point of view seems a simple enough matter.  What could be more straightforward than having the main character just tell the readers the story? And yet writing fiction in the first person can be surprisingly difficult. When a first-person narrative is mishandled by an author, it makes for an awkward reading experience.

Robert Heinlein often wrote in the first person and, although he didn’t hit the mark for me one hundred percent of the time when he did so, more often than not he managed to make it work. I found Have Spacesuit Will Travel and Friday to be a bit heavy-handed, but Job: A Comedy of Justice and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are among my all-time favorite novels by any author. But of all his first-person narratives, Heinlein in my opinion came closest to the bull’s-eye with one of his earliest – Double Star, the winner of the third Hugo Award ever bestowed upon a novel.

Double Star is the story of a down-on-his luck actor offered the job of impersonating a politician, who holds views with which Lorenzo Smythe does not agree. After having his pride tweaked in a way to compel him to take on the role, money or no money, he finds himself swept up in a solar-system-wide political intrigue. The longer he is involved, the more thoroughly ensnared he becomes, all the while finding that some of his most dearly held beliefs do not stand up well to reality. Where he ends up in the end is not something he would have predicted at the outset, and certainly isn’t a place he wanted to be, but by the end of the story Lorenzo isn’t the man he thought himself to be.

Although this novel, like most books written in the 1950s, does date itself (toadstool shaped Martians living along canals, caverns filled with data stored on microfilm, etc.), it remains an entertaining read to this day by virtue of a very believable first person voice. One of the great challenges of using a first-person point of view in telling a tale is showing the growth and development of the main character. The person telling the tale is looking back on his or her life, relating the events from the perspective of someone here and now who has been through these things. Whatever growth or change the narrator experienced in the course of those events is now something of the past and the tale is told by the person who has already changed. You may get a sense for how that change came to be, but it is often merely described, and not experienced by the reader.

Double Star manages to avoid this pitfall. The narrator tells this tale from his here-and-now perspective, but does so with a clear awareness of the man his younger self really was. He remembers it clearly enough to describe the process of change he endured, while providing the frame of reference needed to tell the story. By accomplishing this, Heinlein made it possible to see the personal growth of Smythe though the recollections of the more mature Smythe. When I first read this novel, sometime in the late 1960s, I did not pick up on this aspect of the story, and simply rolled along with the plot. The story just worked. This rereading was by a more “mature” reader, and my own frame of reference now includes a basic understanding of how to handle, or not handle, a first-person narrative. (I make no claims to being especially adept at it, myself.) Knowing this to be no easy trick to pull off adds a level of enjoyment to rereading this book.

Of course, Heinlein’s own personality comes through in the telling of the tale, with his philosophical and political inclinations right there, if you know how to look for them. In this old novel they’re not as blatant as would be the case late in his career, when Heinlein the author literally intruded upon his own stories. Smythe comes across as a bit of a Libertarian, but not especially polarized, and capable of changing his mind when he learns that things are not as they seem. And the degree to which he discovers that this is the case provides much of what moves the development of this character.

If you’ve managed to miss this bit of early Heinlein, give it a try. It surely deserved its award, and though it now does seem a bit dated, the strength of the character, presented in the first person, makes it an engaging read all the same.

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Posted April 10, 2013 by underdesertstars in Books and Writing, Science Fiction

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